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Reviews

My Name is Earl: The Complete First Season

Marisa Carroll

At the end of "Joy's Wedding," Earl lets loose to Young MC's "Bust a Move" his eyes brightening and his mouth melting into a blissful grin. It's a sublimely goofy moment.


My Name is Earl

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Jason Lee, Jaime Pressly, Ethan Suplee, Eddie Steeples, Nadine Velazquez
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The Complete First Season
Network: NBC
US Release Date: 2006-09-19
Website
Trailer
Amazon
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!"

8

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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