The third season of “Eastbound & Down” lands on HBO Sunday, and cleverly, ESPN confirmed for me, the crew at the show recently reached out to “Grantland” to get its lead character, Kenny Powers, a byline there. In the essay “The Gifted Young Athlete,” the fictional pitcher Powers writes to a real-life athlete with fictional powers, counseling Tim Tebow on how to deal with the fickle jealousies of mere mortals:
[M]y advice to you, Mr. Tebow, from one Gifted Young Athlete to another: don’t kill yourself trying to make sense of all the madness. Just hold on to your dick and have a good time. Believe me, it’s all you can do. Make no apologies, either. Those are for weak people, and the haters will hate you anyway. It’s not our fault we’re awesome, playboy. It’s Jesus’s. As the gorgeous bitches in the makeup commercials used to say, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
This is a sharp piece of work, for a few reasons. One, it skates on the ever-streaming contrails of Tebowmania, which ain’t a bad move for a show looking to remind people of its existence (and after a second season that slid a step back from the exuberant genius of the first). Two, in its blithe vulgarity, it manages to contrast Powers against Tebow, and thus, to highlight Powers. Since the entire universe of “Eastbound” revolves around Powers’ ego/persona, it’s a better ad than just slapping Danny McBride’s mug on a billboard. Further, it underscores the authorial voice of Powers, whose autobiography on tape, “You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In,” serves as running exposition during the first season. It’s not just funny because of what he’s saying; it’s funny because it’s consistent with Powers’ character. It reads like a DVD extra indexed by Google News.
Which brings us to, third: It fosters the pop-surrealism of making Powers a live person outside the confines of the show. Somewhere between Roger Rabbit bouncing on Eddie Valiant’s Murphy bed and Stephen Colbert not breaking character when he appears on Sunday talk shows is Kenny Powers penning open letters in an ESPN-run publication and Danny McBride playing Powers purchasing a controlling interest in K-Swiss sneakers. (Then, further smudging reality, pitching real Michael Bay on a movie that turns Powers into a Transformer.) Shilling for someone else has always been a cheap, effective way of getting attention, as when reality TV star Donald Trump announced a presidential endorsement. Like Powers hopping on Tebow’s coattails, that almost felt like a real person barging into the public conversation.
The appeal of “Eastbound” is ogling a jock so self-centered and unaware that he seems to justify our most cynical suspicions about athletes in the ESPN era. The adoration that Powers got as a hot-shit rookie fed his ego until it collapsed in on itself like a black hole. Could such a player really exist — John Rocker with the brakes cut, with some Mitch Williams thrown in? The longer “Eastbound” goes, the more real he apparently gets. If he doesn’t exist already, hell, maybe we can just market him into being.