‘My Name Is Earl’ a surprise hit
Have you heard about the new redneck sitcom starring the dude from A Guy Thing and created by the man responsible for Yes, Dear?
Actually yeah, you probably have. But had NBC chosen that way to sell its Tuesday night success story My Name Is Earl (9 p.m. on NBC and CH), audiences would probably have tuned into reruns of My Wife And Kids instead. With good reason.
On paper, Earl shouldn’t work. A half-hour comedy with cinematic camera work and no laugh track seems a better fit for HBO, while its bushy-mustached, white trash protagonist sounds like a character from an unfunny Jeff Foxworthy monologue. Wait, is that redundant?
But with Almost Famous’s Jason Lee as the charming loser on a quest to rehabilitate his karma, Earl has enjoyed the double-barreled success of critical acclaim and solid ratings, premiering with more than 15 million U.S. viewers and hanging onto audiences throughout its first handful of episodes.
Trucker caps off to open-minded NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, then, who gambled on a comedy by the co-creator of a successful but critically reviled CBS series (Greg Garcia of Yes, Dear) and pimped it mercilessly with an aggressive advertising campaign.
And also to Lee’s Earl Hickey, an anti-hero who is deceptively light on the anti, once you get to know him. Having been hit by a car seconds after winning $100,000 on a lottery scratch ticket, Earl has made a list of the 259 really bad things he’s done in his life, and has set out to rebalance his karma by revisiting his sins and setting things right.
Along for the ride are Earl’s large and lazy brother (The Butterfly Effect’s wonderfully droll Ethan Suplee) and their chambermaid pal (Nadine Velazquez). Earl’s recently ex’d wife (Jaime Pressly) is the coyote to Earl’s roadrunner, hunting him down for her share of the lottery winnings.
Lowbrow highjinks aside, the show has proven to be surprisingly sly and even more surprisingly sweet. The concept of a politically incorrect ne’er-do-well atoning for his sins while hanging onto his love for the not-so-fine things in life clearly strikes a chord.
It’s Touched By An Angel for the beer and nicotine set, except we admire Earl for some of the things he’s done. Shooting bottle rockets at your brother while he’s on a date? Priceless. And tonight’s episode will see Earl making amends for mocking people with accents by teaching an English as a second language class, while an ex-con pal (Giovanni Ribisi) kidnaps Earl’s brother in a bid to get his hands on the lottery cash.
NBC’s Reilly has said Earl is the counterbalance to the sitcom staple format of the fat guy with hot wife and lippy kids, which has seen fare like The King Of Queens, According To Jim and, let’s face it, Yes, Dear enjoy lengthy runs that are far beyond science’s ability to explain.
And so far, it’s working. By the third episode, My Name Is Earl had become the highest-rated comedy of the new season (and a serious boon to NBC’s flaccid schedule), and Reilly ordered a full season of 22 episodes. How much gas Earl has in the tank of his rusting Camaro beyond that remains to be seen, since the sin-o’-the-week format could wear out its welcome.
But Earl does have a bit of a beer gut, his ex-missus is played by a hot former model, and while he doesn’t have kids, his brother is a sort of a man-child. So by the formula of long-lasting sitcom success, My Name Is Earl is already blessed with some pretty good karma.
THE SINS OF EARL
A sampling from Earl Hickey’s list of 259 karma-fouling deeds:
No. 23: Peed in the back of a cop car
No. 41: Snatched a kid’s Halloween candy when he came to my trailer to trick-or-treat
No. 59: Everything I did to Dad
No. 63: Wasted electricity
No. 69: Cheated on school tests. A lot
No. 73: Always took a penny, never left a penny
No. 86: Stole a car from a one-legged girl
No. 84: Faked death to break up with a girl
No. 136: I’ve been a litterbug
‘My Name Is Earl’ a surprise hit