Producer Jody Hill, left, and Danny McBride of "Eastbound & Down." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
There are basically two kinds of fans of HBO's comedy "Eastbound & Down," which wraps up its third, and what will probably be its final, season Sunday.
One kind gets the joke. The other is the joke.
"They are some scary people," said Danny McBride, 35, the star and co-creator of the series. "They like the show, but for the wrong reasons — like they want to be Kenny Powers."
For those who may not have been properly introduced, Powers is perhaps the sharpest — and certainly raunchiest — satiric portrait of a redneck ever to be loosed on television. The aging ex-major league relief pitcher, played by McBride, is desperate to recapture his glory days on the diamond but can't seem to escape the rough in any area of his professional or personal life.
While best known for his mullet, the character's most salient trait is his monumental lack of self-awareness. . But like so many anti-hero TV characters today, Powers compartmentalizes — a good thing, since he has much more to stow away than an oblivious nature.
He's also a homophobe, a racist, a misogynist, a substance abuser, a rageaholic and a porn aficionado. And this season, he's been forced to deal with fatherhood — a circumstance he met on one occasion by toting around his year-old son in a zipped up backpack with a few air holes poked in the material, you know, so the poor kid could breathe. In short, he's a coked-up Archie Bunker for the Xbox generation, with a perilously long road to redemption.
The show's in-your-face, politically incorrect brand of humor has created a life for Powers outside the friendly confines of his HBO universe. The fictional character has become a real world pitchman for K-Swissto help sell its shoes. A YouTube video built around Kenny Powers has garnered more than 3 million hits and also features fitness trainer Jillian Michaels, film director Michael Bay and entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
After this year's Super Bowl, Powers penned an open letter to the unapologetically Christian Tim Tebow, whose unexpected rise turned the quarterback into an instantly polarizing figure. It was vintage Powers — ostensibly helpful, but ultimately incredibly insulting. Writing for the sports and pop culture website Grantland, Powers likened himself to the former Heisman winner — and Jesus (the latter, a frequent comparison on "Eastbound & Down") — for their God-given gifts and ability to endure the barbs of the jealous mob.
"It's so funny, because neither one of us is a sports guy at all," said Jody Hill, who along with McBride and Ben Best created the HBO series. "But since Kenny is an athlete, there are these sports fans and he can weirdly infiltrate and offend them."
"Eastbound & Down" has a relatively small but fiercely loyal cult following. While dwarfed by a bona-fide HBO hit such as"Game of Thrones,"which premiered to an audience of nearly 4 million earlier this month, "Eastbound" averaged roughly 1 million viewers per episode.
"Whenever you're doing something like this where you're pushing the levels of decency and what's acceptable," McBride, who was raised in northeastern Virginia, said during an interview at the Los Angeles offices of Rough House Pictures, which he heads with Hill and director David Gordon Green, "you're going to lose some people."
Added Hill, a fellow Southerner who grew up outside Charlotte, N.C.: "I'm actually surprised by the number of people it does appeal to. You'd think it would be middle-aged fat rednecks that are into it, but really, it's across the board."
The series appeals to offbeat Hollywood sensibilities too. Don Johnson plays a scruffy, fast-talking papa Powers, while Lily Tomlin portrays the character's pill-pushing and bowling champ mama. Matthew McConaughey, John Hawkes and Adam Scott all have roles, as does Jason Sudeikis, who this season played Kenny's BFF — that is, until he died of an overdose partying with Kenny, who then happily stole his truck. Will Ferrell, who co-produces the show with Adam McKay, has a recurring role as a demented car dealer in a terrifying blond wig.
It was with Ferrell's backing — shortly after his "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" was released and lighted up the box office — that "Eastbound & Down" was pitched around town. It was surprisingly easy. "We could have pitched a show about a guy blowing his nose," said McBride who met Hill at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which had just founded a film school.
Although they once toyed with the idea of making the Powers story into a movie, they liked the breadth and depth that television offered. They chose HBO largely for its creative freedom, and they haven't been disappointed. They've only had one story line killed in three seasons — one that involved devil worship.
Apparently, the Kenny Powers saga will come to some kind of conclusion Sunday. "This is where we want to wrap it up," said McBride, who recently became a father and will star in an upcoming film comedy with Seth Rogen called "The Apocalypse." "I don't know if we'll come back to this character or not."
So, what will Kenny Powers' fate be?
"Oh, we have an ending," laughed Hill, who would divulge no other details. "All I will say is our show is a character piece and it will reveal what this character is about."