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Monday, November 18th, 2013

'Eastbound & Down's Fourth Season Was Its Best Yet

I was skeptical when creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill opted to bring back Eastbound & Down for another season after ending the show with a well-received finale last year. It's rare for a show to come back from the dead like that and seems like a risk, but that risk paid off. Thanks to a few key cast additions (particularly standout Ken Marino) and Kenny Powers' new arenas to run amuck (a sports talk show and raising a family in suburbia), this was the most satisfying and fresh season of Eastbound & Down's four-season run.

If anything, last night's finale was a bit of a disappointing end to an otherwise-amazing season of Eastbound. Like the show's previous finale, it opens with a movie star (Sacha Baron Cohen; last year, it was Seth Rogen) being introduced as a new character. Cohen plays Ronnie Thelman, the dastardly head of the network who keeps his friend's son Jerome, an eerie silent teenage boy, around to do his bidding. Baron Cohen is great in the role and receives a particularly strong introduction at the top of the episode but he's hardly the best villain Kenny Powers has come up against (that honor would have to go to either Will Ferrell's Ashley Schaeffer or Ken Marino's Guy Young, or even Craig Robinson's Reg Mackworthy) in his four seasons on the air. Baron Cohen exceeds at playing villainous characters, as he's shown off many times before, and he's used well here, but introducing him in the finale just makes him eat up screentime that would be better served wrapping up characters we've been following for years (or at least weeks) like April, Stevie, Kenny's brother and his family, or Guy Young.

Ronnie Thelman offers Kenny Powers his biggest piece of fame yet: an opportunity to star in his own talk show, only it's a mean-spirited ambush show in which he wants Kenny to further humiliate Guy Young on national TV. Kenny backs away from the spotlight for the sake of returning to April (just like he did in last year's finale) and leaves the show mid-air, only to make amends with April and move with his family to Santa Fe. It feels a bit like how last season ended, with this feeling like just the latest cycle in Kenny Powers maturing and then regressing backwards even further the next second.

The best part of the finale was easily a five-minute sequence at the end that shows the rest of Kenny Powers's life and death. His kids (played by Alexander Skarsgård and an uncredited Lindsay Lohan) graduate from college, his daughter gets married, April is tragically killed by muggers, Kenny becomes a homeless heroin addict, he gets clean, he travels to Africa on a futuristic hoverbike, he takes an African bride, and finally, he dies of old age and is tributed with a giant funeral pyre. It's an amazing sequence that features some of the funniest stuff from Eastbound's entire run, even if it does turn out to just be the new ending to his screenplay. It's something you might have seen coming from how over-the-top the ending montage gets at times, but it's still a fitting way to say goodbye to Kenny Powers.

Eastbound has always refused to play by the rules of a regular sitcom, most evidently by how it constantly keeps Kenny moving season to season and refuses to keep the same characters throughout. Kenny and his faithful, pathetic sidekick Stevie are the only ones who were regulars in all four seasons of Eastbound, as new characters were introduced or old ones were re-introduced ever year.

The second and third seasons (the Mexico and Myrtle Beach seasons) didn't quite live up to the first season of the show partly because the new ensembles were never as strong of foils for Kenny as April, principal Terrence Cutler, and Kenny's brother Dustin and sister-in-law Cassie. The fourth season found Eastbound reaching its creative peak again as April returned as a regular (actress Katy Mixon could only appear in a few episodes in seasons two and three due to a contractual commitment to Mike & Molly), with newcomers Ken Marino, Tim Heidecker, and Jillian Bell serving as natural and effective additions to the cast. April is the level-headed contrast that Kenny needs to keep him grounded as a character, and it's great to see him playing off of her again. Marino, who's become one of the most reliable comedic actors going, is at home as egomaniacal sportscaster Guy Young and it's the best role he's had since Party Down's Ron Donald. Heidecker and Bell are solid counterparts for Kenny and April as a wimpy neighbor couple.

In the three previous seasons, we only got to see Kenny Powers back on top for a few moments at the end of season three as most of the series followed wreckage caused by his behavior during his original MLB career. Here, with his sports talk show (which was also a funny arena for Kenny to play around in) earning him a ton of cash, we got to see him live out the kind of excess that got the best of him previously with his self-confidence at an all-time high. Kenny spending a ton of money on frivolous stuff (like that robot) was fun to watch all season long. The writers found a lot of new places to take Kenny Powers this season; the opener with him as an NPR-loving domesticated version of himself is also pretty delightful.

Eastbound & Down is done — for now. If Danny McBride and Jody Hill opt to revive the Kenny Powers saga somewhere down the line, I won't have any doubts this time around. And there's a good chance that will happen according to Hill, who told us last week, "It would be cool to do [more]. I think it would need to be years from now … You could pick it up in like 10 years with whatever he's dealing with then. He's probably going through some crisis. I think it might be cool to do that in the future or a movie or something like that. Yeah, why not?"

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