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What’s happened to Kenny in HBO’s “Eastbound & Down”?

By Jon Caramanica
New York Times

Eastbound & Down

10 p.m. Sunday, HBO

On the season premiere of “Eastbound & Down,” Kenny Powers was back, sort of. A schlub in a company-issued shirt and a would-be Michael Scott for a boss, he was a shell of the boorish ex-big leaguer he once was. The first words he uttered, sitting in his car on the way to work, were, “Love NPR.” He might as well be dead.

Over its three previous seasons, “Eastbound & Down,” seen Sundays on HBO, has often appeared to exist solely for the purpose of devising appropriate contexts to utter the completely inappropriate. Kenny (Danny McBride, who attended North Carolina School of the Arts) has been an antihero, foulmouthed and smug and bigoted and concerned with his own celebrity above all.

The show, which is filmed in Wilmington, has served as an implicit rebuke to those who want television to grapple with unlikable, complicated characters. Kenny isn’t complicated, and that’s exactly what made him likable.

So it’s odd that in this fourth season, the show’s last, he’s threatening to become an anti-antihero or, heaven forbid, an actual hero. The square job; the gorgeous wife, April (Katy Mixon), whom he finally settled down with after faking his death and quitting baseball; the two kids; the NPR – by other peoples’ rules, he’s a king.

But here are phrases from later this season, presented without context: “Ignore this Taliban cleric over here” and “The only thing that would make me happy was if all these kids had AIDS.”

No recent TV show has toggled so violently between brilliant and execrable as “Eastbound,” which at its heart is about pieties and their uselessness. In its best moments, it has made Kenny a magical figure, while he thumbs his nose at propriety at every turn. It upends the usual moral frameworks.

Whether Kenny is evil or just a numbskull is always a question, one that this final season of “Eastbound” intends to clarify by introducing a foil with bad intentions: Guy Young (Ken Marino) is a former baseball player who now hosts a rowdy sports-talk show, and gives Kenny a shot at on-air career redemption.

For Kenny, the casual prejudice of the show’s banter is a comfort, and after he takes a few lumps, he finds his old rhythm of awfulness. Of course, the price is his wife’s happiness, although even beleaguered April, the breadwinner during Kenny’s hiatus, comes around to his new life, after admitting, “I’m scared that I can’t have my husband, Kenny, and the famous Kenny at the same time, and I don’t wanna lose you.”

Only she knows the truth, that the suburban sandpapering of Kenny’s rough edges has had a real effect. As Guy inevitably becomes Kenny’s nemesis, a showdown looms, with Kenny probably on the side of right, of family, of NPR. Which means this series will probably end with a question: If Kenny Powers doesn’t speed off into the sunset, middle fingers in the air, did he really win?

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