You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things, then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was waiting around the corner? Karma. That’s when I realized I had to change. So I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done, and one by one, I’m going to make up for my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.
-–Earl Hickey (Jason Lee), “Pilot”
As Earl Hickey, Jason Lee exhibits a cozy, worn-in kind of charm. He has a chronic case of bedhead, a paunch that fills out his faded flannels, and a bushy ‘stache. Earl survives on a diet of beer and vending-machine-dispensed powdered doughnuts, and he can’t seem to keep his eyes open when his photo is taken (be it for a wedding album, mug shot, or driver’s license). One of My Name is Earl‘s running gags, Earl’s eyes-wide-shut expression invariably kills.
It’s possible this joke hints at something else too. Consider that Buddha is typically depicted with his eyes closed, a symbol of his meditative state and spiritual serenity. Earl’s similar demeanor might signal his particular tranquility, as he sorts through his own kind of karma.
The first season of My Name is Earl, now available on DVD, begins as he wins $100,000 from a convenience store “scratcher,” then promptly gets hit by a car and loses the ticket. Recovering in the hospital, he discovers the concept of karma and decides to correct all his past “mistakes.” The offenses on his list range from the insensitive (“Broke Joy’s fancy figurine”) to the downright rude (“Stole a car from a one-legged woman”). Once Earl puts his plan into motion, karma returns his scratcher, and with the help of his winnings and his lovably dimwitted brother, Randy (Ethan Suplee), he starts crossing items off The List.
With a formula so basic—and a tally of crimes 259 long—the show might have easily slipped into a sitcom version of samsara, a cycle of misery, or at least staleness. But My Name Is Earl keeps the concept fresh in a few ways. First, Earl’s notion of karma evolves. His first understanding of The List is selfish (“Do good things,” he says, “Good things happen to you”). In the pilot, he tries to restore the confidence of Kenny James, a shy boy he bullied during grade school. When Earl and Randy discover that the adult Kenny (Gregg Binkley) is gay, they run from his house in a homosexual panic.
But Earl returns, bringing Kenny a snazzy shirt from Express for Men, and takes him to a gay bar to meet guys. By the conclusion of the episode, Randy is dancing with one of the club patrons (played by show creator Gregg Garcia, we learn on the DVD commentary) amid a sea of bubbles. Kenny is so touched by Earl’s efforts, he not only forgives him, but he comes back in later episodes to help him cross more items off The List.
By the middle of the season, Earl is putting the needs of others before his own. In “The Professor,” Earl and Randy return a laptop computer they once stole from Alex (Christine Taylor), a comely young psychology professor. Alex is soon smitten with Earl, who is so taken with her that he put aside The List to pursue the romance. Karma comes calling, to get him back on track, and it doesn’t play nice: Earl is hit in the head with a frisbee, felled by a dart, shat upon by birds, and swarmed by bees. It’s when the bees attack Alex too that Earl realizes he has to break off their budding relationship. “I have to get away from you,” he tells her, “Because you could really get hurt. I can’t be anyone’s boyfriend—I’m karma’s bitch.” Surmising, “Just because I met a pretty girl doesn’t mean I deserve her yet,” Earl forsakes his own desires to devote his time to The List. And with this decision, his quest becomes more compassionate and spiritually “enriched.”
In Season One’s last episode, “Number One,” Earl learns that his winning lottery ticket was not intended for him, but the convenience store customer he bilked to purchase the scratcher. Earl decides to give the 100 grand to its rightful owner, believing that karma will return the money to him if he truly merits it. Now poor, he and Randy survive on scrounged tortilla chip crumbs, the peanut butter bait on their motel mousetraps, and the corpses of long dead insects Randy finds in Earl’s El Camino.
Although he’s starving and homeless, Earl continues to cross items off The List, picking the offenses he can right without cash. An astounding leap of faith, this decision would have been inconceivable at the start of the season. But after he’s fixed so many other wrongs, Earl is ready to give himself over to The List completely, to withstand the personal pain that comes with it. Rarely has a television comedy charted the emotional and spiritual growth of a character so richly and believably.
The DVD’s episode commentaries are satisfyingly odd as well. The commentary for “Dad’s Car” is provided by mothers of the show’s stars, offering praise for the series, as well as some dish about their sons’ former acting gigs. It is a sweet, novel way to provide biographical information about the cast besides the typical list of “past credits.” The DVD also includes a special opposite-world episode called “Bad Karma,” in which Earl seeks revenge against anyone who ever screwed him over. It’s not as funny as it should be, unless one has a hankering to see Jason Lee in full drag.
Much better is the chance to see him break dance, alone worth the price of the DVD. At the end of “Joy’s Wedding,” he lets loose to Young MC’s “Bust a Move” and as he cycles through the Robot and the Worm, his eyes brighten and his mouth melts into a blissful grin. It’s a sublimely goofy moment, and even if Earl has a ways to go before he attains enlightenment, viewers can experience this moment of pure comic nirvana just by hitting the play button.
Have I mentioned the show is also hilarious? The jokes are alternately crass, clever, and subversive. Jaime Pressley’s tangy delivery as Joy is especially entertaining. In “Joy’s Wedding,” her four-year-old son, Earl Jr. (Trey Carlisle), asks her to take him to the bathroom at an inopportune moment. Annoyed, she grabs him by the hand and complains, “Oh, for God’s sakes, you picked today to stop going in your pants?” A part-time manicurist, Joy’s customers include Patty the Daytime Hooker (Dale Dickey), a spandex-clad working girl who offers $20 gift certificates for “handies” or backseat toe-sucking sessions. In the pilot, when Earl tells Patty he needs a favor, she asks, “Oh, is it Randy’s birthday already?”
Earl will pretty much do anything for Randy, but their relationship is strained when Earl learns his brother has been secretly seeing their parents—who have all but disowned Earl—for Sunday suppers and poker games. Earl’s confrontation with his mother, Kay (Nancy Lenehan), leads to the season’s most elegantly constructed joke:
Earl: How come you hate me, but you’ll gamble for marshmallows with Randy?
Kay: There’s a difference between you two. One of you is bad, and the other one is simple. Earl, you’re bad.
Randy [eavesdropping]: Which one am I?
My Name Is Earl has also snuck a few humdingers past the censors. “White Lie Christmas” features a montage of holidays that Earl ruins for Joy; in one shot, she holds up a gift from him, a strip of condoms. “How are these for me?” she asks wearily. Earl’s response: “They’re flavored. Merry Christmas!” But the raciest in-joke appears during “O Karma, Where Art Thou?”, in which Jon Favreau guest stars as Mr. Patrick, a sadistic fast food restaurant manager who dislikes Earl. Despite his lying, cheating, and abusive ways, Mr. Patrick has a lovely house and wife, as well as a prized collection of World’s Best mugs (World’s Best Boss, World’s Best Husband, etc.). By the time Earl, aided by karma, works his magic, Mr. Patrick is behind bars and holding a tin mug crudely etched with the words, “World’s Best Bottom.” As Joy would say, “Ooh, snap!”