As HBO scans the horizon for distinctive new programming, along comes “Eastbound & Down,” a comedy whose most salient characteristic is its production auspices. Will Ferrell and his posse produce this show about a former Major League pitcher whose bad behavior lands him back at the middle school he once attended, teaching phys ed and pining for his former girlfriend. Perhaps sports fans are similarly pining for something to fill the emotional void left by “Arliss,” but anyone holding HBO to a higher standard will signal for a reliever long before “Eastbound” reaches the bottom of the ninth.
Even with the promise of a Ferrell cameo in future episodes, it’s a tired premise — a more profane version of the kind of low-swinging sitcom that could easily have wound up on TBS. Danny McBride (“Tropic Thunder”) plays Kenny Powers, whose rise and fall as a flame-throwing pitching ace is rapidly documented in the first few minutes of the premiere. He’s an amalgam of sports excesses, a mix between Charles Barkley and John Rocker, leaving a trail of empty beer cans as he insults everyone around him.
Less convincing are the circumstances that bring Kenny back to North Carolina, sponging off his tolerant brother (“Deadwood’s” John Hawkes) before taking the teaching gig, mostly to gain proximity to old flame April (Katy Mixon). Sure, she’s engaged already to the foppish principal (Andrew Daly), but he’s a big fan of Kenny’s and thus seemingly oblivious to his scheming to woo her back.
Ignoring that McBride doesn’t much resemble a former professional jock, the series quickly settles into the most mundane of territory, relying on crudity in lieu of wit. “God’s taken a dump on my face,” Kenny mutters at one point. And apparently on your script, too.
HBO’s recent approach to comedy has been one of relatively narrow demographic slices (think “Flight of the Conchords”), but with their juvenile flair, both “Eastbound” and the animated “Life and Times of Tim” fail to achieve a sense that they are premium offerings. “Eastbound” proves less about Kenny’s comeuppance than about simply watching him behave like an overgrown 12-year-old, caught in a state of arrested development by the squandered privileges of pampered stardom.
With only six episodes ordered, “Eastbound” appears to be a relatively low-risk player. Still, with Ferrell’s George Bush stage special looming on HBO, it’s hard to escape a suspicion that “Eastbound” got into the game based less on big-league ability than on who’s managing the team.