Kenny Powers is a colossal failure. And he’s supposed to be. Yet, at the end of the brilliant first season of Eastbound & Down, Powers tasted success. And it’s the worst thing that could have ever happened to him. What’s happened since is that his flippant behavior, once the comedic hub of the show, has just turned sad, and therein lies the conundrum: How does a character who’s joc(k)ular existence is predicated upon his failures continue to be endearing despite his success? And how is it that a show answers that question so poorly?
That first season, when Kenny went all Kenny, the only person that was affected was Kenny. Sure, his family and friends were kinda dragged along, but nobody got arrested or deported and it was fun to laugh at his pain because, well, he deserved it.
See, Kenny was a failure. Abjectly. Just a pathetic shell of a man who still acted like he was King Shit. But he acted this way not because he truly believed it, but because he didn’t want to accept the fact that people didn’t see him the same reverential way they did when he was a successful baseball player. Worse yet, he was starting to see that they never saw him that way in the first place.
We saw many moments of vulnerability in that first season that were immediately covered up upon its slightest appearance by brash self-destructive behavior. But there were too many of those incidents where the vulnerability shined through for us to be completely convinced that Kenny was blind to his shortcomings. In fact that was the endearing part of his character, and what drew his love interest April to him in the first place.
Yet, this only works if Kenny never attains the lofty lifestyle he yearned so much to return to. And we saw that motif crumble at the end of the season when he got his fastball back. And that’s the turning point. When the ego he’s projected onto himself as a defense mechanism fulfills itself, how does the character reconcile it?
How does a character who’s core personality trait of a direct aversion and repulsion to redemption continue to progress through the world. If he remodels his destructive behavior, the schtick dies with his immaturity. If he continues sucking at life, he’ll flail around buttfuck North Carolina, teaching a gym class disgracefully, and we have to suspend our disbelief that the people around him will continue to turn a blind eye to his disastrous behavior.
Prior to the opening of the second season, Powers was featured in a few ads for K-Swiss tennis shoes. In the spots, the character was placed next to real professional athletes, and while they performed athletic feats far beyond his capacity, he still retained a charm about him by endlessly talking trash, and jockingly hamming up his performance; acting like he really belonged.
That seemed like the proper way to continue the character’s journey through EB&D; make him an outsider who knows he’s an outsider, but relishes the stage and will knowingly self-deprecate himself for the sake of not only hiding his insecurities, but for the sake of charming the ones he loves.
Instead what they did was move Kenny Powers around, and allow him to succeed while still cluelessly existing in a world where the consequences he ravages upon others are anything but the fault of his own credulous destruction.
What you end up with in this case is not some adorable man-child, seeking to recapture his glory years — a concept surely shared by the archetypal American male — you get a sleazy fuck doing serious damage to the people he can’t ever love. Because if he truly did love them, he ceases to be “Kenny Fucking Powers.” And that’s the saddest thing of all.