Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 18, 2006)
Since this gig as a DVD slave takes up so much of my TV-watching time, I almost never check out shows as they hit the air. Heck, I rarely view them as they make it to DVD either, but occasionally I indulge myself with a season’s worth of TV material.
Today’s new-to-me show: My Name Is Earl, a hit NBC comedy from the 2005-06 season. I’ll check out the 24 shows in the order broadcast. The plot synopses come straight from the set’s packaging.
Pilot: “After getting hit by a car and losing a winning lottery ticket, Earl (Jason Lee) blames bad karma and vows to make amends for every bad thing he’s ever done.”
Who knew that Carson Daly invented karma? That revelation comes along with a pretty good launch to the series. Earl risks being a little too self-consciously wacky, but it manages more than enough funny moments to overcome the potential pitfalls. It certainly boasts a clever concept, and I look forward to seeing it unfold.
Quit Smoking: “Earl finds that even quitting smoking is easier than facing the man who went to prison for a crime that Earl committed.”
Episode two faces a challenge the pilot gets to avoid: a lack of exposition. The first show can pack its running time with set-up, but the next one needs to succeed on its own. Happily, “Smoking” does so. From Silas Weir Mitchell’s sublimely crazy Donnie to the sight of Earl getting beaten with an absurdly oversized large print Bible, “Smoking” works.
Randy’s Touchdown: “The odds are against him when Earl tries to make up for having fixed a high school football game in order to win a bet.”
For all the series’ broad comedy, it throws out more than a few subtle laughs. After Joy paints “U R an ass” on Earl’s car, he adds “tronaut” to make it look better. The camera doesn’t linger on this and make it obvious, so the gag works even better. The episode develops the various recurring characters and amuses.
Faked My Own Death: “The next item on Earl’s karmic agenda is to make up for the fact that he faked his own death to avoid breaking up with a girl.”
I’m not sure that Earl needs to redeem himself for dumping Natalie, the clinging girlfriend from hell. She’s hot, but that doesn’t overcome her deficits. He gave the relationship a shot, didn’t he? Beth Riesgraf is hilarious as needy Natalie, and this ends up as the best episode to date.
Subtle allusion note: I’d already thought of Kevin Smith connections since both Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee have appeared in Smith flicks. “Death” gives us a more concrete reference when we go to a Quik Stop. That’s gotta be a lift from Clerks, right?
Teacher Earl: “Earl tries to teach English to a group of immigrants to compensate for having made fun of people’s accents, while his friend Ralph (Giovanni Ribisi), just out of prison, plots to steal Earl’s money.”
“Teacher” faces a new obstacle: the presence of Ribisi. Although not as annoying here as in Friends, he continues to irritate me and he detracts from the show’s quality. That’s too bad, as “Teacher” has a lot going for it otherwise.
Broke Joy’s Fancy Figurine: “The only way Earl can make up for breaking Joy’s (Jaime Pressly) figurine is to participate in a beauty pageant… as the target of a mother-daughter knife-throwing act.”
I’m not sure Earl should have to make up for anything he ever did to Joy – she’s an awfully awful person. “Figurine” goes a little high concept with the knife-throwing aspect, but the presence of the ever-reliable Missy Pyle as Shelley helps turn this into another good show.
Stole Beer from a Golfer: “Randy’s (Ethan Suplee) excited about going to the county fair, but it will have to wait until Earl can clear up some bad karma at the local country club.”
“Golfer” reveals the complexity of Earl’s list. What he feels is a simple matter of buying brew turns more difficult when he sees the full impact of his activities. This gives the program nice room for Schadenfreude as Earl suffers to repay his debt.
Joy’s Wedding: “Earl tries to make up for ruining Joy and Darnell’s (Eddie Steeples) wedding, but he only makes things worse when he winds up sleeping with Joy.”
Once again, I might argue that any things Earl does to harm Joy feel like karma. She’s so horrible that she deserves misery, doesn’t she? Granted, this turns into an offense against Darnell, and he’s a good guy, so Earl ends up needing redemption. The show gets a little too sappy, but it covers with enough comedy to work.
Cost Dad an Election: “Four years ago, Earl’s unruly behavior cost his father (Beau Bridges) the mayoral election, and now it looks like history will repeat itself.”
The sentiment of “Election” rings a little more true than in “Wedding”. I like the portrayal of family relationships, especially as Earl tries so hard to redeem himself to his dad. The show still comes with the requisite number of laughs, but it also has a good heart.
White Lie Christmas: “’Tis the season, and when Joy’s parents come for a visit, Earl has to pretend that he and Joy are married. Ho ho ho!”
Christmas episodes tend to get pretty treacly, but “Lie” manages to avoid those pitfalls. Joy’s mother is especially delightful in her sleaziness; we can see where Joy got her own selfish tendencies. The car competition with Randy and Catalina is also a hoot, and these elements add up to a strong show.
Barn Burner: “Hoping to get Joy’s children admitted, Earl return to the ‘rotten kids camp’ where he accidentally burned down a barn as a wayward youth – or did he?”
“Burner” drags a bit at first, but once it presents a twist, it becomes more entertaining. We get to see a slightly sadistic side of Earl as he blames Randy for all his misdeeds. I could live without the sappy parts with the kids, though.
O Karma, Where Art Thou?: “Earl fills in at a fast food restaurant and his faith in karma is shaken by his new boss (Jon Favreau), a reprehensible jerk with an enviable lifestyle.”
A fine guest turn from Favreau helps benefit this episode. I also like the odd turn the program takes as it affects Earl’s concept of karma. A cruelly hilarious jailhouse twist on the “world’s best” mugs makes this one a winner.
Stole P’s HD Cart: “The fast food wars are on as Earl tries to put a well-liked hot dog vendor (Ramon Chavez) back into business. Care to supersize that?”
Part of the fun comes as we wait for the bottom to fall out of Earl’s plan. He quickly rights his wrong, so the question becomes how things will go amiss. Despite the return of Ribisi, the episode’s weaving plot and its crime caper spoofs make it fun.
Monkeys In Space: “While Randy searches for his purpose in life, Earl tries to brighten the day of an old buddy (Tim DeKay) who is being transferred to the state prison.”
If nothing else, Catalina’s brief simulated pole dance makes this a memorable show. Earl encounters a lot of obstacles as he tries to give Hank a good day, and poor Randy finds it tough to hold down a new job. Both threads bring a lot of energy to the series and work out well.
Something to Live For: “While trying to compensate for having stolen some gasoline, Earl becomes determined to help a suicidal man (Adam Goldberg) find a reason to go on living.”
That karma’s a complicated thing. Here Earl finds that a bad thing he did was actually a good thing since he inadvertently prevented a guy from killing himself. Not that letting Philo off himself would necessarily be a bad thing; as played by Goldberg, he may be the most annoying character to grace the TV screen. We get a darkly amusing program here.
The Professor: “It’s back to school time! Earl becomes a guest lecturer and Randy pledges a fraternity when the two head to a university to return a stolen laptop.”
After all these episodes, it’s about time some romance entered Earl’s life. It seems a bit of a stretch to believe that a smart babe like Alex (Christine Taylor) would fall for a lunkhead like Earl, but it creates an interesting story nonetheless, especially as karma gets back at Earl.
Didn’t Pay Taxes: “Earl gets tangled up in red tape as he tries to repay his debt to the government.”
“Taxes” isn’t exactly a scathing indictment of government inefficiency, but it makes a good – and funny – point. Earl goes through an awful lot of suffering too soon after “Professor”, though, which makes this episode a little redundant. Still, it has more than enough amusing moments to succeed.
Dad’s Car: “As a Mother’s Day gift to his mom (Nancy Lenehan), Earl tries to men his strained relationship with his father – a task easier said than done.”
I like seeing more of Earl’s family, though I wish “Car” placed more of an emphasis on his mother. We’ve already gotten a dad-centric show, so it’d be nice to learn more about his mom. Tim Olyphant also sports the worst bald cap I’ve ever seen. The show boasts some quirky laughs but isn’t one of the best programs.
Y2K: “Earl fondly recalls New Year’s 2000 when the Y2K bug spelled ‘doomsday’ and the gang had glorious plans for building a new world.”
While the series features many flashbacks, this stands as the first full flashback episode. And it’s a good one as we revisit the wackiness that surrounded the new millennium. That theme allows the show to indulge its nuttier side in this funny program.
Boogeyman: “Earl has his work cut out for him as he tries to cross ‘made a kid scared of the boogeyman’ off his list.”
Usually when Earl explains his list to the people he harmed, they understand and are on his side. “Boogeyman” shows a more vengeful side of things and creates a lot of laughs in that vein. It indulges the series’ more slapstick tone and succeeds despite a little mawkishness at times.
Bounty Hunter: “With a warrant out for her arrest, Joy is stalked by a vicious bounty hunter (Juliette Lewis) who happens to be Earl’s embittered ex-girlfriend.”
Like Ribisi, Juliette Lewis usually annoys me. Unlike Ribisi, she does pretty well here. I like Jesse’s transition from mousy secretary to butt-kicking, front-teeth-missing bounty hunter, and the show’s action montage is amusing. This is a broad but solid episode.
Stole a Badge: “Earl and Randy return a stolen police badge and try to help its owner get a promotion, but all he wants is to become a professional bowler.”
“Stole” works best when we see the highlife Earl and company enjoyed with their purloined badge. We also get a delightfully scummy guest spot from Clint Howard as “Creepy Rodney”. All these components coalesce to create a strong program, though the family of identically-coifed female cops is a little too Coen-esque for my liking.
BB: “Earl helps to reunite a former crush (Miriam Shor) with her estranged father (Geoffrey Lewis) in order to make up for having shot her with a BB gun.”
Basing humor on the activities of an alcoholic may not be politically correct, but “BB” goes for such a cartoony portrayal of Mr. Waters that it doesn’t offend. Lewis brings out an amusingly incoherent performance, and I also like Shor’s taut and acerbic take on Gwen. While not one of the series’ most memorable shows, “BB” has more than enough going for it to succeed.
Number One: “Earl decides to cross the first item off his list, but what he thinks will cost him just ten dollars winds up costing him all of his lotto winnings, leaving him broke and wondering when his good karma will kick in.”
Earl’s first season concludes with an intriguing notion: how can Earl accomplish his mission with no funds? This fills out the show well as Earl deals with new issues. Throw in a clever Willy Wonka spoof and “One” ends the year well.