Is there a more deranged, darkly demented, or gleefully twisted comedic mind out there than that of writer/actor Danny McBride? There probably is. But I am sure that it lacks the improbable success that McBride has earned through his bizarre and cringe-inducing brand of indecorous humor over the years. From his breakout series “Eastbound & Down,” to the wildly goofy “Vice Principals,” to a role playing himself as an apocalyptic cannibal gang leader in “This is the End,” to his currently-airing bleakly satirical look at a family of televangelists (“The Righteous Gemstones”), McBride just keeps writing, starring, and featuring in hilariously offbeat movies and TV shows.
A big part of McBride’s appeal is the combination of ridiculously undeserved swagger and bravado that he imbues his characters with. This is almost always balanced out by a self-serving depravity, occasionally shocking lack of morals, and much-deserved doses of failure and defeat. In other words, McBride usually plays a character whom you find yourself at once despising, mocking, laughing at (and with), and then at some point, inevitably, kind of rooting for. It is quite the trick of writing and acting, and McBride has pulled it off enough times now to show that he is no lucky fluke at this thing. The man has perfected his brand of art.
Not your typical protagonists
Look, for example, at three of his most famous characters: In “Eastbound & Down,” McBride plays Kenny Powers, a washed up, has-been baseball player who returns to his hometown to teach P.E. in a local school. In “Vice Principals,” he plays conniving and obsessed vice principal Neal Gamby, who craves the top job and battles a colleague for ascendancy. Most recently, in “The Righteous Gemstones,” he plays Jesse Gemstone, the gauche scion of a wealthy televangelist, played by John Goodman, who is eager to assume his rightful role as the head of the dysfunctional family.
These are not characters steeped in integrity, moral virtue, or admirable courage. In fact, each of them is a character most of us would refer to as slimy, seedy, or just a plain ole douchebag. And yet, the genius of McBride is taking these paragons of pronounced mediocrity and leading them through a story arc that, inevitably, by the end, forces the viewer against his or her better judgement to actually cheer for them. It is really quite a feat of acting and writing, given just how irredeemable some of these characters start out.
McBride never fully redeems them, either. That would be too easy. In each case, he gives them just enough self-awareness, shame, and/or power of self-reflection to do — for just the slightest moment in time — the right thing. It usually takes them a while to get there, and they make terrible, ridiculous, amoral decisions along the way, in almost every case, but they do at some point land in a place of redemption, often to the great surprise of themselves and us, the viewer. And we laugh all along the way, in that guilty way that one laughs at such humor, while murmuring to themselves, “I should not be laughing at this.”
A band of misfits
Part of the success of McBride’s brand of humor, and the improbable charm of his characters (such as it is), comes from the supporting cast. Actor Walton Goggins pulls double duty, appearing in both “Vice Principals” (as the main foil for McBride) and “The Righteous Gemstones” (as the despicable-yet-likable Baby Billy). Goggins gives McBride a run for his money in the shear maniacal hubris with which he plays his roles, and his characters somehow manage to outshine McBride’s in the depravity department at almost every turn.
Not to be outdone by Goggins is actress Edi Patterson, who plays some of the all-time most delightfully tacky, crass, and unlikable supporting characters in television history in “Vice Principals” and “The Righteous Gemstones.” Her Judy Gemstone is a fantastically spoiled, perverted, and entitled mess, oozing the kind of poisonous personality you would avoid at all cost in the real world. However, on television, it’s a blast to take in. In “Vice Principals,” she is psychotic Spanish teacher “Ms. Abbott,” who is the source of more uncomfortable drama (and hilarity) than pretty much any other single character in the show.
I don’t know how he has pulled it off over the years, and part of me wonders if a deep dive of McBride’s psyche would prove more alarming than entertaining, but somehow the man has created some of the most entertainingly despicable characters in television history. They make the cast of “The Office” seem downright normal and tame in comparison. If you have never watched any of his television shows, do yourself a favor and start with “Eastbound & Down.” Maybe don’t watch it with your grandma, though.