A network comedy with brains, heart and a dark streak
After I first checked out the show, I didn't really like it. It was mostly my distaste for all things white trash, a world that makes me ill. Watching these low-class morons muddle through their existence wasn't my idea of a good time. But I gave the show another chance, and Lee and company made it worth my time. Earl (Lee), a 250-time loser and minor criminal, won $100,000 on a scratch-off ticket, and was promptly hit by a car. While healing in the hospital, he learns about karma from Carson Daly (on TV) and decides to change his life by making a list of all the people he's wronged and making it up to them. It's a simple concept, but it makes the show less of a sitcom and more of a plotcom, as there's a reason for each episode, not just a stock situation the characters are thrown into. It's unlikely Chandler and Ross would ever plan to loot the local discount store because of Y2K.
Earl's family and friends, including his brother Randy (Ethan Suplee), his ex-wife Joy (Jamie Pressly), her husband Darnell the Crabman (Eddie Steeples) and his friend Catalina (Nadine Velazquez), are alternately positive and negative influences as he tries to fulfill his debt to karma. Randy, a dopey man-child, helps his brother as much as he can, but because he's not too bright, he tends to screw things up. That's OK though, as he may have the purest intentions of anyone in the show, since he's unable to truly be underhanded. The only person purer than Randy is Darnell, otherwise known as Crabman. Even more innocent than Randy, he lives a simple life and is a simple man. That he's married to Joy, a woman to whom no level of evil is out of reach, shows what he can put up with in life and remain good-natured. She's also incredibly funny, as Pressly does the best work of her career, playing this trailer bitch to the max. She's balanced by Earl and Randy's pal Catalina, the highly sexy maid at their hotel. Though she's good at heart, there's an inherent darkness in her that shines through with solid comic timing.
Though there's not a lot of story that progresses from episode to episode, the theme of the list ties everything together nicely. Whether he's helping a suicidal man find a reason to live or giving his mom the Mother's Day she deserved, Earl spreads his "golden rule" message, making the show one of the few TV comedies today where there's a positive message but not a ton of cheese. There are episodes that have as much heartfelt sentiment as any "very special effort" just without the melodrama. Instead, the series is very real in the way it depicts people. They are neither all good or all bad. They just are, and they do what they need to to get by. Darnell isn't ruled by a strict code of ethics. He just does what feels right. Earl has a thread of bad-guy in him, but he believes in the concept of good. The writers have managed to create some of the most complete sitcom characters in recent history, as one can see in "Dad's Car," when Joy's love for her kids is revealed.
There's something special in this show that you only see in truly great ensemble casts, and that's memorable supporting characters that aren't your average "wacky neighbors." It's almost guaranteed that a laugh is coming when Crabman or Catalina are on screen. Even one-time characters, like Earl's clingy ex-girlfriend or the many fantastic guest stars, make the most of their screentime by integrating seamlessly with the regulars, creativing a cohesive universe, giving you more reason to come back and visit with your friends in Camden County.
It's not just the writing and acting that's top-notch though. The choice of music is often inspired, with pop and rock songs helping the show reach new emotional and comedic heights, including a beautiful use of "I've Got a Golden Ticket" in the season finale. Today, you expect soundtracks with such popular, well-known songs to end up replaced on DVD, but it seems that these shows are presented with most of the music intact (though some edits have been confirmed by the show's creator.) Just as creative are the inventive visuals, which help tell bigger stories in the small amount of time the show has. It's the small details like this that show the kind of effort that goes into the series. Any show that would follow up an episode about the Smokey and the Bandit car with credit reel bloopers inspired by the film is doing more than just cranking out another comedy. They're actually giving us all 30 minutes of a good time.
Hey, isn't that...
The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that's mostly about delivering clean dialogue, which it does very well, while the great music used in the series gets some pumping-up from the surrounds. The mix obviously isn't what you'd get from a blockbuster action film, but it's the kind of proper soundtrack you want for a TV comedy.
On that alternate pilot, you'll find one of the eight episode-length audio commentaries available in this set. Creator Greg Garcia, executive producer Mark Buckland, Lee and Suplee are the regulars, while several members of the cast and crew take their shifts, including producer/writer Tim Stack, actors Steeples, Pressly and Velasquez, and special guests Giovanni Ribisi and Jon Favreau. One episode, the Mother's Day-themed "Dad's Car" actually features the moms of Garcia, Buckland, Lee and Suplee (and it's not bad, as Garcia and Buckland moderate the chat.) The tracks are conversational and entertaining, focusing more on reminiscing than informing the viewer. The only problem I had was the repeated "Is anyone listening to this?" jokes, which are a bit tired at this point in DVD history. Commentary tracks are heard on "Pilot," "Teacher Earl," "Joy's Wedding," "White Lie Christmas," "O Karma, Where Art Thou?," "Dad's Car," "Number One," and "Bad Karma."
Deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Garcia and Buckland, are spread across all four discs, from eight episodes, for a total of nine minutes of cut clips. Unlike most deleted scenes, these could have worked, if TV wasn't so rigidly timed. If you watch only one of them, make sure it's the deleted scene from "The Professor," which features some horrifying make-up effects. More missing footage is available in "Karma is a Funny Thing," an immense 20-minute blooper reel. You won't find any belly laughs in here, but it's continuously entertaining, as the cast's reactions to their flubs are funny in their own right.
Though behind-the-scenes featurettes tend to be more promotional than entertaining or interesting, "Making Things Right: Behind the Scenes of 'My Name is Earl'" does get it right, spending almost 40 minutes with Garcia, Buckland and much of the cast and crew, via interviews and on-set footage. The series' development is covered in good detail, and there's a ton of insight into the feel of the set and how it all comes together. The team responsible for this feature (credited to Bryan Johnson, who may just be the View Askew compatriot, considering Lee and Suplee's involvement) should be called on frequently, as I've rarely seen such a great documentary-style featurette. There's even a fun end segment from the set of "Bad Karma" for Lee fans.
Last, but certainly least, is a commercial for the series' soundtrack album, which actually has a pretty nice line-up.
The Bottom Line