Starting the Baseball Season With ‘Eastbound & Down’

Baseball is back, spring is here, and I couldn’t think of a better day of the year to start catching up on Eastbound & Down. The show, HBO’s lacerating portrait of a former Major League Baseball player who, after alienating the fans of every franchise in America with racist and homophobic tirades and hurting his shoulder, limps back home to South Carolina to teach gym. What’s fascinating about the show is watching a wounded, profoundly un-self-aware man encounter, at an extremely belated age, a situation where he’s required to moderate his behavior and accomodate the needs of other people.

Kenny’s privileged existence means that he behaves inappropriately and treats people terribly. He treats Cassie, his sister-in-law, like she’s his maid, and generally behaves like he’s entitled to permanent residence in his brother’s home. He has so little ability to moderate his behavior around his nephews that one of them begins to see him as a nightmare figure. He frames Stevie, the high school band geek who continues to idolize him, for drunk driving, explaining that he’s got to flee the scene “’cause I got priors.”

But being constantly accommodated has left Kenny with precisely zero sense of how to comport himself in situations that require subtlety or accurate communication. “Fuck time,” he tells Cassie, after they try to sell his memorabilia on eBay with little luck. “I know my past is more valuable than seven bucks.” But it can’t buy him financial security, and it can’t make up for social skills he spent years not developing. After he insults Cassie in a moment of passion, he tells his brother Dustin, “I just have a very hard time expressing my emotions and I can’t stop from yelling.” He can’t stop himself from telling Terrence, the principal who is his boss and engaged to his former girlfriend and fellow teacher April, “You know, I took April’s virginity,” but he does try to walk it back, telling Terrence “I said I don’t want a smoothie,” when Terrence mishears him. Kenny would love to be back in a place where he doesn’t have to feel guilt, or discomfort, or regret. After his attempt at acting as a celebrity spokesman for a local car dealership goes sour, he declares “I’m not an ape. I’m a professional ballplayer. I need to be around people who understand that.” But he recognizes, regretfully, that “I guess Kenny Powers ain’t what it used to be.”

It’s ridiculous that Kenny’s been allowed to get away with being a horrible, inconsiderate person for so wrong. But as a portrait of what privilege denies its recipients, Eastbound & Down is undeniably powerful. Kenny may not be suffering from repeated concussions, or have lost a fortune to gambling. But he’s incapacitated none the less. The people around him may be victimized because their niceness means they can’t respond to Kenny’s ridiculousness in kind — “We bestow our feelings of love towards you by being generous,” Cassie says through gritted teeth. But when Kenny actually wants something from someone who doesn’t need to put up with him, he’s utterly at a loss, pathetic in the same proportion he once was powerful.