THE FALLEN star at the center of HBO's new half-hour comedy Eastbound & Down is Kenny Powers, a former major league pitcher who seems to have graduated from the John Rocker School of Charm. He says inappropriate things. He wears a mullet without irony. He's prone to tantrums when he's drunk—which is to say often. In Eastbound's premiere episode on Feb. 15, Powers accepts a job as a gym teacher near his home in Shelby County, N.C., and he's doing all he can to show a little humility about it. "Yeah, I'm famous," he tells his students on Day One. "La-di-da. Big f—ing deal."
Class, raise your hand if this all seems familiar. Anyone who's seen Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory or Semi-Pro knows that Will Ferrell all but invented the cocksure sports comedy antihero, so it's no surprise to see his name all over Eastbound. (He's an executive producer, creator and has a cameo in one episode.) But he doesn't play Kenny Powers; the actor channeling Ferrell is Danny McBride, who was brilliant as a drug dealer in Pineapple Express and whose likability as an egotistic boor rivals Ferrell's.
McBride gets the gist of a Ferrellian athlete, right down to the excessive winking, flashing finger guns and the requisite bare-ass scene. But Eastbound's writers (of which McBride is one) help keep the character from feeling derivative. Whereas Ferrell's characters often spin their wheels and end up unchanged, Eastbound is determined to reform its protagonist. That gives McBride some fertile acting ground. Between bouts of idiocy we see glimpses of Powers's vulnerability as he adjusts to the unfamous life. In one episode he stands up to a BMW dealer (Ferrell) who wants him to dance like a monkey to attract customers; in another Powers cries himself to sleep, something Ferrell could never do without cracking up the audience. "Sometimes," Powers explains in a voice-over about his rise and fall, "when you bring the thunder, you get lost in the storm."
With McBride in the role, the storm could be the best part.