Navigating Netflix: My Name is Earl

Once upon a time, many moons ago, there was block of programming on NBC called “Must See TV.” It dominated Thursday nights for years and included shows like Mad About You, Seinfeld, Frasier, Wings, Will & Grace, and, of course, Friends. For the most part, these shows were banal and devoid of truly intelligent humour peppered with moments of true comedy. The block begin to decline in the ratings as these shows ended and NBC couldn’t find another mundane sitcom to prop itself up with.

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Then came the rebranding of NBC Thursdays in 2006 and the rise “Comedy Night Done Right”, which featured shows like The Office, 30 Rock and Scrubs. While these shows were never the ratings juggernaut of the “Must See TV” days, they strayed from the typical laugh track inundated, clichéd sitcoms plots of their predecessors.

I feel like I’ve talked about this before…

One of the big hits of the “Comedy Night Done Right” days was My Name is Earl, which delivered exactly what the show’s title promised; a guy named Earl.

Earl Hickey was a career criminal whose life is utter crap. He has no job, making a living for his wife and two kids who belong to other men purely by stealing. One day he buys a scratch off lotto ticket and wins a $100,000, only to be hit by a car and lose the ticket. While recovering, his wife dumps him for one of his friends, leaving him and his brother penniless and homeless. Then, Carson Daly teaches him about karma. The realization that doing bad things causes bad things to happen is profound to Earl so he makes a list of everything he’s done wrong and sets out to fix every last one of them.

Jason Lee plays Earl alongside his Mallrats co-star Ethan Suplee as his half-wit brother Randy. They set out apologizing and making good on all the bad things they’ve done to satisfy with karma, the effect of which is almost immediate as karma returns the winning scratcher when he makes the decision to clean up his life. As the show goes on, Earl moves from doing good things for a reward to developing an actual moral code.

This simplistic version of the complex concept of karma is both endearing and motivational. Karma, in the world of Earl Hickey, is a conscious entity that plays an active, immediate role in his life. If he strays from his purpose, he’s immediately punished by this unseen force. If he does good, he’s rewarded. The realities of the “do good things and good things happen” version of karma are explored thoroughly in the season one episode, ‘The Professor’, when Earl leaves his list behind to pursue a professor and is reprimanded for it. You can’t help but watch this show and wonder what the impact of such an immediate motivational prod was received from universal forces beyond our understanding would have on the world.

Set in the town of Camden, Earl is surrounded by friends and family who are simultaneously wonderful and awful people. Few people in Camden do not have a dubious past, if not present, and pretty much everyone’s life has been touched by Earl’s illicit ways. As he improves his life, the lives of those around him also improve, despite themselves in some cases.

The first two seasons of this show are awkward gold, as the comedy it trades on are those comments and situations you’re not quite sure you should laugh at but just can’t help it. Unfortunately, things go off the rails in season three.

Earl spends much of this season in jail, then in a coma and then feuding with his girlfriend at the time played by Alyssa Milano. The whole season is virtually a write off, the only the redeeming aspect being Craig T. Nelson as the spineless warden and a few one off jokes. The prison story had potential but was poorly executed and the rest of the season seemed to flail around with no real direction. The coma episodes in particular were quite awful. And the karma concept was all but abandoned.

Season four tried to redeem the series by bringing it back to where its roots, Earl out in the world checking off items from his list, and actually started to be funny again. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late, and the show was cancelled after season four, which unfortunately ended in a cliff-hanger episode. Consider yourself warned.

Guest stars played a huge role in the series. John Waters was brought in for an episode to play an off-putting funeral director, a brilliant bit of casting. Giovanni Ribisi has a recurring role as a shady member of Earl’s old gang who just won’t go straight and seems determined to drag Earl back down. Rosanne appears as a trailer park harpy turned nun turned trailer park harpy turned nun, all caused by Earl’s machinations. Burt Reynolds even appears as Richard Chubby, the strip club running upper crust of Camden and his son is played by Norm MacDonald, yet another savvy casting move if you’re familiar with MacDonald’s work on SNL.

One particular episode to check out is in season two. The ne’er-do-wells of Camden are holed up in the Crab Shack, surviving their hangovers, when their episode of Cops comes on. It’s a regular occurrence for them as they all enjoy a snapshot of their miserable existences play out on national TV. The episode is quite effectively used to explain the back story of several side characters and gives us a clear picture of life in Camden without excessive exposition and glimpse in to Earl’s pre-list life. They follow this up with another Cops episode in season three but it’s not as good.

Ultimately, My Name is Earl is a surprisingly smart and witty comedy framed on the exploration of a man trying to redeem his life from the gutters up. If they had stuck to that format, the show might have had a longer run and a watchable third season.

Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at iangoodwillie.tumblr.com.