I Like to Watch

HBO's comedy "Eastbound and Down" showcases the arrogant idiocy of a fallen baseball pro. Plus: Does Bravo make TV for idiots, or do idiots make great TV?

By Heather Havrilesky

Published February 22, 2009 9:15PM (EST)

Every now and then, I feel thankful that I'm not an idiot. Don't get me wrong, most of the time I yearn for the simple, carefree life of the halfwit. I long to relish the stupid joys of the lowest common denominator, uncomplicated by critical thinking, ulterior motives, ironic distance or simple logic. To drive my daughter straight to Disneyland and delight in the asinine, saccharine femininity represented by its Princess Fantasy Faire. To take in an adorable baby chimp without thinking through the very real possibility that it might grow up and rip someone's face off one day. To say "It's all good" and really mean it.

Being stupid is fun and relaxing. That much is obvious, and it enrages the non-stupid to no end. Just look at the Letters pages here on Salon: Filled with intelligent, tormented human beings, angry at everything under the sun, absolutely furious -- livid! -- over the existence of television sets and octuplet moms on disability and fat kids and Sarah Palin and anyone insensitive to the plights of polar bears, severe allergy sufferers, the home-schooled and, of course, intelligent, tormented, lactose-intolerant human beings like themselves.

But being an imbecile has its drawbacks. Yesterday, for example, I got an e-mail from the IRS. Apparently the IRS needs more information from me -- including my Social Security number, which it seems to have misplaced. That's understandable, really. The IRS is huge, its office is probably a wreck. Anyway, I have just 12 hours to fill out my tax refund claim form, but my correspondence must remain confidential and "must not be disclosed by anyone other than the intended recipient." I think that means don't tell your accountant about this, because she might not realize that the IRS handles much of its business through e-mail, and sometimes refers to taxpaying citizens as, simply, "Rabbit."

The truth is, I wouldn't have to be that much stupider than I am now to fill out that form and send it back. Instead, I just feel really glad that I'm not a complete moron.

Pro tools

HBO's "Eastbound and Down" (10 p.m. Sundays) may have a similar effect on its audience, only in addition to being glad that we're not idiots, we're also glad that we're not former pro baseball players with no money, no careers, inflated egos and really bad mullets.

Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), the fallen hero of this half-hour comedy, haunted the realm of the elite athlete for years, unaware that he was floating effortlessly through one of the only microcosms where a slightly chubby jackass with bad hair could be viewed as a demigod. "Everyone wanted a piece of my shit," Powers tells us in a voice-over, describing himself as "Just a man with a mind for victory and an arm like a fuckin' cannon!" But like so many cocky ballplayers before him, Powers lost his handle on the game and devolved into a temperamental, bat-hurling maniac prone to making racist and anti-Semitic comments to the press ("You mean Jew York?" he spits at one reporter who asks about his latest trade.)

"Several shitty years later" (according to the note at the bottom of the screen), we see Powers applying for a job as a substitute teacher in his former hometown in North Carolina. He moves in with his brother Dustin (John Hawkes), his brother's wife, Cassie (Jennifer Irwin), and their three kids, swearing unabashedly through dinner, then crying himself to sleep at night. Later, Powers comforts himself by listening to his own inspirational autobiography in his truck, titled "You're Fucking Out, I'm Fucking In."

If that sounds like a Will Ferrell vehicle, you're not far from the mark. "Eastbound and Down" does trot out the same semi-unlovable loser fable we've seen in "Blades of Glory," "Semi-Pro," "Talladega Nights" and countless other Ferrell films -- and, oh yeah, Ferrell is an executive producer on the show (which was created by McBride, Ben Best and Jody Hill, the team behind "The Foot Fist Way").

So the question is, did you enjoy "Talladega Nights"? If you did, you'll probably dig "Eastbound and Down" as much as I do. This may also mean that we're both stupid.

Or, it could mean that we both grew up in North Carolina and recognize Kenny Powers not as just another Will Ferrell-type character, but as a living, breathing human being -- dare I say, even an archetype of the South. When Powers responds to his former high school sweetheart's insult by smiling and saying, "You have not changed at all! We still have that fun chemistry, we just play with each other!" I get a shiver down my spine. When he pops open a can of beer or rides his jet ski through a red-clay-lined, man-made lake the likes of which we considered, in North Carolina, to be a bona fide vacation spot, I feel an odd mix of nostalgia and dread.

In other words, although Powers may look like yet another cliché of jackassery to you, trust me that the man is 100 percent authentic -- and yes, the show's writers are from North Carolina, just as I suspected. "Eastbound and Down" does feature Ferrell-y, crude lines like "I think I'm gonna need to change my pants. I'm just kiddin'. I didn't come in my pants!" But along with the dummy/pro athlete formula, it's full of funny zingers and goofy details. Or, as Powers and those of his ilk might say, "Y'all, trust me. That shit right there is the real deal."

Chimp my ride

In contrast, there's Bravo's "Real Housewives" series, in which women who are neither all that real nor actually housewives parade around town, making us all feel very grateful that we're not just a little bit dumber than we are.

But last week's doubleheader, the finale of "Real Housewives of Orange County" paired with the premiere of "Real Housewives of New York City" (11 p.m. Tuesdays on Bravo), reminded audiences nationwide that the appeal of this franchise comes not from simply marveling at how dumb these women are. Most of them aren't that dumb, in fact. Yet, like Kenny Powers, each group of housewives is ruled by the idiotic strictures of its own seriously stupid microcosm.

The strange, addictive dimension to this show is that the housewives can appear reasonable, even savvy at times, yet they all have the same enormous blind spots, unfathomably huge gaps in their logic, and gigantic voids in their ability to critically assess their surroundings. Some of them have thriving careers, stable long-term relationships, solid identities and/or healthy friendships, but each and every last one of them has a baby chimp in her guest room, one that's sure to grow up one day and use its powerful upper-body strength to do something ... well, something a little hasty and not very well thought-out, upon further reflection.

In fact, the housewives seem to have been chosen specifically for their inability to make the connection between cuddling a diaper-clad baby ape and mopping a close friend's blood off the ground several years later. The fun of the "Real Housewives" series, then, is watching each "Housewife" take turns at being "the Sensible One," only to be publicly humiliated by her gigantic blind spot a few seconds later.

Their weaknesses differ from coast to coast. While the Orange County housewives consistently engage in the sorts of shiny, attention-seeking behaviors of teenage girls, measuring their self-worth in diamond trinkets and Rolexes and bright red Harley motorcycles like overgrown Disney princesses, the New York City housewives are preoccupied instead by questions of class and etiquette. At first glance, then, the latter group may seem more refined and sophisticated than their Southern California peers, who are more prone to blatant one-upmanship and boobs-out pettiness.

But look a little closer, housewife aficionados! Each of the New York housewives is actually the polar opposite of what she publicly claims to be! This is the unbearable paradox of chasing appearances, of aspiring to seem more highly evolved than you actually are. Just as the sun-dried, middle-aged back-stabbers of Orange County mince and giggle and pivot on their high heels to evoke girlish, Marilyn Monroe-esque innocence, the New York housewives tsk-tsk and shake their knowing heads over the absolutely gauche maneuvers and completely rude behaviors of their peers one minute, only to lash out in a flood of highly inappropriate emotions the next. You see how it works? Age-obsessed aging women act like babies, while controlling, class-obsessed women behave like temperamental, trashy hos.

That explains why NYC housewife Jill, aka the Sensible One in so many previous episodes last season, blabbed to Cindy Adams of the New York Post that Simon, fashion-obsessed metrosexual husband of fellow housewife Alex, "drinks too much." When Alex read this in this season's premiere, she proclaimed it a "low self-esteem thing" and confessed that she sometimes wants to hug Jill and "tell her she needs to go home and write on her mirror in lipstick, 'I am good enough.'" Way to get a superior leg up, Alex!

Next, Jill called Alex and Simon because that seemed like the really classy move at the time, only to exchange bitchy barbs with Alex for several minutes before icily signing off. The holier-than-thou, "I know you are, but what am I?" nature of their exchange made it one for the record books:

Jill: There was an instance where he did drink too much. He fell down three times.

Alex: Well, if you're going to talk about one party in the course of a year where every single person at the party, except for you who drink Diet Coke, were all collectively drunk ...

Jill: I'm saying I'm sorry, I am, and I'm not saying it was right, I'm not saying she lied, I'm saying I did say he drank too much, and I'm saying I'm sorry I said it, because the way she wrote it, it came out really not nice.

Alex: I appreciate that.

Jill: But what I want to say is that you hit me first. I mean not you, but Simon did.

Apparently Simon told New York magazine Jill was "from Long Island and it shows." "It came off derogatorily," Jill snapped, "and what upset me more was that I didn't get a phone call from either one of you." Ah yes! When in doubt, conjure up the right and wrong way to behave. This is the (rather ironic) code among housewife socialites who choose to air their feuds on national television.

Alex revealed her own values when she snapped back that Jill was obviously "jealous" that she and Simon "got the coverage" in New York magazine and she didn't.

Oh, Alex. Queen of inserting foot into mouth for the delight of rapt rubberneckers everywhere! Incredibly, she and Simon claim not to care about appearances but rush to spot themselves in the society pages of the New York Times and smugly crow, "It's always nice to be photographed."

But the season premiere was full of such tasty contradictions. Housewife/Countess Luann de Lesseps asserted, "For me, that's the worst, is people who think that they're better than other people," despite the fact that, last season, she balked when Bethenny introduced her to a limousine driver as "Luann" and not "Mrs. de Lesseps." Bethenny, who's smart and quick-witted and scrambles to appear above the childish shenanigans of her housewifely peers at every turn, still lost it when she thought Alex and Simon were giving her the cold shoulder at a party. And Ramona, perhaps the most likely to say something deeply uncouth at every turn, primly stated, "You know what? I may not like someone, but I would not have it published in the newspaper. I mean, that's going a little too far!"

Superiority complexes all around! But that's probably a common phenomenon among women who are, without exception, at once wildly insecure and ruled by their emotions, emotions that, no matter how much they long to hide them under layers of sophistication and self-restraint and this season's Armani wrap dress, always bubble to the surface at the least opportune moment possible. These women don't accept themselves for who they are: striving, competitive, angry, vulnerable, self-doubting human beings.

But there's nothing all that unusual about who they are, really. Most people are ambitious and pissed off and fragile and insecure, aren't they? The problems only arise when you deny your true nature, much like dressing your adult chimp in OshKosh overalls. It's pretty cute until your little friend has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And let's be fair to the ape: Losing your temper is actually sort of fun, when you're a wild animal surrounded by hairless, pink weaklings.

You have to hand it to Bravo, though: They know just how to bring the worst out of their favorite hairless, pink weaklings. And they know exactly where to place the cameras, to capture the maximum degree of mayhem at that moment when unrealistic aspirations butt up against hard, cold reality.

Next week: Oscar recaps, "Top Chef" finales, and models, models, models galore!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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