“Antihero” is a major buzzword these days, especially when it comes to describing the (mostly male) protagonists on cable dramas. From the beginning of HBO’s renaissance of original programming, the antihero has been the staple for both its dramatic and comedy series, and Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers could fairly be put into that category. By the middle of the third season, however, it was hard to root for Kenny Powers; he has always been a despicable, misogynistic, redneck asshole, and the plot device that found him having to raise his son, Toby, barely humanized him at all. It’s hard to admit that the idea of a fourth season of Kenny Powers screwing over everyone in his life was not something I was looking forward to. To continue the show successfully, Danny McBride and company would have to figure out how to make the audience like Kenny again.
Surprisingly, they’ve managed to do it. At the end of the third season, we learn that Kenny has faked his death to step away from the limelight and be with his high school sweetheart, April (played for three seasons by the pitch-perfect and charming Katy Mixon). The fourth season premiere opens with Kenny marching into his memorial service, to the shock and awe of his family and friends. A quick montage brings us up to speed: Kenny went to jail for fraud, he and April have gotten married and had a daughter, and he’s settled into a quiet suburban life with a job at a rental car company.
You can imagine that such a life might become stifling for the man more akin to a fast-paced world filled with strippers, cocaine, and Jet Skis. And it is: Kenny is clearly going through some form of a midlife crisis, which in the hands of McBride and Eastbound‘s co-creators Ben Best and Jody Hill becomes a parody of the typical male crises so common in film and on TV. Kenny is overshadowed by April’s success as an award-winning realtor and his reunion with an old baseball colleague (played with the usual meatheaded brilliance by Ken Marino), emasculating developments that incite a spiral of depression that leads, of course, to his private stash of pot, pills, and coke.
When he’s offered a trial run on Marino’s character’s sports talk show, Sports Sesh (a sort of manic mix of Sports Center and Fox and Friends), Kenny exhibits the usual uncomfortable narcissism, only this time to be humiliated on camera — and to realize, surprisingly for the first time, that he’s the butt of the joke. It reminded me a bit of The Office‘s Christmas special, when the mockumentary conceit was finally acknowledged as Ricky Gervais’ David Brent slowly recognizes that he’s a national laughingstock. Like David Brent, Kenny Powers’ sudden self-awareness makes him pathetic and sad, and his character suddenly seems somewhat sympathetic.
By the end of the second episode, of course, Kenny has regained a semblance of success and pride in himself, and yes, one does feel excited for him to get out of his slump. After all, this is a man we’ve been watching for three seasons, and so there’s a bit in his personality to love despite all of the comically awful things he does. I imagine that throughout this final season Kenny will again manage to fuck up and retain his awful nature (not to suggest, of course, that he wasn’t terrible at his lowest moments in the season premiere), but it’s at least a good sign that McBride and his team have managed to take this character and this show in a new direction.