PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Television

My Name is Earl

Amanda Ann Klein

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


My Name is Earl

Airtime: Thursdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee, Jaime Pressly, Eddie Steeples, Nadine Velasquez
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Season Three First Two
Network: NBC
US release date: 2007-09-27
Website
Trailer
Amazon
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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.