Judge Mike MacNeil's name is Earl. Wait, that's not it.
"You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and then
wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me."
In retrospect, it's a small miracle that My Name Is Earl ever made it to air in 2005. NBC had recently wrapped the final season of the enormously popular Friends, and Will & Grace would soon follow suit. The temptation to assemble another comedy in the tradition of those multi-camera, studio audience-populated sitcoms must have been all but irresistible, but the network did indeed resist. With Scrubs and, more recently, The Office, they had on their hands the beginnings of a revolution in network television comedy. NBC took it a step further when they took a chance on My Name is Earl, a show with a cumbersome premise, grungy characters that live in a trailer park, and a protagonist with a ridiculous moustache atoning for all his life's wrongdoings. The result was a hilarious, heartwarming show that came out of the gate fully formed and stayed strong for all twenty-three episodes of its first season.
Facts of the Case
Earl Hickey is not a very good person, unless of course your definition of "good person" is "someone who will steal anything that isn't bolted down." He lives in a trailer with his slovenly brother Randy (Ethan Suplee), his cheating wife Joy (Jaime Pressly), and her illegitimate children.
Well, that was all before he won $100,000 in the lottery, got run over by a car, and lost his winning lottery ticket in the span of a few seconds. Next thing he knows, he's hospitalized, and Joy's serving him divorce papers. That's about the point at which Earl starts to wonder how he might be able to improve his life. While channel surfing, he hears Carson Daly talking about karma—"do good things, and good things happen to you." Earl takes the advice to heart, makes a list of every bad thing he's ever done, and sets off to turn his life around. Soon he's rewarded with his errant lotto ticket, thus affirming his belief in karma and setting up the premise of the show: each week, Earl goes about righting one of his wrongs. Misadventures do, indeed, ensue.
For television collections, I usually like to start the review with a quick little summary of each episode. That tactic doesn't really fly in the case of My Name is Earl, though, because half the fun of watching the show is finding out what kind of unexpected turn the plot will take next. The items on Earl's list are frequently more complicated than they originally seem, and Earl is always alert to the possibility that karma has led him to a particular place to solve some other problem that's completely unrelated to his list. So the plot summaries would run a little long, and I certainly don't want to rob anyone of the pleasure of rolling with the punches along with Earl.
And Earl is definitely one to roll with the punches. The show liberally employs flashbacks to show Earl committing the acts on his list, and it doesn't take long to establish that a lot of that stuff wasn't done with malicious intent. Complete disregard for everyone around him, maybe, but not malice. Earl stole because it sure beat working for a living. It never seems to occur to him that he might be hurting others by taking from them. It was stuff, and it was there, so why not? Even when he first reforms, it's because he's bottomed out and he doesn't know what else to do, not because he's suddenly full of remorse. It's not until he starts helping people that he realizes how he's affected them, and discovers how gratifying it is to help them.
It's that slow journey toward self-improvement that keeps My Name is Earl from being reduced to a series of jokes about redneck stereotypes. Earl's karmic quest may sound gimmicky, but it lets the show portray its characters as people that haven't caught a lot of breaks in their lives. They're just doing what they can to get by.
I've written a lot about Earl as a celebration of compassion and humanity, but let's get to the issue of how funny the show is, lest you start to think it's just a big weepy pile of sentiment. Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee have reputations as committed actors, but they really outdo themselves here. Turns out the outrageous moustache was actually Lee's idea, and I defy you to find a scene with Suplee off in the background that doesn't involve him doing something funny. The rest of the cast works well together, but Jaime Pressly absolutely dominates every scene she's in. She plays drunk in "Dad's Car" so effectively that I have to wonder what she had in that cup. Eddie Steeples' docile Crabman gets to toss off intellectual asides that are completely lost on everyone around him ("I'm already registered to vote, not that it matters, 'cause until we reform the electoral college, the popular votes will be ignored and we'll keep electing presidents that only get a minority of the votes."), and Nadine Velazquez gets some of the best oddball one-liners, perhaps to compensate for how relatively underdeveloped her character is in the first season ("it's okay, we all have fears. I fear snakes and rape."). Actually, this is an extremely quotable show all around. Be on the lookout for sly pop-culture references: "Stole a Badge" managed to work a tribute to the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" music video into an episode that was already an homage to The Lord of the Rings. "Stole Beer From a Golfer" is rife with Smokey & The Bandit references, but the best one is the fact that the outtakes from the episode play over the end credits. The fictional Camden County gains some depth from its recurring bit characters. You can't go wrong with Patty the daytime hooker, Willie the one-eyed mailman, and TV's Tim Stack ("From Son of the Beach!"). If you don't think Nescobar-a-Lop-Lop is a hilarious name, it's more than likely that all the joy has been sucked out of your heart at some point. Killer guest performances become a trademark of the show by the end of the season, which includes Giovanni Ribisi, Jon Favreau, Adam Goldberg, and Clint Howard.
Special features are plentiful, including an unaired "what-if" episode of Earl that investigates what would have happened if Earl had decided to exact revenge upon everyone who had wronged him in his life, rather than trying out karma. There are several episode-specific commentary tracks, most of which feature Lee, Suplee, creator Greg Garcia, and director Marc Buckland. Special mention must be made of the commentary for "Dad's Car," which has the mothers of Lee, Suplee, Garcia, and Buckland. The episode takes place on Mother's Day, you see. That kind of special feature is so in line with the quirky nature of the show that it really adds value to the DVD set. This is the kind of set that offers commentary on its deleted scenes, and a blooper reel that seems to include material from every episode of the season.
You have to give My Name is Earl: Season One credit for originality and ambition—and sustaining said originality and ambition. It also boasts a DVD presentation worthy of all those things.
Ain't no use running, fool! I know where your momma parks her house! Not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Episode Commentaries
Review content copyright © 2007 Mike MacNeil; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.