It was a crime of principle. Like when Rosa Parks stole that bus.
— Joy Turner (Jaime Pressly), “Very Bad Things”
Coming to My Name is Earl with, in all honesty, what can only be described as a muted appreciation, the prospect of reviewing the second series was met with some trepidation. Once immersed in the world of Earl however, whilst my sides didn’t exactly split, I found myself charmed by the show’s many and various eccentricities, and the quality of the enterprise.
For those unfamiliar with the show it follows petty criminal Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) who, after winning a small lottery and discovering the concept of karma, sets about compiling a list, with a view to changing his life and the lives of those he has wronged.
Given the conceptual exposition of the opening credits, and the unusually tight premise that lends itself to self-contained episodes in which Earl can concentrate on righting one wrong at a time, in its first season it was a show one could dip in and out of — enjoyable but not demanding commitment. This gave My Name is Earl a novelty value, which made it easy to dismiss for this very reason. As a result, it kept its audience somewhat at a distance and the chances of it running to several seasons seemed incredibly slender or, at least, not a particularly thrilling prospect.
This time round the threat of Earl’s ex-wife Joy (the fabulous, Emmy award winning Jaime Pressly) incurring a life sentence for her third strike hangs over the series and provides it with some of its most memorable moments. For instance: Joy going on the lamb only to be eventually captured by Dog the Bounty Hunter; and her interactions with her deaf lawyer and interpreter, nicely played by Marlee Matlin and Jonathan Slavin, respectively. Presented in this format as a 23-episode package, it brings to light how well the episodes fit together as the story unfolds. And the girls are really crashing the boys’ club this time round, with the show’s other female character, Catalina, getting her own sub-plot, running for several episodes with her deportation, and resulting sham-marriage.
To my mind, My Name is Earl taps a similar comedy vein to shows such as Scrubs and Ugly Betty (visually matching the latter with its a vibrant palette); often dealing in outrageous visually arresting stereotypes, with a level of caricature which makes characters almost cartoon-like (nicely alluded to in an extended animated sequence in the episode, “Robbed a Stoner Blind”). Unlike both the aforementioned it never veers too heavily into sentimentality, lingers too long nor builds emotional moments too high. Rather, it displays a much surer, and almost brutal, hand in treacle cutting – the undermining of such material with a gag (the experts in this, arguably, being the team behind the much missed Arrested Development).
The second season of My Name is Earl is a series of refreshing warmth, essentially dealing in redemption, whilst carefully sidestepping the pitfall of schmaltz. The final episode, “The Trial”, is a testament to how effectively the writers and performers have developed affection for their characters, almost sneaking it in along the way. Without spoiling things, Earl’s final revelation is a master-class in editing; juxtaposing comedy and tragedy with a sequence set to The Who’s magnificent “Baba O’Riley”.
Surprisingly, given its titular character’s laid-back disposition, the show has a rambunctious energy. The trio of male leads Earl, Randy and Darnell, for all their idiosyncrasies and contributions to the narrative drive, appear to stand bemused in a frequently chaotic environment. There is an urgent pacing which fits the snappy dialogue and brevity of the US comedy show format; and a menagerie of bizarre supporting characters. Chucked appositely into the mix are a savvy choice of trash icons: guest stars include John Waters, Burt Reynolds and Rosanne Barr.
One of the delights of My Name is Earl is its celebration of dysfunction. Earl has strong ties to his pain-in-the-ass ex-wife, the bubble-gum chomping, tyrannical Joy (“that smoker’s cough was better than a cow bell around her neck”). He also enjoys an unlikely amicability with her new husband, Darnell (Eddie Steeples), aka Crabman, aka the witness protection program’s Harry Monroe. The group’s previous incarnation was as a hapless criminal gang (their exploits captured memorably in the episode “Our COPS is on”). Now they help Earl atone for his misdeeds.
For Earl, restoring the karmic balance often paradoxically involves an element of recidivism. For example in “GED”, Earl assists a group of put-upon high school teachers as they enact vengeance on his delinquent successors. This manifests itself in a botched prank; tantamount to an act of terrorism. And determined to make up for number 183, never taking Joy’s side, Earl helps her fix up a stolen delivery van for sale, unaware of the furniture store employee trapped within.
Whilst it falls short of greatness, particularly as episodes which stray from the ongoing storylines are dogged by déjà vu, My Name is Earl boasts a consistently entertaining line in tongue-in-cheek political incorrectness. Plundering a deaf lady’s home, Earl’s brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) excitably screams “Woohoo! Robbing the deaf!” After razor blades are discovered in the lemon squares Darnell was due to deliver to the incarcerated Joy, she snaps “Damn it! How am I supposed to keep my legs smooth? And cut bitches.” Later, during her trial, the prosecution describe her as “baby cooking crazy”. The world of Earl undoubtedly makes for an entertaining vacation, but hell, you wouldn’t want to live there.
Eight commentaries are included across the discs. Energetic and amusing, yet overpopulated with cast and crew vying for attention (disappointingly), they largely neglect to enlighten. However, one in particular stands out: On “Kept a Guy Locked in a Trunk”, two writers from the website Television Without Pity are invited to join the fray, as the episode not only references the site but Greg Garcia, under the assumed name Whojackie, posted the very comments we see presented onscreen. The episode itself is an affectionate portrayal of the online community and the inclusion of such in-jokes (or meta), which only a handful of viewers will pick up on, is a nice nod to dedicated fans.
Insight into the collaborative process comes in Inside the Stoner Files – Makin’ an Episode, an excellent addition charting the genesis of “Robbed a Stoner Blind” from conception through table-reads to production. Elsewhere the show is re-imagined as a Telenova for spoof trailer Las Passionales de Catalina. And each of the main characters gets a shot at a web-cam post, with Darnell’s contribution a highlight. A reasonable selection of deleted scenes and bloopers complete the package.