“Eastbound & Down,” which premieres Sunday on HBO, brings to television a certain sort of comedy now abroad in theatrical features, a comedy of male arrested development whose expanding nexus of practitioners includes Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell. Larger than life and less than perfect, the genre’s self-mythologizing heroes are pictured in a way that is at once critical and admiring.
Ferrell is an executive producer of “Eastbound,” which stars doughy Danny McBride -- the Buddhist drug dealer in “Pineapple Express,” the pyrotechnics guy in “Tropic Thunder” and Ferrell’s costar in the upcoming “Land of the Lost” -- as Kenny Powers, a former big-league, big-star ballplayer whose career, ignited in a moment of rookie glory, has come to ashes in a conflagration of inflated ego and contracting talent. Depressed but hardly chastened, he returns home to a small town in the South, moves in with his brother’s family and goes to work as a substitute P.E. teacher at his old middle school.
There is nothing revolutionary in the premise, created by McBride with North Carolina film school friends Jody Hill and Ben Best -- it was their self-financed film “The Foot Fist Way,” which starred McBride as a Southern-fried teacher of taekwondo, that first attracted Ferrell’s attention. Prodigal-son stories have been knocking them dead for a couple of thousand years now, and the tale of the messy failure redeemed by contact with ordinary folks and small children has been with us at least since the first version of “The Bad News Bears.” It remains to be seen just how redeemed Kenny will be, but it won’t take much to make him seem improved.
I can’t say the pilot struck me as especially funny, but there are good things and talented people in it, and it looks good. (Hill directed, and Best appears as Kenny’s once-and-present drug buddy.) Perhaps I am just being old-fashioned, but I was disappointed by its tenuous relation to reality and the uneven respect it pays its characters.
To imply, for instance, that high school flame April (Katy Mixon), now teaching art, is still moved by Kenny is to rob her of substance. Likewise, the deck is stacked against her boyfriend, the school principal (Andrew Daly), whose cheery banality we are pushed to see as something inferior to Kenny’s unbridled vulgarity. And in any vaguely real world, Kenny would not last a minute as a teacher with the language, unprintable here, that comes out of his mouth. The show itself is like a giant enabler for its main character’s bad behavior.
McBride is a much subtler actor than his roles might suggest. He does not make Kenny likable, but he catches the vein of self-doubt that runs through the mountain of his self-approval. (He has taken to listening to the motivational tapes he recorded in his former life: “I am better than everyone in the world.”) Yet his character is so huge that he distorts the scenes he’s in, the way a planet bends passing light. When brother Dustin (John Hawkes, excellent) and sister-in-law Cassie (Jennifer Irwin, ditto) get a brief moment on their own -- Kenny is making a racket in the middle of the night, and Dustin is getting out of bed to go deal with him -- “Eastbound” becomes a different, affecting show.
So I am not ready to write it off: I will give it the benefit of its arc.
When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)