I’m part of the problem—blame me.
You see, I watch, on average, four hours of television a week. It’s channel surfing, primarily, flicking from channel to channel until I get drowsy enough to fall asleep. Occasionally, I’ll rest on Turner Classic Movies for a while, if there’s a good silent movie on. If I really, really, really can’t sleep, I’ll find myself watching “Insomniac Movie Theater” on VH1 at 2 a.m., which is the only time that channel—or MTV—actually shows music videos any more. During the summer, I watch my Texas Rangers get slaughtered game after game until I can’t take it anymore (usually, about fifteen minutes). If there’s a multi-part documentary on that sounds interesting, I’ll make an effort to see it.
Mostly, though, it’s just flipping… if I bother to turn on the TV at all. I haven’t had a regular show—as in, one I make a point to watch or at least to tape—since I gave up on The West Wing in 2003. There’s several shows that I like—The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Scrubs, reruns of The Chappelle Show, um, well, okay, there’s a few shows that I like. Sort of.
I’m not bragging. I’d just rather read.
Friends recommend shows to me but, by the time they do so, it’s midway through a season and I find myself confused and bored halfway through an episode. Or friends will hoist so much acclaim on a show that it buckles under the weight. (Freaks and Geeks, I’m looking at you. Entourage, why does everyone love you so? And, Buffy, don’t you even try to hide…) If I happen to love an episode of a show, I’ll wait for a season’s worth of episodes to be put on DVD rather than watch them as they arrive.
Like I said, I’m part of the problem. I’m that guy who says how much he likes certain shows, but who is actually detrimental to their staying on the air. I laughed maniacally at the entire first season of Arrested Development, and will buy the second season’s box set as soon as it appears. But I haven’t been watching it as it airs. I’ll be the first to champion Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I’m too cheap to spring for HBO, so I hope Larry David isn’t depending on me to keep his show alive. I’ve seen more episodes of Futurama after it was collected onto DVD than I did when it was originally broadcast. So, you should take it with a grain—or perhaps a large handful—of salt when I recommend a new show.
I’m going to do it anyway, because, based on last night’s episode, I’ll be making a point of watching My Name Is Earl every week. C. said that it was a slow simmer for her, but I was cackling from the get-go.
Here’s the premise: Ne’er-do-well Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) buys a scratch-off lottery ticket worth $100,000, and immediately loses it when he gets smacked by a car. Recuperating in a hospital, in a full-body cast, Earl watches a snippet of The Carson Daly Show. That night’s guest turns the table, and asks Daly a question: How is it that this guy is so popular, so rich, and always connected at the hip to the latest Hollywood starlet? Daly responds that he just tries to do right by people, that good things happen when he does good deeds, and bad things happen likewise. “What goes around, comes around.” Earl decides—and, hell, he may not be wrong—that his life is so shitty because of his bad karma. (Never mind that he’s never heard of the word until he watched the show.) The punchline is that he resolves to fix every wrong thing he’s ever done to anyone, ever, one person at a time.
His list runs to 258 things. He’s undoubtedly missing some stuff. On paper, the show sounds like some do-gooder show fit for the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Oh, no, no, no. Earl’s transition isn’t from vagrant to saint, but rather from slacker to, well, slightly less of a slacker. He’s a petty, lazy, selfish thief who’s something of a homophobe and who drinks too much. He’s a magnet for people just like him. His wife, the hilarious Jamie Presley, smacks her gum as loudly as a car’s backfire, and is only slightly less slovenly than Earl. Earl’s brother (Ethan Suplee) has been sleeping on Earl’s couch for the last twenty years. His best friend (Eddie Steeples) is a seafood cook who comps him leftover restaurant food that’s too dire to be sold legally to the clientele. (And then he runs off with Earl’s wife.) His second best friend is a motel maid (Nadine Velazquez) he only met a few weeks ago.
And those are the good guys. They could be nothing more than stereotypes, but the performances are so strong that the characters are hefty in design. Lee is charming—you like him because he’s such a fuck-up, not in spite of the fact. Anyone who’s lived past adolescence has done 258 things that they’d like to take back. Maybe more. All of us have a gut that’s a little too big, or a face with a blemish or two, or a dress sense that leaves much to be desired. Lee hides his bite under a genial smile and scruffy mustache, or perhaps he’s hiding his warmth underneath the sludge. I’m not sure, and that’s what engaging about Earl and those around him. Lee plays Earl as a guy who might have a heart of gold, if only he’d scrape away the ton of raw sewage.
He doesn’t drawl, and his accent is more hinted at than present. (I’m not even sure what state Earl is set in, which might be the point.) Earl is the straight man by default; he speaks in deadpan because it’s just too much work to raise his voice. Everyone around him moves at breakneck speed—one-liners, voice-over narrative jokes, slapstick, and telephones are thrown at Earl, but he just shrugs.
Earl’s producers decided, wisely, to move the camera laconically. The show’s full of inspired mayhem but, technically, it’s as casual as Lee. It’s a single-camera format without a laugh track, but the shots and cuts aren’t as shaky as those on any number of police procedurals—the handheld camera, that rickety symbol of “authenticity,” is rarely seen here. The producers pay attention to, and lingers on, details. A nemesis’s house looks eerily empty and vacant, even though he’s lived there for years. A couple’s home is filled with bird-related bric-a-brac. A motel swimming pool is grungier than a pond.
Hell, it’s just one episode. Maybe the character quirks will become too overwhelming by episode 4. Maybe it’ll become the white-trash version of Touched By An Angel. Until then, though, I’m rooting for Earl, warts and all. So don’t blame me if this one gets cancelled.