“We’re trying to do something so different,” Jason Lee told IGN last December. “Here’s a guy with a white trash ‘do, with a moustache and, you know, how appealing am I gonna be? This isn’t like hot actors in ER or something. This isn’t like high-end drama. This is trailer park humor.”
Apparently, Lee, star of My Name is Earl, doesn’t know how engaging he is. Or, for that matter, how over hot docs TV viewers are. He also sells short the substance of his show. At its core, Earl is about a man’s spiritual salvation. Until Earl found his winning lottery ticket (the second time), he was a good time guy and petty thief, (literally) pissing on other people for his jollies. Selfish, uncompromising, and spiteful, he was too lazy to get out of his rut, including a marriage to an adulterous wife, Joy (Jaime Pressley).
On learning the foundations of karma, he opted to turn his life around with this simple ideal in mind: “Do good thing and good things happen”. Karma structures much of the show’s satire, along with twisted and sometimes confrontational bigotry-based humor. Hardly trailer park stuff.
Earl went on to rid himself of bad influences (his thieving buddy Ralph [Giovanni Ribisi], who appeared in “Teacher Earl” and “Stole P’s HD Cart”), and seek forgiveness from a range of family and friends, his parents, Kay and Carl (Nancy Lenehan and Beau Bridges), in “Cost Dad the Election” and “Dad’s Car”, his “kids” (Dodge [Louis T. Moyle] and Earl Jr. [Trey Carlisle]) in “Barn Burner”, and even Joy in “The Bounty Hunter”.
Repeatedly, he battled temptation to revert to his old ways as his friends derided his list, doing their best to drag him back to stealing and lying. But Earl realized, sitting in his car, Randy having just eaten a moth for nourishment, that he owed it to himself, as much as to karma, to persist in “doing right.” His subsequent journey was like a 12-step program. He had to learn tolerance and, most importantly, take personal inventory in order to recognize and alter unhealthy behaviors.
Earl’s not the sharpest tool in the barn, but his learning process made for entertaining TV. He struggled with his limitations and even performed tasks on his own, not dictated by the list. In “Stole Beer From a Golfer”, he tried to return the gallons of beer he and Randy cheated out of an amateur golfer, Scott (Johnny Galecki). Instead, Earl spent almost a week repairing the golfer’s entire shattered life after learning the destructive chain of events set off by the stolen beer. The list thus helps to redefine Earl’s own self-esteem: with each accomplished task, he feels better and better.
But as Earl’s commitment started to look almost heroic, the show retained its interest in fart, beer, and booby jokes. Earl‘s jokes can silly, but they can also be complex. Lee is right that the show strives to be “different”, I that the show is most surprising in where it finds its funny. Sometimes, it’s blink or you’ll miss it stuff (Randy wakes up mumbling about the “smart frog” in Return of the Jedi riding on his back). Sometimes it’s funny for especially observant or culturally “in the know” viewers (Randy’s silver dollar moment mirrors a scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). And then there’s the downright bizarre, typically structured as a set of multiple allusions (Randy describes shaving a man’s face: “I saw Footloose‘s wife do it in that movie where the cool Sweathog could move things and smash mirrors with his mind”).
These are uneducated people dealing with deep philosophical issues. That they understand karma on their own terms is further proof that anyone can make Earl-like changes.
Never was Earl’s transformation more evident than in the first season finale. The Earl who very nearly abandoned his list in Episode One (he reconsidered helping a kid he bullied at school when he discovered the now grown-up kid is gay), and wound up penniless, homeless, and starving after learning he was not the intended recipient of the lottery ticket. This was Earl at his most obsessed. He even risked “best brother in the world” Randy’s (Ethan Suplee) health in the name of the list.
Consider Randy’s meditation on the meaning of life:
Being dead is definitely worse than being alive. When you’re dead, you can’t do all the cool stuff you can do when you’re alive. You and I, we can do all kinds of cool stuff cuz we’re living, we’re not dead, we’re alive. If we were dead, we wouldn’t be able to do all the cool stuff we can do because we’re alive. Dead people can’t do cool stuff. Only people that are alive can do cool stuff, ’cause they’re living, and you have to be living to be able to do cool stuff. You have to be alive. Yeah, ‘cept when you’re alive, sometimes bad stuff happens too. Like sometimes you can get into a car wreck, or you can have a headache or twist your ankle or even stub your big toe. So being alive is kinda hard too, but I think it’s definitely better than being dead.
One thing, at least, is clear: Earl is not simple.