Earl Defines What It Takes To Be Sorry

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Earl describes himself as "that guy you see going into the convenience store when you stop off on the way to Grandma's house," a "shifty-looking fella who buys a pack of smokes, a couple of lotto scratchers and a tallboy at 10 o'clock in the morning."

Yeah, so? "If you took the time to really get to know me," Earl goes on, and on, "and find out what kind of person I truly am . . . well, you'd be wasting your time 'cause I'm exactly what you think I am."

That's as informative and accurate a viewer disclaimer as anyone could ask for, fair warning to grab the remote and click yourself free of Earl and his torturously verbose autobiographical gibberish. "My Name Is Earl," the NBC sitcom premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 4, amounts to a character study of a character not worth studying.

Derivative and repetitious, the comedy keeps hitting the same notes, then pounding and stomping on them. Worse, "Earl" will already seem familiar to fans of the wackily rollicking 1987 Coen brothers comedy "Raising Arizona." Jason Lee, who plays Earl, even looks something like Nicolas Cage as he appeared in the film (which also starred a buoyant Holly Hunter).

Cage played a jailbird, petty thief and trailer park philosopher as oddly lovable as he was oddly innocent. Lee is just odd, though in a tame and prefabricated sort of way.

The premise of the show, already familiar from about 5,000 NBC promos, is that upon buying a winning $100,000 lottery ticket and then losing it, Earl experiences an epiphany -- helped along by chatter chatted by a guest on an episode of NBC's gaseous Carson Daly show, here getting a cheap gratuitous plug.

Earl learns the word "karma" and realizes he's been polluting his own by being shiftless, deceitful and unable to resist the lure of thievery. "Do good things and good things will happen to you," Earl deduces. "Do bad things, and they'll come back to haunt you." He makes up a list of the bad things he's done and sets out to correct them.

By this time in the show, all that you are likely to discover, if you're lucky, is a few new ways to yawn. "Earl" will exhaust your repertoire, partly because the narration is so naggingly incessant and because Earl has to explain the premise in detail to everyone he meets. There's also a wink-wink cuteness to the tone of producer Greg Garcia's script that makes Earl insufferable instead of adorable as intended.

Neither situation nor comedy is helped by the presence of Ethan Suplee as Earl's idiot brother Randy, whom only another idiot, such as Earl, would enlist as a collaborator on his mission of restitution. Randy "lives on the couch" in Earl's place, just as comic Steven Wright lived on Dave Chappelle's couch in the slapdash but funny 1998 stoner movie "Half Baked." Randy gets "a little unpredictable" after his fourth beer, and naturally it isn't long before he guzzles that down. Poor excuses for antics insist upon ensuing.

Earl's list of misdeeds includes having bullied a little boy named Kenny James when in school. The bullying, recalled in a quick flashback, naturally includes that knee-jerk comic reflex, a kick in the groin. Earl has to lie to find Kenny, which would seem to add a misdeed to his list, but eventually he does, only to discover Kenny (Gregg Binkley, funnier than Lee) is "a gay." Thus plans to reward him with an afternoon visit from a hooker have to be rethought.

And so on. We learn that the items on Earl's list include No. 86, "stole a car from a one-legged girl," and No. 22, "peed in back of cop car." Gosh, what swell episodes those ought to make. Where "Raising Arizona" was deliciously fresh and nutty in tone, the zany eccentricity in "My Name Is Earl" comes off as forced and wearying. There's a sweet moment here or there, but it's not enough to help, "Well, one down, 258 to go," Earl says of the items on his list near the pilot's conclusion. Even if there were only two to go, the sensible inclination would be to let Earl do them on his own time. There are much less arduous ways of wasting one's own.

My Name Is Earl (30 minutes) premieres tonight in its regular time slot, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Channel 4.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company