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NBC’s Comedy Hit: My Name Is Earl Raunchy

By Christopher Gildemeister

 

"If you can walk away from a comedy thinking it was funny yet also feeling good about the people you watched and the journey they went on, then all the better." – My Name Is Earl creator Gregory Garcia (Zap2It.com, September 19, 2005)

 

When NBC’s situation comedy My Name Is Earl premiered in the fall of 2005, it was lauded by critics not only for its offbeat humor but also for its gentle and life-affirming premise, stated at the beginning of every episode:

 

"You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was waiting around the corner. Karma. That's when I realized 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."

 

Undoubtedly the show’s unusually moral premise was a factor in the instant success which the program enjoyed. To audiences weary of incessant “comedy” programs consisting of mean-spirited, unpleasant individuals endlessly insulting, injuring and taking advantage of one another, Earl provided a comic and bumbling but also upbeat and positive lead, struggling to do what so many in the real world also aspire to: trying to live a good life and be kind to others.

 

By its third episode, My Name Is Earl had become the most popular new program NBC's 2005 fall offerings. By the end of its first month, Earl was also the most popular new sitcom of the season. The show was quickly renewed for a second season. Unusually for so widely popular a program, it also attracted considerable critical acclaim for its unique premise, being nominated for multiple awards and winning (among others) an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.

 

From its beginning My Name Is Earl contained some seamy elements, such as Earl’s occupation as a thief, his wife Joy’s constant faithlessness, and Earl’s acquaintance with “daytime hooker” Patty. But in its early seasons, these elements were balanced by the positive actions taken by Earl in his quest for redemption. First- and early second-season storylines focused on such subjects as Earl attempting to make up for bullying a boy in grade school; seeking forgiveness for talking his brother into fumbling during a high school football game so that Earl could win a bet; helping a man who was imprisoned for crimes Earl committed; Earl teaching immigrants English; and Earl enabling a bearded woman and her “circus freak” acquaintances to accept themselves and successfully integrate into society.

 

Many of these episodes ended with Earl consulting his list of past wrongdoing -- “my roadmap to a better life," as Earl calls it – and, having either made restitution or been forgiven, crossing the item off, thus showing his progress toward improvement. Cynics predicted that such an uplifting and moral premise could never last on today’s prime-time network television.

 

And they were right.

 

“[Earl] is trying to improve himself, which makes him a welcome relief from the all those TV frat boys who yearn only to grow ever more stupid and slothful.” – TV critic Robert Bianco, (USA Today, September 19, 2005)

 

In the first season of My Name Is Earl, the program’s star Jason Lee was able to boast, "The show really is balanced, from the writing to the way it's shot, with intelligence and humanity. It's always sweet at the end of the episode." This is no longer true.  While at first the program gave prominent play to Earl’s attempts at redemption, in the last season-and-a-half My Name Is Earl has descended into the cesspool. The program’s new direction was presaged in the middle of season two, with episodes focused on: Earl and Joy stealing a police car while urging a cameraman from the TV show COPS to film them having sex in the back seat.  Joy tells Earl, “I am going to (bleeped suck) your (bleeped f******) (bleeped balls)!” and Earl falls down with his pants around his ankles, screaming "Oh God, I skinned my pecker!"; an episode with multiple extended discussions about the deformed genitals of a man Earl once kicked in the groin; and Earl seeking to bed his wife’s deaf lawyer.

 

And since this fall’s premiere, My Name Is Earl has totally forsaken Earl’s quest to do good in favor of crude, hypersexual storylines. As the season opens Earl is in prison, leading to multiple “jokes” about prison sex. Earl even acquires a transsexual “girlfriend.” Every episode features extended scenes set in the Club Chubby strip joint, with stripper Catalina performing a “jump dance” which causes her breasts to bounce wildly.  Every scene in which Joy appears features a rash of crass sex talk:

 

  • Joy asks a stranger if he wants to marry her.

Man: "Well maybe, but I'm not going to buy the cow until I get a chance to sample the milk."

Joy (pointing to her breasts): "Oh, well, my milk ain't come in yet but we

                 can do it if you want to." (10/11/2007)

 

  • Joy is shown at the gynecologist, with her legs in the stirrups.  She looks at the doctor who, it is implied, is examining her vagina.

Joy: "So, Doc. I don't feel a ring on your finger." (10/11/2007)

 

  • Joy: "The only reason why I haven't cut this baby out myself is because a

Cesarean scar and my prom scar would make a weird little crucifix right above my landing strip."

(11/01/2007)

 

Predictably, television critics applauded the program’s new direction, as is shown by the fact that Playboy model Jaime Pressly was awarded an Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy for her portrayal of Joy as an ignorant, foul-mouthed nymphomaniac.

 

Once (and not that long ago), My Name Is Earl was a sweet, touching program with the heart-warming premise of a criminal sincerely seeking to make restitution for his past misdeeds by helping others. Today, the program has become a twisted social commentary on trailer trash, a scripted network version of The Jerry Springer Show, featuring grossly stereotyped rednecks and as much sleazy sex as possible. That a show that started off with so positive a premise has fallen so far so quickly, reveals a trend towards louche programming by the broadcast networks…and bodes ill for uplifting programming in the future.

 

“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. My Name Is Earl…amounts to a character study of a character not worth studying.” – TV critic Tom Shales (Washington Post, September 20, 2005)

 


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff: Aubree Bowling, Caroline Schulenburg, Josh Shirlen, Keith White, and Adam Shuler, under the direction of Dr. John Rattliff.


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