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"Eastbound & Down," HBO's comedy about a washed-up fastball pitcher who is a screwball, easily could have ended with last season's final episode. Hurler Kenny Powers, after making an unlikely return to the major leagues following three (TV) seasons of debauchery, walks off the mound, mid batter, and goes on to fake his death.
That might have passed for a neat ending to the messy story of actor/co-writer Danny McBride's blustery creation, a bloated, if perpetually moving mass of ego and insecurity with outsized appetites and impulse control issues. But nothing, as we've learned with Kenny Powers, is simple: The show ends Sunday as he tries to untangle a morass of self-inflicted mayhem, with the onetime relief pitcher trying to save his marriage and himself.
“Eastbound & Down” opened in 2009, with Powers tossed from the majors and forced to toil as a substitute gym teacher back in his North Carolina hometown middle school, where his high school sweetheart works. But the sitcom-like premise quickly travels to comically dark corners as Kenny prodigiously consumes drugs and gets consumed by an inflated sense of self (“I'm a bulletproof tiger. I need to remind myself, and everyone else in this goddamned town, just who the f--- Kenny Powers is,” he declares).
He wins the girl, but dumps her and flees in Season 2 to Mexico, where gets involved with mobsters, a ragtag baseball league and his estranged father, a far bigger jerk than he is. Kenny becomes a dad himself, learning a smidgen of responsibility in Season 3 as he wends his way back to the big leagues, before quitting on his own bizarre terms.
Kenny mistreats women, the childhood sycophant who is the closest thing he has to a friend and, most of all, himself. But if he’s not a sympathetic figure or even an anti-hero, McBride reveals just enough of scared little boy inside over-puffed man-child Kenny to keep us watching.
The final season, which offered a new volley of curves in the Powers story, opened with Kenny manning a car rental counter, trying to be a regular guy and reliable family man, which, of course, didn’t last for long.
He wound up on top again, with a spot on a raucous TV sports show – only to steamroll to a new precipice, fueled by cocaine binges that heighten his anxieties. The most recent episode proved by equal part hilarious (Kenny’s drunken, bawdy Christmas TV special), absurd (his best pal/punching bag Stevie blowing off his chin implant in a pathetic Christmas Eve suicide bid) and sad (Kenny desperately trying to make amends to his wife and children with the couple on the verge of divorce).
Kenny’s got one last chance to keep his family together, even if these four seasons have shown he’s got enough trouble keeping himself intact. His last hurrah follows the emotional victory lap for Mariano Rivera, the real-life reliever Kenny wishes he could have been, in skill, popularity and comportment. He’s no Rivera, but somehow we’re rooting for Kenny to pull out one last save. Check out a preview of Kenny Powers’ final gasp:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.