My Name is Earl

You know the kind of guy who confesses to a crime he didn’t commit so his ex-wife won’t have to go to prison, the kind of guy who leaves his brother all alone and his friends with nothing to jump for? Well, that’s me. And for the next two years, my name is Inmate Number 28301-016.”

— Earl Hickey (Jason Lee)

In addition to shifting venues from a rundown hotel room to a prison cell, the season premiere of My Name is Earl offered this new opening monologue. It reminds viewers that Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) has taken the fall for his truck-stealing, bail-jumping, pregnant ex-wife, Joy (Jamie Pressly). Now that he’s in jail for two years, the show faces a major change in formula. How can Earl right his many past wrongs if he’s locked up in a jail cell? And what will happen to “the list”?

Camden’s prison, like all things in the Earl world, is realistic and surreal at the same time. Among the prison gangs, one is composed entirely of albinos (“We gotta take over the shady part of the yard,” one member sneers). In the season premiere, “My Name is Inmate #28301-016,” Earl describes being inside at night as “the hardest time of all, because that’s when you’re alone with all your thoughts.” As the camera slowly zooms into Earl’s face, we hear various inmates weeping in their beds. When the camera frames Earl’s face in a close-up, he too begins to weep, scrunching up his face like a little boy. This moment manages to be both funny and sad.

Even more depressing for devoted Earl fans, his incarceration has consequences for other key relationships in the series. Randy (Ethan Suplee) is lost without his brother’s guidance, unable to locate his toothpaste or cross the street (“I don’t look where I’m goin’,” Randy explained, “That’s kinda my thing”). Visiting Earl, Randy presented him with a pile of notecards, each containing a different question pertaining to his own survival (“How do I set the alarm clock?” and “What’s our apartment number again?”). Earl realized that he had to get out of prison, soon. And doing good deeds is the fastest way to an early parole.

In prison, a microcosm of Camden, Earl will be performing the same tasks as before, in a far more masculine and violent location. In the new season’s premiere episode, he met fellow inmate Glen (Ben Foster), a former “Camden Scout” who grew up to be an angry, tattooed career criminal. Glen’s current predicament was, it turns out, all Earl’s fault. Many years ago, a flashback revealed, the young Earl (Noah Crawford) coerced good scout Glen into being an accessory to robbery. Eventually, Glen reshaped his persona to fit the negative image projected onto him. Seeing him looking tough in prison, Earl realized “karma” had a plan, and so he helped Glen rediscover his inner Camden Scout and obtain parole.

For all its surface loopiness, the episode made the series’ usual sort of commentary, underscoring the need for individuals to engage in the world around them, even at the cost of their own safety and comfort. By Episode Two, “The Gangs of Camden County,” Earl had a reputation for building bridges. Camden’s inept prison warden, Jerry Hazelwood (Craig T. Nelson), turned to him to solve the prison’s many problems. Much like Prison Break‘s Michael (Wentworth Miller), Earl engineered his own prison sentence and knows how to flatter and charm others. Hearing the warden’s sad story about hiring out his inmates to a ladder-building company, Earl observed, “And I bet… nobody talks about the 740 inmates that didn’t escape.” Hazelwood was soothed. “I like that. You’re a prison half-full kind of guy.”

In exchange for a month off of his prison sentence, Earl agreed to bring peace to warring gangs. The Hispanic gang, led by Hector (Cesar Flores), and the black gang, led by Jamal (Page Kennedy), couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Indeed, Earl learned the two leaders had once been involved in a forbidden love affair and now engaged their gangs in battle in order to sneak some form of physical contact with each other. Contrary to what it might sound like, the episode actually indicted homophobia, using stereotypes to makes its point. Jamal writhed in a tight, wet, white T-shirt and then licked a phallus-shaped ice cream treat, as a tormented Hector looked on. Earl craftily orchestrated both scenarios in order to force a reconciliation between the two lovers.

Still, the episode didn’t end with the two men coming out to their gangs. As Hector explained to Jamal, “My gang will never accept you… You’re just not the right color, Jamal. Plus the gay thing: they’ll think it’s icky.” And so Earl brokered a solution (clandestine meetings in the warden’s office), bringing peace at last to the prison yard, without the “I’m okay, you’re okay” resolution of the after school special. The viewer was left feeling warm but not gooey, optimistic, but not delusional.

Ken Tucker once described My Name is Earl as “the most moral show on TV.” It tackles Big Issues — racism, sexism, immigration, classism, the prison industry — but with a wink. Witness this exchange between Darnell (Eddie Steeples) and Randy, who found out he wouldn’t be serving any time for slapping a cop:

Darnell: “My uncle once slapped a cop. He got 12 years in a penitentiary. Guess what color he was?”

Randy: “Lucky. Oh wait. That’s not a color.”

Earl is proof that a popular primetime sitcom can be both bitingly funny and socially relevant.

RATING 8 / 10