Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kenny Powers: Anti-antihero

A decade ago, the antihero was a novel concept in television. Television audiences hadn't seen anything like Tony Soprano before, and the show featuring him became a huge success. Today, the antihero is incredibly common on television, so prevalent that a non-procedural drama featuring a good, noble protagonist is surprisingly rare.

What makes for a good antihero? So far as I can tell, there are two basic cogs that make the concept work. The first is that he (and at this point, they're mostly hes) has to have some considerable charm and redeeming attributes. Another major antihero touchpoint, The Shield's Vic Mackey, balanced his faithless policework with genuine effort to be a good husband and father. Tony Soprano wasn't quite so inclined to be a good husband, but he was capable of generosity and of being moved by his children in addition to being a mobster. The other part of it is that, bad as our protagonists are, their opponents have to be much worse. Tony was no catch, but it was inconceivable to support him against the psychopaths he routinely dealt with, who lacked even the barest humanity that Tony possessed. Similarly, as an audience, we were drawn to Vic because he was mostly doing good (though not legal) things, and because arrayed against him were brutal criminals and careerist supervisors who cared more about how Vic made them look than about getting him to do the right thing. Manipulating audience sympathies to accept terribly flawed men is complicated work, and The Sopranos and The Shield (and, more recently, Breaking Bad) have been very, very successful at it.

A show that is less successful at the job is HBO's Eastbound & Down. Billed as a comedy, the show examines the precipitously reversed fortunes of Kenny Powers, formerly a heat-throwing Major League pitcher, brought down to being a gym teacher at his own former high school. The problem here is that Powers isn't an antihero, he's a void. There is literally nothing positive about his character, nothing to rationalize away his awfulness with. He starts with such a low baseline of character that there's nowhere to fall, and the half-hearted "improvement" arc that Powers undertakes is hardly convincing. Additionally, Powers's nemeses--a former ballplayer played by Craig Robinson, a car dealer played by Will Ferrell, and a kindly (though strange) principal played by Andy Daly--come off as about as bad or, in Daly's case, significantly better than he does. The show banks heavily on Powers's humor and underdog status to make him sympathetic to us, but sorry, no dice. Powers is basically the show, his swaggering, aggressive, roid-rage persona sets the tone, and he is its sole focus. The first season consists of six episodes that form a single narrative, one that is curious to say the least. The show appears to be one of Powers adjusting to his fall from fame, sort of like a redneck I'm Alan Partridge, with Powers's attempts to make it back to the big leagues the equivalent of Partridge's desperate attempts to break back into television with shows like "Monkey Tennis" and "Around The World with Alan Partridge, In A Bullnose On The Left". These seem meant to be taken as jokes, causing significant underinvestment in the plotline that turns out to be the throughline, and retrospectively rendering the main narrative a dead end.

Seeing a bad man move up in the world is compelling to nobody. Powers is past his prime, outdone in his desire for a teacher (The One Who Got Away!) played by Katy Mixon, who is engaged to the school's principal, Daly. The thing is that there's not much reason to root against Daly, even though the show stacks the deck against him in later episodes, or for Mixon to wind up with Powers. I would assume the show knows that rooting for Powers is perverse, except it puts us in the situation of doing it, and routinely finds it awesome when he, say, knocks out a rival ballplayer's eye when pitching, or vulnerable when he prematurely ejaculates when getting busy with Mixon. The morality here is strictly teenage-sociopath, one that hates nearly everyone on the show and finds ways to show them at their worst as often as possible. And yet there is still a sentimentalism to the Powers-Mixon relationship even though, as the ending makes clear, Powers never really had anything there for Mixon, his redemption was a lie to himself that others believed. Those of us who were paying attention knew that already.

Ultimately, in television, likability in a character is probably more important than, you know, character. But only to an extent. Jody Hill has proven to be a master of alienating and inflaming people, sort of like Todd Solondz with a better filter. And boy, does E&D accomplish that, especially with some sex scenes that manage to be thoroughly icky without getting too explicit. But the fact is that all this provocation is not really in service of some broader moral framework, which again makes it feel somewhat teenage-sociopathic. The Sopranos and The Shield were successful because making their characters flawed to the extent they were let them examine questions of morality in great detail. Eastbound is a failure because it doesn't really get into that. The ending sort of does, but what point is Kenny Powers supposed to make? What is the takeaway from this show? That he's the same bad guy we first encountered, I suppose. Well, thanks for getting us exactly to where we started! Really, there isn't any takeaway from this, except that people are bullshit, man! The show doesn't develop much of a moral critique, and it borrows its ending from the Bob Rafelson film Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, only from the girl's perspective. At best it's a nihilistic message, that all growth is illusory. But that's generous, it adds up to little, and the whole thing is little more than wish fulfillment of various sorts. Hill's toned down the rape humor this time, unlike in Observe And Report. That's something to be thankful of. But this show mostly just makes me feel annoyed at what passes for sophistication these days, where transgressivism has evidently become insufficient for some as a premise for a story, now we have to feel sorry for people who got their just desserts. God made no mistake with Kenny Powers, and neither should you by watching this program.