What's Judge Victor Valdivia's karma? If he's lucky, he'll come back as a toilet brush.
Two words: Prison Break!
My Name is Earl: Season Three may mark the first time that a prison break was actually a bigger letdown than the original sentence. This season began with the continuation of the cliffhanger left at the end of the second season, in which Earl went to prison for a crime he was only tangentially involved in. It starts off stronger than most fans expected, and could have been one of the series' best. Sadly, the writers' strike not only shortened the season but severely disrupted it, resulting in a set that ends much weaker than it begins.
Facts of the Case
Here are the 18 episodes collected on four discs:
• "The Gangs of Camden County"
• "The Frank Factor"
• "Creative Writing"
• "Frank's Girl"
• "Randy in Charge (of Our Days and Our Nights)"
• "Midnight Bun"
• "Burn Victim"
• "Early Release"
• "I Won't Die with a Little Help from My Friends, Parts 1
• "Stole a Motorcycle"
• "No Heads and a Duffel Bag"
• "Girl Earl"
• "The Camdenites, Parts 1 & 2"
The 2007 writers' strike resulted in a lot of casualties. One of the most painful was the third season of My Name is Earl. When it began, creator and executive producer Greg Garcia had an unusual and even bold idea: To keep the arc of Earl in prison, begun at the end of the second season, going as far as possible. Unfortunately, the writers' strike split the season and forced Garcia to spring Earl from jail much quicker than he'd planned. When the season resumed after the strike was over, Garcia and his crew had to scramble by adding the coma storyline, in which Earl dreams that he and his friends, including Billie, are all living in a '50s sitcom, so as to lay the groundwork for the other previously planned storyline, in which Earl and Billie fall in love. This tends to give this season a disjointed quality. While it's admirable that Garcia wanted to try a daring experiment to prevent Earl from falling into a rut, it's unfortunately not one that's entirely successful. The first half of the season (covered in discs One and Two) is a hit, containing some of Earl's best episodes. The second half, however, doesn't work, leaving this as, sad to say, the weakest of the show's three seasons so far.
It's worth pointing out that initially, the decision to carry the prison storyline was controversial. Some fans worried that the show would suffer by taking Earl out of his element and putting him in a new unfamiliar world. Those fears quickly proved groundless. The first disc of this set contains a spectacular run of episodes that would rank with any of this series' best. The ones on the second disc are not quite as consistent, but overall, this set of episodes clearly demonstrates Earl's ability to wring laughs out of a setting that would seem trite or incongruous. "The Gangs of Camden County," for instance, is one of Earl's all-time great episodes, one that's equal parts touching, sweet, raunchy, and outrageous (you'll never listen to Montrose's "Rock Candy" the same way again). Similarly, "Creative Writing" takes the tired cliché of the "fantasy/dream" episode, and not only makes it funny but actually includes scenes that flesh out our understanding of some of the major characters. During these episodes, it becomes apparent that Earl's producers clearly had a smart and inventive plan for how this season was supposed to work.
Unfortunately, the episodes on discs Three and Four are, with a couple of exceptions, nowhere near as good. There are two big problems with the post-prison episodes. The first is that satirizing corny family sitcoms is, by this point, creatively bankrupt. No one actually claims to like corny family sitcoms, except usually in an ironic manner, so these episodes feel like Garcia and crew are just marking time. None of the jokes or situations is at all fresh, and the presence of Paris Hilton on one of these episodes marks an excruciating nadir in the show's three-year history. The novelty of seeing the show's characters in '50s clothing and sets wears off fast, so it won't take long for you to pine for Earl to wake up and get back to his list.
Sorry to say, once he does, the season gets even weaker. This highlights another serious flaw with these episodes: the character of Billie is poorly defined. When she is introduced, she is depicted as a sweet girl who's been led astray by Frank. Then, when she returns, she's somehow been inexplicably transformed into a controlling shrew who's also a hell-raiser in her own right. The Billie seen in "Frank's Girl" and "Love Octagon" doesn't seem to have anything in common with the Billie seen in "Girl Earl" and "The Camdenites, Parts 1 & 2." This jarring change means that the scenes involving her character are easily the least amusing or understandable parts of each episode, despite Milano's charm and best efforts. There are so many possible ways that this storyline could have led to some witty or thoughtful insights about Earl, but the way the story carries out and is ultimately resolved is by far the most disappointing.
Speaking of disappointing, this DVD set isn't nearly as packed with great extras as the first two Earl sets were. By far the biggest letdown is that there are no commentaries. The commentaries on previous seasons were some of the funniest and most entertaining on any DVD set, but none are provided here. It would have been immensely useful to hear Garcia and crew explain some of the choices they made this season and what they felt worked and didn't. The only behind-the-scenes extra is "Those Guys from Those Episodes: Creating the Characters" (14:03), which explores some of the supporting characters such as Kenny the Gay, One-Eyed Willie, Nescobar A-Lop-Lop, and TV's Tim Stack. Fans will enjoy learning about these characters, but it's hard not to wish for more details about this troubled season. The other extras are less consequential. "Under the Shell: The Mr. Turtle Commentary" (19:15) is a sequence in which Crabman's pet turtle (actually CGI) provides "commentary" on his scenes. Some funny jokes here and there, but it's not essential. Also included are deleted scenes of varying quality for certain episodes (included on each disc) and an amusing gag reel (7:42). The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 mix are both sterling, with no flaws to speak of.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As patchy as the writing is, the acting is consistently strong. It's not just Lee, who continues to find new dimensions in Earl that make him more than just a likable redneck. This season, it's both Suplee and Pressly who get a chance to shine. In Suplee's hands, Randy is no longer the sweet but dim bulb of the first season. Now he's some sort of childlike savant, who can come up with a hilariously odd but articulate bit of knowledge from out of nowhere. As for Pressly, she has turned Joy into the most complex character on the show, a woman who uses her forceful personality and scabrous sense of humor as a shield to cover up her vulnerability. Even Velazquez, too often used merely for her impressive physical attributes, gets a chance to show off her comic timing, especially in the "Creative Writing" episode. Additionally, the best of the post-prison episodes, "No Heads & a Duffel Bag," has a welcome guest appearance by the always great Beau Bridges. The great acting can occasionally (though not often enough) make it easier to overlook some of the weaker writing moments.
Hardcore Earl fans will have to have this set, and it does contain some of the best and funniest episodes in the series' history. Plus, the episodes at the beginning of the fourth season were of such high quality that it has since become apparent that this third season's weaker episodes were just a fluke. Still, there's no denying this is the show's most uneven season, and given this set's rather disappointing extras, it's only fair to say that this is the least satisfying of Earl's DVD sets to date.
My Name is Earl: Season Three is found guilty of not living up to the high standards set by its first two seasons. It is released early, however, for the good behavior of its best episodes.
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Scales of Justice
• Those Guys from Those Episodes: Creating the Characters
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