“Listen here, you beautiful bitch. I am about to fuck you up with some truth.”
– Kenny Powers, Eastbound & Down
What exactly IS that truth, you may be asking? Here it is: Danny McBride is television royalty, nothing short of an auteur, and one of the most brilliant television satirists of his generation. And if you have missed out on his varied HBO projects because of crass language, a barrage of nudity, and/or the unlikeable leads he portrays, you are missing out on some seriously smart television. Seriously.
A lifelong southerner, McBride’s modern version of this region is an incredibly smart place for his HBO Universes to take place, not just because of his familiarity of the environment, but also because it is a part of America not often featured on prestige television.
Yes, prestige. I said it.
His first HBO series Eastbound & Down, marked his initial television project with frequent collaborator, former art school classmate and current entertainment tour-de-force Jody Hill (Superbad, Observe and Report, Peacemaker). With Hill behind the camera and McBride in front of it, Eastbound & Down tells the tale of fictional former star Major League Baseball relief pitcher Kenny Powers; a professional athlete who had it all, had it all taken away, and is stranded in minor league purgatory in his hometown while trying to work his way back to the big leagues.
This classic riches-to-rags tale is perhaps the crassest of McBride and Hill’s HBO collaborations. If it is the only project you’re familiar with, I wouldn’t blame you for assuming my assertions are incorrect and that I have lost my mind. In my defense, I would point to guest stars Matthew McConaughey, Michael Pena, Don Johnson, Adam Scott and Jason Sudekis as exhibit A. Exhibit B would be producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.
Exhibit C? Asking you to watch Eastbound & Down again while asking yourselves how professional athletes really live, how smart they are and what kind of decisions they make. If you think the show, as it lambasts the lives of professional athletes has too much nudity, drugs, gross out gags, or underhandedness, you might be missing the point.
McBride’s next HBO project, Vice Principals, was released three years after Eastbound & Down ended, and saw McBride expand his role from creator, writer and producer to also include director. This two-season masterpiece showcases a bromantic frenemy relationship between High School Vice Principals – Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) as they engage in a power struggle to become the permanent head principal of South Carolina High School. Gone are the gross out gags from Eastbound and Down, replaced by over the top plot lines involving blackmail, sabotage, an escaped tiger and a house fire. As someone who works in education, there are a lot of funny gags and lines that may not appeal to people outside of the industry (such as when a new principal actually takes the time to learn the names of the students). But most people can still recall their high school days and relate to the horrors of Saturday school, field trips and the social hierarchy for both staff and students alike, all of which are appropriately roasted.
Another reason to love Vice Principals is because it showcases Goggin’s comedic chops. If you’re like me, you were previously only familiar with Goggin’s stellar (and I mean STELLAR) dramatic work as Dixie Mafia ringleader Boyd Crowder on FX’s criminally (and I mean CRIMINALLY) underrated program Justified so watching him trade improv comedic jabs with McBride was a real treat.
Which segues perfectly into McBride’s current collaboration with both Hill and Goggins: The Righteous Gemstones. Lampooning American Televangelical right, TRG takes aim at everyone caught in the web of absurdity that belies the culture of televised American Mega Churches. McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, eldest son of Gemstone family patriarch and lead preacher Dr. Eli Gemstone, played by none other than John Goodman.
Excuse me while I nerd out a little bit.
We, as the television nerd community have so much to be thankful for, and I don’t think it is hyperbolic to put John Goodman lampooning Jerry Fallwell at the near top of that list. Goodman, who has made public his battles with mental health, alcohol addiction and his weight (he has lost over 200 pounds in the last decade), was almost not alive for this project, and man, we are lucky to have him.
Back to the show.
Since its inception, TRG has mirrored the plot of many contemporary programs (Arrested Development, Succession, Yellowstone), which follows the patriarch of the family business trying to decide which member of the family to succeed him but having no worthy successor.
What separates TRG from the pack, besides the obvious satire, is that TRG takes the time to show what makes Eli Gemstone the man he is.
In the season two premiere, we find out that Eli dabbled in professional wrestling as a young man, which is a brilliant plot point as one can easily make the connection between professional wrestling and being a televangelist. The staging, the drama, the music, and quite frankly, the shining on of the shared marks: the people who, to quote the late great John Prine, think their flag decal will get them into heaven. Satire at its best.
All episodes in season two are at least partially penned by McBride, showing a GIANT leap in his abilities. I am not sure there is anyone else on television who could bring to life motorcycle gangs of disgruntled teenagers, a group of homoerotic Christian strongmen and Mackuley Culkin, all in the name of lampooning televangelical preachers. In fact, season two of TRG is so well done, that every episode could pass as a standalone film. Not movie, film. Seriously.
For that we give praise.