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The Righteous Bros: In Praise of the Danny McBride Multiverse

From ‘The Foot Fist Way’ to ‘Eastbound & Down’ and ‘Vice Principals,’ we’ve been watching the actor flex for a decade as the heroic antihero. But now he’s flexing for real, flaunting actual range on HBO’s darkly rich ‘The Righteous Gemstones.’

Janice Chang

“Once again I’m with the hottest chick in town,” says Kenny Powers, disgraced flameout MLB superstar and national treasure, stumbling down the comeback trail on a Mexican baseball team midway through Season 2 of the ribald HBO black comedy Eastbound & Down. “Buying the most expensive fashions. Dining at the fanciest food places. Riding around on goddamn Jet Skis. Raining trim. Hallucinogens. Jet Skis again. Throwing heat. And getting laid.”

Powers delivers this monologue—this soliloquy, though even Shakespeare never strung together three words as profound as Jet Skis again—in a stupefied Southern drawl that pours on like pornographic barbecue sauce. It is an unforgettable voice, every bit as emblematic of first-tier HBO as Tony Soprano’s, or Al Swearengen’s, or Larry David’s, or Selina Meyer’s. It is the primary weapon of Georgia-born, North Carolina School of the Arts–educated, multihyphenate dude-bro icon Danny McBride—actor, writer, director, and all-around Reverse Renaissance Man, transcendentally crude, deplorably triumphant. Eastbound & Down, a John Rocker–inspired farce that ran four seasons from 2009 to 2013, was the wider world’s introduction to McBride’s vast arsenal of Difficult Men. He contains multitudes, of douchebags. It may not be true that we need him more than ever. It is undeniably true that we understand him more than ever.

Alongside longtime creative partners and fellow writer-directors Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, McBride has devised for HBO what he described to Rolling Stone last year as “our misunderstood angry man trilogy.” He followed up Eastbound & Down with the even blacker-hearted and far less whimsical high school battle royale Vice Principals, which ran two seasons from 2016 to 2017 and stripped McBride’s character, the enfeebled and enraged man-child and aspiring principal Neal Gamby, of much of Kenny Powers’s brash buffoonery, which made him, if not exactly likable, than at least enjoyably depraved. Meaning, fewer soliloquies but plenty of obscene one-liners, from [addressing a high school student] “You and your brother are the two dumbest, buck-toothed cousin-fuckers I’ve ever met” to [addressing his girlfriend] “I can’t believe you let me fuck you in a bus.” It’s a whole lot of fun for something so fundamentally hard to watch.

On Sunday, we’ll meet his richest (at least in the financial sense) and most spiritually profound (he plays a slimy Jimmy Swaggart–style televangelist) creation yet. The Righteous Gemstones costars Adam DeVine, Vice Principals alumnus Edi Patterson, and (gloriously, finally) John Goodman as a corrupt and dysfunctional family of millionaire preachers. The Gemstone family has three private jets named The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost; in the opening scene, bickering brothers Jesse (McBride) and Kelvin (DeVine) angrily splash holy water on each other in a giant wave pool during a 24-hour baptismal marathon in Chengdu, China, as their father Eli (Goodman) looks on in seething dismay.

All you really need to sell this is “John Goodman plays Danny McBride’s father as they send up Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.” But the half-hour comedy series, featuring an hourlong pilot written and directed by McBride, veers away from his usual caustic camp into something deeper, darker, richer, and eerier. What the guy always wanted, apparently, was to be a one-man Coen brothers, leaning far closer to the cheery viciousness of Fargo than the surrealist goofiness of The Big Lebowski. We’ve been watching McBride’s characters flex for a decade now, in a hapless, cocky, unlovable-loser sort of way. But he’s flexing for real now, with actual muscles, flaunting actual range. He can be The Dude. He can be The Man. He can be, apparently, the gleefully sacrilegious Lord of All He Surveys.

McBride made his screen debut in Green’s 2004 indie dramedy All the Real Girls; his character was named Bust-Ass. But he broke out, amid a relatively small but massively influential crew of comedy nerds, as the cowriter and star of Hill’s cringe-y 2006 martial-arts comedy The Foot Fist Way, in which he roundhouse-kicks a little kid and delivers the first of countless operatically cruel and theoretically hilarious Danny McBride monologues. “I don’t care if you wake up in a ditch with grown men shitting on you and jumping on top of your head,” he tells his unfaithful wife. “Maybe your nose will turn into a big old dick and you can stroke that all the time.” Then he pees on his own wedding ring. This is the heartwarming climax of the movie; sorry, that probably deserved a spoiler alert, along with a few other types of alerts.

You know who loved The Foot Fist Way? Seth Rogen. Soon McBride found himself with modest but unnervingly vivid parts in Pineapple Express (“Thug life!”) and Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (“Mother Nature just pissed her pantsuit!”), the two 2008-est comedies of 2008, crass and infantile and supremely dude-y. You know who else loved The Foot Fist Way? Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who bought and distributed the movie via their newly minted and since-abandoned Gary Sanchez Productions after Hill’s and McBride’s original plan (take Sundance by storm) didn’t quite work out. The Sundance plan feels absolutely delusional in retrospect, but once McBride was fully absorbed into the Rogen–Ferrell–Judd Apatow universe, he got to act delusional (and crass, and infantile, and supremely dudely) for a living.

I have watched this clip from the first season of Eastbound & Down maybe 50 times in the past week.

“Me on the other hand, I got the glory. I get the fame, the money, the jewels, the cash, the Denali. Getting drunk on the reg. Fuckin’ good times on the reg. Yachts on the reg. Sex on the reg.” God, even typing that out feels empowering. The value proposition of Eastbound & Down was its lack of any redeeming values whatsoever. “We were getting notes back in the beginning like, ‘No one is going to like this guy. We need to soften him,’” McBride recalled to Rolling Stone. “Our mantra was, ‘Well, that’s the point. This guy is an a-hole, and we’re not going to soften him too much. It’s a growth, not a formula.’”

Call it American exceptionalism, the sort American TV audiences had been trained to reject. The British had been doing it for years, but here he had to be likable,” McBride continued. “You had to have hearts of gold and lovable losers … all this stuff that I just thought was boring. I don’t write characters like that, I didn’t want to play a character like that. I didn’t want to watch a fucking story about a character like that.”

Kenny Powers was not a character like that. As the series begins, our hero has flamed out of major league baseball in spectacular fashion and finds himself teaching gym at his old high school, chasing his old high school girlfriend, April (Katy Mixon), for whom his affections are somewhat less than pure. His four-season character arc is more of a downward spiral: He fucks up everything, for everyone, everywhere, from Mexico to Myrtle Beach. He says things like, “There is no i in team, but there is a u in cunt.” And “This whole time I thought you were the whore with a heart of gold. Instead you’re just a whore with a regular whore’s heart.” And “The road has been paved with dickheads, backstabbers, and pains in the fuckin’ ass. But memories were made. Allies were had. Pole-smokers were toppled. And the truth was discovered.”

And that’s all just in Mexico. Let’s just say that Kenny evolves but never quite softens; let’s just say that in the series finale he visits an African village on a hover-bike. Let’s just say that antiheroes don’t come much more heroic. Let’s just suggest that you don’t watch this show with your parents, or for that matter with anyone.

That goes double for Vice Principals, which doubles down on everything. Kenny Powers had, at least at one point, talent; his belligerence aside, he is weirdly beloved, or at least tolerated, by pretty much everybody. Not so Neal Gamby, a hardass divorcé and delta male who conspires with his fellow vice principal, the nefarious dandy Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), to ruin the life of their high school’s new principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). For starters, in the show’s second episode, they burn her house down. “The very first time I watched it, man, it wasn’t funny to me, man,” Goggins told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast earlier this month. “I started panicking, that my fucking career was over.” (Goggins is tough to faze in this regard: In the pilot of the FX Western Justified, in which he starred for six seasons, he has a swastika tattoo and blows up a black church with a rocket launcher.)

Vice Principals was, to put it mildly, divisive in its insistence on putting nothing mildly, from its broad strokes (two white men terrorizing a black woman) to its even broader approach to cringe comedy. (The meta joke, for Kenny Powers fanatics, is that Goggins plays the bigger, scarier jerk, or at least the guy more likely to deliver McBrideisms like “I’m gonna take my dick and slap it across your face” or “I bet when she gets up here she smells like fucked buttholes.”) The violence, emotional and quite physical, was both elegant and ungodly brutal: The show was exceptionally well-made but nonetheless felt like a punishment for egging McBride on, for making him famous, for sanctioning his lethally macho tomfoolery, which played very differently in 2017 than in 2010. As a pattern of escalation, there was nowhere to go from there but straight down to hell.

The Righteous Gemstones is a startling pivot, as lush as you’d hope (part of the fun of following an arc like this is watching McBride’s production budgets dramatically inflate) but more nuanced than you’d expect. It’s a broad and silly character study, but also, in its way, a hard-boiled noir.

When Vice Principals’ Neal Gamby got super angry and started barking at his teenage charges (“swearing in the presence of, if not at, children” is a core tenant of the Danny McBride universe), he sounded like no one so much as John Goodman as perpetually hostile Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, his every furious pronouncement an inspired variation on “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass.” Putting those two hulking and seething and glowering and swaggering men together felt like fate, like a very specific and increasingly prevalent vision of America defined. You come to Gemstones braced for fire and brimstone, for a biblical clinic in toxic masculinity.

That is not quite what you get. You do get Danny McBride, with meaty (and graying) mutton chop sideburns, delivering lines like “You really don’t care if this cocaine sex-party tape destroys the Gemstones once and for all?” But now it’s his kids yelling unprintable 50-pound insults at him and highlighting all the swear words in the bible; the early-going Gemstones, like Eastbound and Vice Principals before it, is apt to spread the misanthropy around, and to tell its seedy crime-novel tale from some surprising perspectives. McBride makes his strongest impression in the pilot as the director, choreographing a parking-lot blackmail scheme gone grotesquely wrong with a balletic sort of ugliness that harkens back to the way the Coen brothers have weaponized bowling balls or wood chippers. Gemstones has the dysfunctional-family abrasiveness of Succession but the lush menace of Killing Eve or a less self-important True Detective. It’s the volatility you’ve come to expect from McBride, as delivered by a man who very much doesn’t want to do variations on Kenny Powers anymore.

“If, 20 years from now, I’m still telling the same stories, that’s on me” is how McBride explained it to Rolling Stone. His most recent career moves, both as an actor (see 2017’s grody Alien: Covenant) and screenwriter (he cowrote 2018’s Halloween reboot with Green and Jeff Fradley) are deliberate pivots away from his boorish HBO roots, and further proof that the Jordan Peele comedy-to-horror pipeline is still wide open. But McBride’s boorishness is always there to be weaponized. I think of him shouting, “I hope the devil fucks you dry” at his brother in Gemstones; I think, even five-plus years on, of McBride playing the ugliest version of himself as he makes breakfast in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s otherwise unremarkable and self-satisfied 2013 apocalypse comedy This Is the End. He’d made it to comedy’s Cool Kids table without any pandering or softening whatsoever. This is a man unafraid to take the notion of unlikable as far as it’ll go, but with ambitions far beyond that. This is a man who knows you’ll always love him for it.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.