[20 September 2005]
I’m a huge fan of scumbag protagonists. Nothing is so dull as watching the good become enlightened and larded with rewards for their shiny-toothed Puritanism. Or worse, morality tales that require the complete transformation of their characters into glassy-eyed caricatures of Candyland goodness. Couldn’t Ebeneezer Scrooge tossed Tiny Tim some change but still been a little bit of a bitch on the days when his arthritis was bad? Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) is an anti-hero’s hero, a hybrid of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa and Larry, Daryl, and Daryl from The Bob Newhart Show.
My Name Is Earl revolves around the hilarious repentance vision quest of Earl, hit by a car at the exact moment he wins $100,000 on a scratch-off ticket he just bought with his morning 40oz. While recuperating in the hospital, he gets left by his cheating bride (Jaime Pressly), whom he married on a drunken Vegas bender, and with whom he agreed to raise two children by two different fathers (neither his own). His epiphany comes while he’s on a morphine drip watching The Carson Daly Show. Carson explains his virtually inexplicable career to a guest by defining “karma.” Earl decides that he must atone for a life of petty crime and general thuggery by making a list of his worst offenses and character traits, and then setting things right.
He has help in this project. His brother, Randy (Ethan Suplee), sleeps on his couch, has an interpretive dance routine worked out for his favorite song (Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two”), and after four beers, becomes a sort of Bubba Mr. Hyde. And hooker Patty (Dale Dickey), who only works during the day, agrees to pose as a Greenpeace representative in order to have sex with a man Earl tortured in childhood. Such forced quirkiness could easily morph into overkill, but Earl‘s writers maintain a level of friendly surreality, reminiscent of Northern Exposure or Arrested Development. You want to believe that your redneck neighbor privately cracks a brew to classic hip-hop and is only one visit to a gay bar from erasing his homophobia.
Earl walks the razor-thin line between exploiting stereotypes and cracking them open, primarily by granting each character room for redemption. Like Trailer Park Boys and, to some extent, Blue Collar TV, the show traffics in unflattering portrayals of poor white people that mirror many of the pernicious stereotypes that Reaganites used to characterize the “underclass” (i.e., black people). These characters are stupid, lazy, prone to criminality, and sexually enmeshed in ways you’d need a Venn diagram to sort it out. But they’re not just victims of cheap-shot portraiture. They’re also charming and given to bouts of and idiot savant wisdom. They’re more Archie Bunker than Deliverance.
I look forward to watching Earl train-wreck his way through his plan for salvation. He learns the right things the wrong ways, upending every picket-fence parable you ever rolled your eyes at. He’s the asshole you love, the guy you want to get a shot glass worth of decency, but stay a solid gold fuck-up forever. What’s so wonderful about My Name Is Earl is that it’s a comedy with its heart in the right place and everything else gleefully in the gutter.