“Eastbound and Down”
Sundays at 10:30 p.m.

4 out of 5 stars

“Sure, I’ve been called a xenophobe. But the truth is I’m not. I honestly just feel that America’s the best country and all the other countries aren’t as good.”

This sentiment is uttered not by Dubya, or even Naylin Palin, but defamed pitcher Kenny Powers (Danny R. McBride, “Tropic Thunder”).

Powers is the fictional protagonist (used in the loosest sense possible) of HBO’s new series “Eastbound and Down.” Following a rickety steroid and coke-fueled descent down professional baseball’s ladder, Powers lands back in Scotts Hill, N.C. Scotts Hill is the kind of town that names its middle school after Jefferson Davis. Principal Terrence Cutler (a funny Andrew Daly, “MADtv”), who is engaged to Powers’s old girlfriend April (Katy Mixon, “Four Christmases”), offers him a job teaching middle-school gym class.

McBride plays Powers with the same Southern-drawled hostility he harnessed in the 2006 indie film “The Foot Fist Way.” (“Foot Fist” and “Eastbound” were both penned by McBride, Jody Hill and Ben Best and directed by Hill.) Like that film’s Fred Simmons, Powers is an egomaniac with severe anger problems and delusions of grandeur. Powers looks more ridiculous than Simmons — he sports a greasy mullet, a beer gut and a narrow-eyed glare he directs at anyone he meets.

To call Powers offensive isn’t really getting at his core. His brand of profane self-aggrandizement is at least three shades more abasing than Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy. Over dinner with his brother Dustin (John Hawkes) and Dustin’s children, Powers discusses “beating up retards,” seemingly unaware that some people find such a subject inappropriate dinner conversation. When Powers catches his young nephew riding his jet-ski, he throws the boy off.

Powers is palatable as a lead because of the brief moments he lets the viewer into his private hell. After insulting his niece Rose during dinner — “who names a fucking kid after ‘Titanic’?” — Powers slumps into the guest room and cries himself to sleep. After howling four-letter words at his nephew, Powers admits he has an anger problem. These scenes establish that some part of Powers is aware how ridiculous he is. Still, the comedic appeal of “Eastbound” rests on Powers’s continued oblivion to his own folly. If these moments of self-realization start to overwhelm the real funny stuff — like, for example, Powers riding on a jet-ski in jean shorts (jean shorts?!) — the show will become too doughy and sentimental. But viewers of “Foot Fist” will tell you that McBride and Co. always ladle a bowlful of crass for each dash of heart.

It’s tempting to compare McBride to Ferrell, especially because Ferrell is one of “Eastbound”s executive producers, and will guest star in several episodes. But there exists in McBride’s portrayal of Powers a gritty authenticity that Ferrell often lacks.

Maybe it’s because McBride is such a newcomer. Before developing the Burgundy and Bush characters that would become his trademarks, Ferrell was best known for portraying a dweeby cheerleader on “SNL.” Ferrell’s true personality always seemed closer to that character, and his more deranged performances came off as slight caricatures. Conversely, McBride seems to embody Powers with ease, like he already had one foot in the redneck pool before being asked to swim. What McBride brings to the redneck archetype is a sense of authenticity.

In fact, “Eastound” is delightfully blue-collar, and not in the patronizing Jeff Foxworthy way. Powers hangs out in dirty bars, drinks cheap beer, works a job he hates and considers a jet-ski some sort of lavish party toy. These days, maybe we’ve all got a little Kenny Powers in us.

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