NBC appears to be betting its fourth-place farm on “My Name Is Earl.” Billboards, bus ads, talking Entertainment Weekly ads. You can’t stop at a red light without meeting Jason Lee’s rogue-redneck mug over some obtuse but tempting tagline like: “Stole a car from a one-legged girl. I’m sorry.”
Unfortunately, all this corporate muscle behind the series deprives you from taking any ownership of the show’s underdog qualities. You can’t blame NBC, of course: The network needs a new hit, and there’s little time in the TV biz for word-of-mouth discovery. As befitting the guy in last place, the network’s schedule is a pinch of this dramatic trend (an alien drama called “Surface”) and a pinch of that one (a Pentagon caper featuring Dennis Hopper), but only “My Name Is Earl” (see, I’m drunk with the spin!) suggests that NBC will remind us that they once were about having the best and freshest comedies on network TV.
“Earl” is, in a way, a feature movie -- it moves like one and thinks like one, with the ostensible spirit of an indie comedy. Lee stars as Earl Hickey, a two-bit thief and layabout who scratches off a winning lotto ticket only to be run over by a car while celebrating. In the hospital, lying in traction and doped up on morphine, he sees late-night personality Carson Daly on the TV talking about karma and decides to mend his ways.
You can feel the network note that apparently didn’t get written or heeded (“Carson Daly? Will enough people know who that is?”). It contributes to a sense that creator Greg Garcia has been left alone to do the jokes here that he wants to do, and the first 10 minutes are a cartoon rush. Lee, whose films include “Almost Famous,” is a cinematic presence; he immediately conjures a character you want to spend time with, riffing on a Coen brothers “Raising Arizona” type of antihero, a guy getting blown sideways through his miserable life while offering the pitch-perfect deadpan aside.
Once out of the hospital, Earl quickly compiles a list of all the people and places he’s wronged and/or defiled lo his 30-odd years, as a means of redressing his past and ensuring his future. He begins with a kid he tormented in school and who has become, unbeknownst to Earl, a sad and lonely closeted gay man. Homophobia is a real thing in whatever pocket of the world “My Name Is Earl” is set (it’s not clear, but the state of mind is red), but Earl, who has never come face-to-face with a “homosexual-American,” doesn’t come off as anything but daft, tender and willing to grow, even after we see him fleeing the gay man’s house (“I understand now the running probably wasn’t necessary,” he says in a moment of reflection).
“My Name Is Earl” is smart-dumb comedy for a generation accustomed to seeing rednecks infused with slacker cool. By the end of the pilot, I did wonder how many weeks I would be willing to return to the premise of a goofball like Earl sticking to his self-invented philosophy, unless perhaps in a future episode he’s going to be diagnosed -- that Carson Daly karma thing isn’t karma, Earl’s an obsessive-compulsive, with an OC’s way of magical thinking.
But the show’s real zaniness appears to be grounded in the gallery of lovable skanks and losers, including Earl’s brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) and his white trash ex-wife Joy (Jaime Pressly), and in the ironic visual jokes and the inflated comedic language with which the show treats these people and their lives.
Earl is the kind of guy who refers to a hangover as “recuperating from being a little over-served,” and he describes himself, in a fit of self-awareness during the show’s fun opening sequence, as “a sort of shifty-looking fella who buys a pack of smokes, a couple of lotto scratchers and a tall boy at 10 in the morning.”
Watching “My Name Is Earl,” you feel like you’re in a movie, or at least a movie trailer. In ways more good than bad, it’s immediately comprehensible. Competing with the originality is a certain overly tidy warmth, and there’s something patronizing about the way Hollywood continues to cartoon up the South, neutering its lot into endearingly ill-informed as-seen-on-"Springer” types. But then, it’s a sitcom, a blue state/red state pop-cultural exchange -- like trading our fussy shrink Frasier Crane for your white-trash Earl Hickey, with funny sidekicks. Can’t we all just play along?
‘My Name Is Earl’
When: 9 to 9:30 tonight
Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Executive producers Greg Garcia and Marc Buckland. Creator Greg Garcia. Director (pilot) Marc Buckland.