HBO in Dixie

Being a dumb white guy just gets harder and harder.  Look at Rush Limbaugh.  The idea that there are more and more smart, young, educated women walking around out there who have absolutely no interest in him, sexually or politically, has apparently driven him clinically insane.  Everyday he can be seen on his weird glitchy webcam bouncing around like a rubber ball stuffed with bile, so completely bonkers that his internal censor now has completely lost the ability to displace his sexism into anything even approximating humor.   I actually agree with most righties that Rushbo is primarily an “entertainer,” a Will Rogers of the knuckle-dragging right.  But go back and look at how tentative he is in calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute”—there is no joke-work there, just the empty outline of a concept for a joke.  He seems to realize it half-way through the “routine,” pulling back a bit as he delivers the “punch-line.” Of course, it doesn’t help that Rush apparently didn’t understand how birth control pills actually work (as pointed out by Rachel Maddow, et. al., Limbaugh seems to believe that the pill works like a condom—the more sex a woman has, the more pills she needs).  And then, only days later, he attacks another young woman for writing an award-winning book, incensed, it would seem, at her suggestion that Americans might not eat so many greasy salt/sugar bombs at their local thematized eating arenas/compulsory mirth zones.  But fear not, Rush, if you want to continue stuffing yourself with the new SweeTart encrusted “flamin’ hot” Teriyaki BBQ Stuffed Onion balls at your local TGI McBennington’s Chili Factory, go for it.  It remains, despite what you think, a free country. 

Which brings me to Eastbound and Down, now in its third and final season on HBO.  Here is a spectacle of downscale white masculinity that actually is funny, no doubt because the series—unlike Rush—has a better sense of its central protagonist’s uncertain place in history.  For those who haven’t seen the show, Eastbound is a collaboration between Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill—southerners all—centering on washed-up relief pitcher Kenny Powers (McBride) as he attempts to make his way back to the major leagues.  In the new season, Powers is pitching Double-A ball in Myrtle Beach and adjusting to his unexpected and phobically unwanted role as a new father.  The writers have also decided to go out with a brutally honest revisiting of Bull Durham (1988), giving Kenny a young Russian protégée who has absolutely no time or respect for the “wisdom” of his pathetic has-been mentor.

On paper, Kenny Powers might seem every bit as loathsome as the character played by Rush Limbaugh.  Like Rushbo, Kenny is also a vulgar narcissist who frequently crosses the line into wholly inappropriate behavior  (his penchant to curse like a sailor in front of small children is a particularly endearing gag throughout the series).  His interactions with women would make a caveman look classy, and his views on race come uncomfortably close to those of John Rocker (the former bubba-ballplayer who once said of the cultural miracle that is New York City: “Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing.").  Powers is like that sometimes, only funnier.  Oh, and back to Rush, both he and Powers are not strangers to the world of hillbilly heroin.

If Limbaugh and Rocker fell down a well tomorrow, perhaps in an argument over which of the Obama daughters is most likely to sucker-punch Jesus during the second coming, most people would not be all that upset (despite the “immense” influence of Limbaugh, the majority of Americans hear from him only sporadically, like when he calls somewhat a “slut” for having the temerity to testify before Congress).   The miracle of Eastbound and Down, however, is that Green, Hill, and McBride have created in Kenny Powers a character that the audience still roots for, even as he carries his newborn son around in a backpack filled with lettuce, and then later, attempts to dodge his paternal duties by setting him adrift Moses-style on a raft.  That’s the prerogative and power of fiction, of course.  Limbaugh may be performing a character also, but as he chooses to allow that persona to stand as a real person in the real world with real influence, he remains venal at best and infinitely despicable at worst. 

How does Eastbound work this trick?  As sons of the south, Hill, Green, and McBride rather graciously allow the upscale HBO viewer to work through the nation’s ongoing realignments of race, class, and gender by offering up Kenny as a sacrificial lamb of sorts.  Given that educated white Yankees are notoriously reluctant to address their own issues about the contemporary “crisis” of white masculinity, Eastbound and Down allows its audience the opportunity to project these anxieties onto the sturdy symbolic shoulders of the Dixie good ‘ole boy dumb shit.  And at first glance, Kenny probably does seem as dumb as a box of moon pies dropped in the Tallahatchie, a persona rather diabolically crafted on the superficial terrain of taste—Kenny has a mullet, loves his jet ski, and tends to favor western wear that is a bit, shall we say, flashy.    

A lesser show would have simply left matters there, allowing an audience that won’t admit it’s watching television to revel in the hayseed antics of a social pariah who confirms all their worst stereotypes about those places in the country where one prays the car does not break down. But as we have gotten to know Kenny Powers over the past few years, he has become a surprisingly complex, troubled, and even vulnerable character, making Eastbound one of the most interesting sites in addressing the nation’s ongoing crisis with the regressed white male (truly the tragicomic premise of choice for contemporary television and film dealing with men in their thirties.  Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens even as I write this).
For one thing, Kenny Powers is a true poet.  Whether it’s on the page or just a spontaneous improvisation on the part of McBride, Kenny’s day-to-day speech is riddled with inventive turns of phrase, oddly trenchant observations, and an almost musical talent for the melody of a good malapropism.  Having given his one-year old son a PlayStation 3 for his first birthday, partly to parade his wealth to April’s friends and partly to have something to do when he comes to visit “the stupid fuckin’ baby” (as his catcher [Jason Sudekis] calls the kid), Kenny justifies the wholly age-inappropriate gift through its ability to play Blu-Rays, which will make it easier “for the baby’s eyes to gaze upon the movies.”   Catching his paid escort turned girlfriend in flagrante delicto with his baseball team’s owner, Kenny bemoans, “Here I thought you were a whore with a heart of gold but it turns out you’re just a whore with a regular whore’s heart.”  And who could forget Kenny’s patented catch-phrase on the mound: “I’m Kenny Powers and you’re fuckin’ out!”  (Leaving the Atlanta Braves for a better contract, Powers tells the entire city that they are in fact ‘fuckin’ out!’). 

Country boys attempting to speak above their educational pay grade is an old comic trick, of course, perhaps epitomized by Jethro Bodine’s proud performance of his “sixth-grade education” on The Beverly Hillbillies.   Kenny’s vacillation between crude braggadocio and his oddly ornate turns of phrase are of a different order, however.  He may have been raised dumb as dirt, but Kenny’s flirtation with the high life in the big city has made him aware and perhaps even a bit self-conscious about projecting some smartness out there into the world.  Moreover, Kenny’s immense ego (at one point he compares his baseball comeback to Ryan O’Neal and Jesus, who he asserts returned from the cross as an awesomely powerful “zombie”) seems trapped less between the smart and the stupid than between two different realms of manhood, baseball’s jock-world of testosterone-infused combat and the real world of real adulthood in which conflicts cannot be solved by throwing a 100+ mph fastball at your rival’s left orbital socket (a highlight of season one). 

And, like other forms of troubled, divided, and otherwise symptomatic speech, Kenny’s distinctive patter always suggests more complex machinations at work in his psyche.  Arriving at his son’s birthday party, for example, Kenny tries to plant a kiss on April, even though she has made it clear she no longer wants to have any sexual or emotional involvement with him.  When April rebuffs him, Kenny immediately justifies the advance as an attempt to make her feel better about herself because she seems “all afterbirthy and post-partum and shit.”  And thus the genius of Kenny.  He has no interest in his son.  He certainly has no interest in paying child support.  But he is very interested in April, so when she rejects him, Kenny demonstrates that he has been paying just enough attention to contemporary debates about women’s health issues to mount a plausible defense of his churlish advances.  Somewhere in the back of his mind is that episode of The View he once saw while doing pre-game bong hits, dredged up here to disguise—however feebly—his attempts to seduce April with the trappings of a new, more sensitive masculinity. 

Eastbound has a similar approach to issues of race.  Again and again Kenny either apologizes in advance or immediately afterwards for saying something incredibly offensive, protesting that he doesn’t mean to get “racial” or anything, but…  This, of course, is a awkward tactic employed by straight white guys the nation over, a community of dudes that has for most of its life never really had to consider what it said when and where. 

And here, perhaps, is the core of Kenny’s appeal as a point of sympathetic  identification—at least he’s making an effort.   HBO’s audience of mostly upscale urban white viewers can use Kenny to work out their own relation to 21st century American masculinity, but they can also, more paternalistically perhaps, use Kenny as an emblem of hope and change, an example that the so-called “Red States” might be capable, someday, of rehabilitation.  Kenny isn’t there yet, certainly, but unlike true reactionaries such as Limbaugh, he seems at least dimly aware that the present (and more importantly the future) will be different than the past, and that he needs to rethink, not only his status as the most awesome relief pitcher in all of baseball, but also his privileges as the self-perceived most awesome race and gender in all of American history. 

Contrast this with another HBO product dedicated to the world of contemporary politics: Real Time with Bill Maher.  Many folks on the progressive-left, I imagine, have a somewhat tortured relationship with Maher.  I know I probably agree politically with about 95% of the positions he espouses on the show, and I am grateful to have a forum where such issues can be addressed outside the convention-bound timidity of the center-right journalism machine.  But after each episode I have to ask, “Do I come off that smug when I talk about these issues? Good lord, no wonder no one wants to be around me, especially anyone who might disagree with me about anything.” 

One of Maher’s ongoing difficulties is his absolute mystification that anyone would be so stupid as to not live in Los Angeles or New York.  On this week’s episode, for example, Maher screened a short video piece by Alexandra Pelosi (documentarian and daughter of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a point that normally I would let slide, but in this context seems crucial).  Perhaps aware that his audience is smart enough to understand that the “documentary” format is anything but objective, Maher read a sort of disclaimer before the segment (sent in by Pelosi) explaining that the people we were about to see in the piece had not been pre-selected to make a point.  Pelosi, we were told, did not seek these people out, they sought her.  And then the piece begins.

We see a “Welcome to Mississippi” sign by the interstate accompanied by the voice-over, “Welcome to Mississippi” (Pelosi is no Errol Morris, apparently).  There then follows a cross-section of snippet interviews with dirt-poor rural whites, old racist coots, paunchy gun-lovers, and voice-hearing evangelicals.  All are united in their hatred of Obama, and democrats generally.  One hates the government but is on food stamps.  Another doesn’t hate Obama because he’s black, but because he’s a “half-breed” and a Muslim.  And so on.  In short, it is Dixiephobic porn at its finest.

One might argue that if Pelosi’s goal was to find an assortment of toothless racists ranting about Obama, she might have saved some time and money by simply driving out to Barstow.  One also has to wonder about her claim that her portrait wasn’t a trick of editing—I know Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, but do you mean to tell me there isn’t a single middle-class neighborhood anywhere to be found?  There are, in theory at least, a few doctors, lawyers, and educators in the state, no?  (Apparently Pelosi will film some city folk for her next segment—still, loading up on toothless untouchables for the first installment has implications of its own).

As with Kenny Powers, the fact that Maher would in essence “apologize” for the piece in advance (by vouching for its “authenticity”) is very telling.  Maher has at least learned over the years to feign some empathy for the structural production of uneducated ignorance “out there” in the heartland.  Perhaps most insufferably, Maher likes to brag that he still performs in places like Birmingham, Alabama because he “hasn’t given up on these people,” ignoring the fact that 1). the only people in Birmingham showing up to his gigs are most likely locals and transplants who already agree with him; and 2) he comes off sounding like the Rudyard Kipling of bi-coastal condescension, taking up the “liberal man’s burden” to make white southerners (or Midwesterners, or Texans, or mountain people, or whomever) understand just how shitty their lives and brains are.    

Sometimes this perspective makes the recognition of even simple irony impossible.  In Pelosi’s film, for example, the camera at one point lingers on one guy’s T-shirt slogan: “I Reserve the Right to Arm Bears.”  The T-shirt’s message is presented as a self-evident example of 2nd Amendment insanity, even though that very same T-Shirt has been available at Urban Outfitters and other hipster boutiques for years…probably because it’s funny.  Some uneducated Mississippians might be stupid, and they might love their guns—but I doubt anyone is sincerely in favor of distributing shotguns to bears, especially if the only reason to do so is to get Obama mad about it.  

As envisioned by a trio of college friends all born and raised in the south, Eastbound and Down might also be accused, at least on occasion, of indulging urban elite prejudice (the opening montage of Myrtle Beach from this season unfolds like a Manhattanite’s vision of hell, making the town look like nothing more than an endless strip of water slides, strip clubs, and themed restaurants).  But at least Hill, Green, and McBride have the experience of growing up surrounded by a few dozen Kenny Powers  (and maybe even some people who weren’t necessarily obnoxious rednecks).  The idea that Kenny might be redeemed, by the love a good woman, certainly, but also by some tiny yet significant amount of consciousness-raising, is itself somewhat paternalistic perhaps—but it at least recognizes that the often reactionary paranoia attending some pockets of contemporary white masculinity is more complicated than merely having bad hair, no teeth, and a love for gas-powered aquatic recreation.

At the end of this season’s second episode, for example, Kenny once again confronts his old nemesis Ashley Schaeffer, a trash-talking, dick-slapping auto dealer who revels in humiliating Kenny whenever possible.  Having lost his BMW dealership, Schaeffer now sells Kias, and in this particular episode, forces Kenny’s sidekick Stevie to perform as a Geisha Girl for a group of Kia executives visiting from “the island nation of Korea.”  The scene casts Schaeffer as some type of postmodern plantation boss, dressed in a string bowtie and extolling the erotic temptations of his mammy’s dumplings.  Kenny bursts in to the party to save Stevie from his Kia servitude, prompting Schaeffer to strike a deal.  He will release Stevie from his bondage to the dealership if he and Kenny will agree to provide the evening’s entertainment by attempting to outrun a few confederate cannonballs discharged in Schaeffer’s back yard.  
The sight of baseball great Powers and his Geisha-dragged pal desperately trying to evade this exploding nineteenth-century ordinance, all for the pleasure of Schaeffer’s new Korean bosses, has to be one of the most surreal moments on TV this year.  And while I’m not entirely sure what it all means in terms of the new global economies of race, class, and gender, it somehow makes me more hopeful than Maher’s crocodile tears for those pockets of the South that he needs in order to put his coastal enlightenment in better relief.  Eastbound speaks to the weirdness of the New South as it gradually re-constitutes itself--racially, demographically, economically, and so on. Maher seems stuck on a comfortable caricature of Dixie that, by virtue of age and poverty, can't be long for this world anyway. 

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