"Pilot," "Quit Smoking," "Randy's Touchdown," "Faked My Own Death," "Teacher Earl," "Broke Joy's Fancy Figurine," "Stole Beer from a Golfer," "Joy's Wedding," "Cost Dad an Election," "White Lie Christmas," "Barn Burner," "O Karma, Where Art Thou?," "Stole P's HD Cart," "Monkeys in Space," "Something to Live For," "The Professor," "Didn't Pay Taxes," "Dad's Car," "Y2K," "Boogeyman," "Bounty Hunter," "Stole a Badge," "BB," "Number One"
by Ian Pugh I don't know a whole lot about the Buddhist concept of karma, but Earl Hickey knows even less, and I think that's the point. As "My Name is Earl" begins, the titular petty criminal and leech on society (Jason Lee) scratches a winning lotto ticket, whereupon he's immediately struck by a car. While a doped-up Earl convalesces, his cheating wife Joy (Jaime Pressly) seizes the opportunity to divorce him. Flipping through the TV channels from his hospital bed, Earl lands on Carson Daly, who attributes his own success to the most popular understanding of karma: "Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things and they come back to haunt you." In the show's first bit of hilarious commentary--one that guides the question of "doing the right thing" (which, in turn, dictates the series as a whole)--celebrity culture gives birth to self-serving pop religion. If Joe Sixpack is taking philosophical lessons from that guy whose primary function was to count down from the number ten...Lord, where did we go wrong?
Vowing to live by Daly's teachings, Earl writes up a list of everything bad he's ever done, determined to right his wrongs, usually in the most literal way possible: by offering precisely what was lost through his transgressions. Should a victim refuse his help, Earl will pull out said list and say, "I have to," convinced that failing to do so could result in worse ramifications. Such strict and often grudging adherence to the "eye for an eye" redemption on which his journey is founded makes it rather easy to prove Earl's essential selfishness: Isn't he taking the righteous path purely out of a desire to not be hit by another car? Lee is an actor whose self-centered prick routine sold for a dime a dozen long before Kevin Smith catapulted him into our consciousness, but this scenario forces us to question our view of this persona as a protagonist--something that follows us throughout fiction. After all, fear of personal retribution is the deciding factor that incites quite a few heroes to action, as "My Name is Earl" reminds us: Earl states that he is "karma's bitch" with Tobey Maguire's "I'm Spider-Man" cadence. Recall that, over four decades, Peter Parker's mantra about great power and corresponding responsibility has been said more with resigned disappointment than with a stern belief in justice.
Even stickier is the fact that Earl tends to lap up any chance he gets to return to his original status as an asshole, as in the episode "O Karma, Where Art Thou?" (1.11): Disappointed that karma hasn't dealt a blow to an evil, ridiculously successful fast-food manager (Jon Favreau), Earl winds up punching him in the face, an act that results in the boss's domino-effect downfall. Although Earl feels terrible afterwards--because of the inevitable karmic consequences?--his dimwit brother Randy (Lee's Mallrats co-star Ethan Suplee) reminds him that "karma doesn't have fists," and Earl suddenly becomes convinced that he was merely a conduit for a higher power. The id succeeds while the superego is rationalized away: Regarding his fist with an awe equal to that which he has for his skyward deity, Earl masks his satisfaction in hauling off and socking that jackass. It's tempting to sit back and let television and its characters/mouthpieces do the thinking for us, but as Earl's solutions have the potential to be more egregious than do the misdeeds themselves (another example: Determined to apologize for poking fun at foreign accents (1.5, "Teacher Earl"), Earl, no master of the language himself, teaches an English course for non-native speakers in a condescending do you speak American? tone of voice), the series challenges us to look hard at a given situation and decide for ourselves what really constitutes redemption. Does trying to be good "count"--and do this character's actions legitimately fall into the realm of good intentions?
In any case, though Earl remains a rough-and-tumble hick, it would be easy to say that "My Name is Earl" is really about a man learning the virtue of doing good deeds for their own sake. The idea pops up now and again. But as the series progresses and we learn more about both Earl's past and present, breaking the law to correct his wrongdoing becomes increasingly prevalent--again, karmic intention nearly takes a backseat to the opportunity for misconduct. After wading through a sea of red tape, Earl resolves to commit a crime that will cost the $500 he owes in unpaid taxes (1.17, "Didn't Pay Taxes"); angered that a conglomerate has destroyed a rival hot dog stand he stole and returned (1.13, "Stole P's HD Cart"), Earl falsifies a job application at the company with the intention of stealing ten thousand dollars' worth of office supplies. From this perspective, "My Name is Earl" could be seen as a particularly funny graduate thesis, arguing against the idea that men are capable of true "change." Indeed, at its best, the show operates as a multifaceted critique of philosophy itself, whittling the "debate" to its base components: the notion that even the noblest philosophers and preachers are more than willing to twist and justify their own actions--and manipulate the actions of others--to prove their grand theories, and vice versa. It's a timeless doctrine: the ends don't simply justify the means, the means are the end.
At first our screener of Fox's "My Name is Earl: Season One" appeared to be a retail pull, and it's a fairly nice package--the HD-sourced 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced image cleanly captures the dingy browns of "Earl"'s landscape, while the DD 5.1 audio is quiet but laden with subtle discrete effects. Opening the second of two thinpaks housed inside the cardboard slipcover, however, revealed a stark white anti-piracy warning in place of the fourth and final platter's label. It's also the only disc to undergo piracy encryption, resulting in a predictable decline in image quality (see: Bill Chambers's DVD review of X-Men: The Last Stand); meanwhile, a 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment logo periodically fades in and out at random corners of the screen. Restricting such practices to the last disc of a series may be easier on the specs-conscious reviewer, but the practice is still annoying (it nearly consigns the final three episodes to pixellated oblivion), equally disrespectful, and ultimately nonsensical.
Optional yak-tracks boasting an impressively long list of participants accompany seven episodes plus the bonus short Bad Karma (more on that in a moment). Creator Greg Garcia speaks on all of them, typically with Lee, Suplee, and recurring director Marc Buckland at his side. They manage to share a few stories and beam with pride between long peals of laughter; Lee, especially, has a grand old time regurgitating lines and making fun of himself. Pressly, Eddie Steeples ("Crabman," Joy's new husband and Earl's confidante), Nadine Velazquez (Catalina, Randy's unrequited love), and occasional guest star Giovanni Ribisi materialize for a single yakker apiece, only to remain largely silent; the Mother's Day episode "Dad's Car" (1.18) includes a discussion with the mothers of Garcia, Lee, Suplee, and Buckland, moderated by Garcia. Big shocker: they all love the show and are very proud of their boys. Unquestionably the best yakker of this group appends "O Karma, Where Art Thou?" thanks to that ep's guest star, Jon Favreau. As a director and obvious veteran of the commentary format, Favreau exudes an inquisitive intelligence as he pulls some insight out of his co-commentators without ruining their fun. It makes you want to give Favreau's films another looksee, and, moreover, to listen to his yak-tracks on their respective DVDs--maybe he can better explain the disturbing psychosexuality of his kiddie films Elf and Zathura.
Deleted scenes with optional commentary from Garcia and Buckland are parcelled out across the set. Each elision is pretty much on a par with the show's level of writing, so the creators' constant excuse of "cut for time" doesn't seem like a cop-out. Presented as an episode in itself, the DVD-exclusive "Bad Karma: An Earl Misadventure." (14 mins.) is an uproarious Bizarro World version of the pilot wherein Earl flips to "Family Guy" instead of Carson Daly. A tirade from Stewie Griffin sends him on a mission to exact revenge against those who dicked him over (and who are, unsurprisingly, the same people Earl wronged in the "real world"). Beyond giving Lee a chance to dress in hilariously poor drag, the piece smartly exposes the arbitrary nature of Earl's do-gooder crusade. Lee, who sounds like he was punched in the throat while smoking a cigarette, introduces and concludes the segment in a "Masterpiece Theater" spoof, complete with fireplace and smoking jacket. Next up is "Karma is a Funny Thing" (20 mins.), a horribly distended blooper-reel with Lee descending into tongues whenever he messes up; frankly, the presentation is a lot funnier in "Stole Beer from a Golfer" (1.7), which delivers that segment's flubs as a parody of Smokey and the Bandit's closing credits. Speaking of which, Garcia conducts an interview as he drives around town in a cowboy hat in "Making Things Right: Behind the Scenes on 'My Name is Earl'" (38 mins.), joining the cast and crew for an interesting if fairly standard doc that takes us from the show's inception (much of Earl's biography was based on Garcia's stepfather of the same name) to its realization, encompassing the cast's rapport, a few words from the major crew members, and the creation of Bad Karma. A 30-second soundtrack promo wraps things up. Originally published: February 20, 2007.