‘You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting around the corner: karma. That’s when I realised that I had to change, so I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done and one by one I’m gonna make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.’
My Name Is Earl is a show with a simple yet intriguing premise: Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) is a lowlife criminal with questionable morals and little to no direction in life until one day, he wins the lottery and is then suddenly hit by a car. Upon waking up in the hospital, he discovers the concept of karma: that what goes around comes around, and decides to change his life for the better. Making a list of all the bad things he has ever done, he sets out to right his wrongs in the hope of a better tomorrow.
Most episodes involve Earl, along with his brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) and a number of other ancillary characters, attempting to cross an item off of Earl’s list. Some of his misdeeds are simple transgressions which most of us have at some point been guilty of such as littering, others are more heinous, such as stealing a car from a one-legged woman.
Some of the most interesting episodes revolve around Earl trying to atone for his childhood mistakes. During his school days, Earl was a merciless bully, the characters he tormented in his school days ended up with severe confidence issues It is an interesting insight into how big of an impact our actions as children can have on the lives of others.
Despite starting his list simply to be able to ‘cash in’ his good karma, Earl slowly grows as the series progresses. Through interacting with the many people he screwed over in his past, Earl makes new and unlikely friends, develops a real conscience, and outgrows his various prejudices against gay people, effeminate men, and people from different walks of life.
This is interesting because Earl views karma in a very simple way (do good things and the universe will make good things happen to you) but the show itself takes a more nuanced approach to the subject. Most of Earl’s ‘rewards’ for his good actions come in the form of the personal connections he makes and the clear happiness he feels when he helps others, rather than in the form of the material rewards he expected when first writing his list.
The rich cast of supporting characters is a constant delight.The people on Earl’s list and the minor town-members who would, on other series be used as one-off gags are routinely reused throughout the series’ run, giving the fictional town of Camden (where the bulk of the series is set) a real sense of continuity, familiarity, and liveliness. In terms of memorable and iconic supporting characters, My Names Is Earl is up there with the likes of series’ such as The Simpsons and Gilmore Girls.
Praise is deserved for both the actors and the casting department as every character was both perfectly cast and excellently portrayed. Jason Lee’s performance as Earl is constantly endearing and entertaining. As the main character, he often acts as the straight man to the more zany antics of the supporting cast but Lee’s body language, tone, and facial expressions enhance every gag the show throws out. Even when Earl is not the funny character in the scene, his response to the situation always heightens the comedy.
The fantastic supporting cast is, perhaps, why the first two seasons are generally better remembered than the latter two. Season three saw Earl incarcerated for a crime he did not commit in order to save his ex wife Joyce from being sent to prison and taken away from her children. While this act was noble, it separated Earl from the other characters leaving the straight man without his comedic foils. Likewise, Earl was in a coma for a large portion of season four and thus, once again, unable to bounce off the other characters. While the later season of the series were by no means bad, they lacked some of the charm of the first two seasons.
It would be very easy for a show like My Name Is Earl to become shallow, crude, and banal. It appears, on the surface, to be simply a sitcom satirising redneck ‘trailer trash’ American communities for their lowbrow interests, poor financial status, and supposed lacking morals. Most of the characters are either former career criminals or worked in historically slandered professions (prostitution, stripping, etc…). Despite this however, the show never feels insincere and the characters rarely feel like the butt of a cruel joke. This is because of an oft overlooked element that the series has in spades. At the core of My Name Is Earl, beneath the jokes and satire, is a vast expanse of real genuine heart. Every character from the main cast to the recurring town members have hopes, dreams, and histories; flaws and virtues. The relationship between Earl and Randy in particular is a sweet ode to brotherly love. The two look out for each other above all else and Randy’s constant forgiving and support of Earl are a driving factor in his journey towards self improvement.
The greatest tragedy of My Name Is Earl is that it never got the finale it deserved. The final season ended on a cliffhanger and was later cancelled. While we will likely never get to see a proper resolution to Earl’s story, series creator Greg Garcia revealed his plans for the finale in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) in 2013. According to Garcia, the series was supposed to end with Earl getting stuck on an item on his list and almost giving up until he ran into someone with their own list trying to make up for something bad they did to Earl. He would then discover that his list had inspired people to create their own, leading to a chain reaction. Earl would then rip the list up and ‘Walk into the sunset a free man. With good karma.’
There could have been no better ending because, really, karma isn’t about simply righting every wrong you have ever committed. Karma purports that we strive to be better, to help others, and to put as much good into the world as we possibly can. No one is perfect, however, if we try to do the best we can, we can get one step closer to becoming free people with good karma.
Image: Lydiaakalydbug via DeviantArt.