My Name is Earl: Season One Review
Taking place in the fictional Camden county (much like The Simpsons and its non-descript Springfield, which isn’t meant to reflect any existing town sharing the same name across the states) My Name is Earl follows the daily exploits of Earl Hickey (Jason Lee); a no good, two-bit crook who has led a life of hurting people for his own gain, that is until he’s hit by a car, shortly after winning $100,000 on a Lotto scratch card. As he lies in bed, pondering his predicament and having lost his winning ticket, along with just signing a divorce paper from his wife Joy (Jaime Pressly) who has hooked up with new man Darnell (Eddie Steeples), a talk show featuring guest star Carson Daily grabs his attention. When pressed about why he has so much luck in life, Daily pins his success on Karma. Earl is intrigued by this new found philosophy and finally realises that the reason his life has sucked up until now is because he’ done bad things. Well now it’s time to change all that. Earl decides to turn his life around and create a list of all the bad things that he’s ever done. He soon moves into a motel with his brother Randy (Ethan Suplee), where they meet and make friends with sexy new maid Catalina (Nadine Velazquez). Earl and Randy quickly get on the case of doing good deeds, and sure enough Earl’s luck is turned around when his Lotto ticket comes back to him. Now, with $100,000 back in hand he can use his new found wealth to fund his Karma driven destiny.
Let’s face it, rednecks make for easy targets, having been ridiculed for as long as film has been in existence. Rarely are they portrayed on screen as anything but dumb stereotypes: hopeless in-bred, uneducated, thieving, racist, trailer park trash fiends who have no respect for the outside world and little interest in moral values. That leaves us to wonder just how interesting or entertaining a series about these people can be. Greg Garcia’s My Name is Earl really shouldn’t be that much cop, then, yet he’s managed to create one of the past year’s most solidly entertaining shows, filled with endearing characters and brilliant storylines, which are enough to have audiences cheering on their hopeless heroes.
My Name is Earl doesn’t do a great deal to disparage preconceptions, but it does take things in a unique direction. It’s not an easy show to pitch and in fact it took over a year and a half for Earl to get noticed, having been sent around various studios until NBC heeded the call and gave it the jump start it needed. My Name is Earl succeeds in the way that it promotes the key element of Karma that underlines each and every episode. It’s because of Karma that we can form some kind of connection with the protagonist Earl, after all how can any of us really be expected to sympathise with a guy like this? His bad actions can be rectified, so much so that they can be excused once he’s put them right. As a man who means to do well after an eye-opening experience we see Earl trying to form a bond with Karma, something that he’s aware of but doesn’t pretend know the exact ins and outs of its presence: “Do good things and good things will happen to you, do bad things and bad things will happen” is all the philosophy he needs to know at this juncture. The notion of Karma plays as important role equally as much as the intents of our lead character, which although is addressed somewhat ambiguously, thus leaving his particular mindset somewhat eluding, still makes for an interesting and compelling character study. For all the good that Earl now does he still has an underlying selfishness that suggests he’s only doing what he does for himself. However, that’s where the show ultimately gets better; it’s one of progression, one which sees characters learn valuable life lessons and grow as human beings, where certain morals and ethics are put to great use. Sure we can all laugh at Earl’s past life at the expense of dozens of helpless victims, but equally as important is the sincerity in which his later actions provide wonderful bouts of humanity. Suddenly Earl is faced with situations that challenge his feelings and beliefs in ways he never thought possible, and that is a great strength of the series, particularly when it has to balance humour, characterisation and poignancy in the space of 22 minute episodes.
So if we discuss its participants we’ll see just how important it is to show their direction in life. All good comedy shows succeed on the strength of their characters and to introduce change is to potentially follow a path of ruin. There are many television shows that dare to play with their formula and risk poor ratings and imminent cancellations; My Name is Earl never strays too far from its formula, but neither does it predictably set up each episode whereby we witness particular characters doing the obvious. Some are more ambiguous than others, such as Catalina, an illegal immigrant with more mystery surrounding her than your average episode of the The X-Files and likewise Darnell, who we later learn has much more to him than meets the eye. While these tertiary characters provide ample and humorous support its Randy and Joy who have far greater bonds and predominant storylines. As we see them get through the first season we observe some calming and well underplayed changes in their life; Randy goes from being a dumb man-child with selfish needs to a dumb man-child with a verve for helping others, along with an appreciation for what his brother does, while Joy soon grows out of wanting to kill her ex-husband for his money and actually tries to have him back in her life toward the end of the series; this broadens her attitude immensely and proves that no matter who these people are and how awful they may act at times they still have basic human principles underneath that just need to be coaxed out of retirement. But we also get a string of reoccurring characters that play into some of the series’ flashback scenarios, with the mentally unstable but religiously reformed Donny Jones and hopeless crook Ralph making for some very funny side stories amongst others.
Because of these characters and what they stand for it gives the writers a great opportunity to come up with an endless supply for perfectly suitable storylines. Not only is My Name is Earl filled with oddball plots but each episode is fuelled by satirical jabs and sharp and witty observations, which shows us just how out of touch with the outside world Earl and company really is. There’s a lot of clever writing involved, which includes perfect little touches and passing comments that are usually incredibly funny because they’re either so true (the annoyance of biting the inside of your cheek and then repeatedly doing so) or because the character’s lack of technical understanding and poor living makes them the perfect pawns for astute gags pertaining to such naturally complicated things (the little fish screensaver on a laptop they stole for instance, or i-pods). There is even the more obvious stab thrust toward the Government, amongst one or two other socially relevant comments. Again, a lot of the humour is derived from what we know to be dreadful attitudes; Earl’s insecurity about not being highly educated which leads him to beat up folk and make fun of people with funny accents, or abusing the system by stealing police badges. It makes for a wonderful balance; Earl trying to service society with his kindness, which is juxtaposed against his past sins, all the while keeping the air light and breezy. In addition to this the series also relies on a lot of in jokes and TV references, many of which are obscure unless you happen to be up to date on a lot of series and classic movies, and there’s even a couple of Kevin Smith nods which will instantly leap out for Clerks fans. In short that makes My Name is Earl a lot of fun to wad through, because it’s filled with plenty of subtleties and little nuances, that if you missed first time around you may just discover on a second sitting.
My Name is Earl is also blessed with superb direction. Unlike a lot of sitcoms these days that rely on a different director for almost every episode, here we have a small and intimate group that maintain a wonderful sense of consistency and continuity. Undoubtedly the most notable of those headlining is Marc Buckland and Chris Koch, who arguably helm the finest episodes in the first season. If there’s one thing that rings true with My Name is Earl it’s that it gets better and better toward the end of its run, with the real highlights being “The Professor”, “Dad’s Car” and “Y2K”, all of which deliver bundles of energy and panache; Buckland doing wonders with several comical situations and Koch referencing action cinema, in this instance classic sixties/seventies racers with his ace crash zooms (insert off tangent reminder of Timothy Olyphant’s hilarious Billy Reed). These are but just a few examples of a series that grows continually ambitious with its set ups and furthermore several of the featured storylines manage to connect to one another, so that throughout the show we get the well drawn characters as spoken of earlier. Aiding all of this is a remarkable soundtrack. My Name is Earl takes the utmost pride in delivering a wealth of classic rock hits which span a good few decades and infuse the series with a collection of songs that add perfectly balanced sentiments to whatever is happening on screen; it’s one of those elements that helps the show immeasurably and when coupled with the directors’ knack of creating aesthetically pleasing episodes makes for some highly entertaining sequences.
Of course what would My Name is Earl be without its amazing cast? Would we care as much about Earl if Jason Lee wasn’t behind him? The same goes for everyone else. Lee was close to passing on the role, he’s a film star first and foremost and going into television is no easy task. It’s an arduous role that calls for plenty of attention. Thankfully he took the gig and as such Lee imbues Earl with the perfect balance of sincerity and ignorance. A man whose life has been nothing short of a complete shambles is turned around in an instant, but even doing good deeds still presents problems for him. Earl sacrifices his own life to right wrongs and no matter how hard he tries Karma occasionally slaps him in the face. Lee manages to strike up this amazing relationship with an invisible force, talking to Karma as if it was listening to him and watching over his every move; a state of paranoiac tendencies and a true belief in something that he fears equally as much as he respects. All of his inherent flaws remain and where he might grow in some areas he still retains a state of oblivion when faced with certain dilemmas; that’s all part of his charm though and not once are we ever cheated by his character who simply is who he is. Likewise Ethan Suplee as his brother Randy provides a nice counter balance. Going back to the whole Kevin Smith thing here we have two actors who were seen together in the director’s second feature Mallrats, with Suplee sticking to the large, slightly dim-witted guy. That being said Randy is more than just a dumb stereotype; he’s the heart of the series, a naïve soul who shows his intelligence in the most curious of ways, only really learning about things he’s interested in, which are basically toys and cartoons. But Randy is given far more to do than rally off obvious gags and rambling thoughts, he’s actually there for Earl at every opportunity and in his own way he contributes toward his brother’s plight no end, helping him to see things that he might ordinarily miss himself. There’s a great bond between them and a real sense of brotherly love which is regularly brought to the forefront of the show and it helps of course that Lee and Suplee are long time buddies. They’re also helped out with the presence of Nadine Valazquez’s Catalina. Of all the members of the cast Catalina is the most difficult to summize. Aside from being a possible love interest for Randy she’s this mystery figure who helps the pair out from time to time and looks after their motel room. She’s a curious addition to the cast because she’s not an essential component, aside from being somewhat of a motherly figure, a woman around the house whose job seems to be trying to keep the pair in check. Throughout the first season we get little insights into her past, which are complimented with deliberately melodramatic guitar cues, all of which are funny, but it leaves us wondering how she’ll continue to be developed later on down the line.
Elsewhere we have Jaime Pressly who is simply magnificent as Earl’s ex-wife Joy. Pressly clearly relishes her role, delivering that perfect Southern drawl and exhibiting a slightly trampy eloquence. No offence to Miss Pressly who just manages to become the perfect embodiment of a manipulative, ignorant, aggressive, self serving and strong willed female. I can’t be any more complimentary than that; she’s funny as hell when she gets into her ranting mode, or when she’s gotten completely pissed after an intense drinking binge. It’s a 100% natural performance which sees to it that she fully deserved her Emmy nomination this year and she probably should have won it. By her side throughout much of the series is Eddie Steeples as her new beau Darnell. I suspect Steeples to go on to bigger things in future; he’s a great talent who contributes a pleasantly understated performance here as the loveable “Crab Man”. Darnell is almost the odd man out, he’s placed in the middle of this town where he probably shouldn’t belong but has since learned to adjust. He’s obviously intelligent, but prone to conspiracy theories and yet he’s equally laid back in an almost lethargic way, as if he’s more in touch with Karma than Earl is. He regularly brushes off bad news and stays content with his lot in life. Steeples rounds off a fine leading cast who are backed by a slew of memorable supporting actors, each of whom has their moment to shine.
Season one of My Name is Earl is made up of twenty four episodes which are spread across four discs as follows:
2) Quit Smoking
3) Randy’s Touchdown
4) Faked His Own Death
5) Teacher Earl
6) Broke Joy’s Fancy Figurine
7) Stole Beer from a Golfer
8) Ruined Joy’s Wedding
9) Cost Dad the Election
10) White Lie Christmas
11) Barn Burner
12) O Karma, Where Art Though?
13) Stole P’s HD Cart
14) Monkeys in Space
15) Something to Live For
16) The Professor
17) Didn’t Pay Taxes
18) Dad’s Car
20) Boogey Man
21) Bounty Hunter
22) Stole a Badge
24) Number One
Having been sent check discs I can’t comment on the quality of the packaging, but I’m informed that the set arrives in four slim pack cases that are housed in a card slip cover. Each of the discs features a nice main menu, where various images play across a lotto ticket to the main theme of the show.
Note: I must point out at this stage that due to licensing issues My Name is Earl has had music replacements added to the DVD release. That will undoubtedly upset many strong fans, but Fox, with the supervision of Greg Garcia has managed to find some suitable tracks which don’t distract from the overall enjoyment and still feel a part of the series’ world.
My Name is Earl is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, which has also been given anamorphic enhancement. In comparison to its TV broadcasts there’s not a huge amount of difference between them. Colours appear to be replicated authentically, with nice flesh tones and vivid surroundings, in addition to a nice amount of detail which varies from time to time and there is often a slight softness for wide and close shots, most of which I am putting down to an unhealthy supply of edge enhancement. To a lesser degree we have some aliasing and compression artefacts, which don’t to a great deal to distract. Overall it’s perfectly watchable, but for a show this recent it should be close to perfect.
For sound we get a nice 5.1 track. The series is heavily into dialogue and on that front everything is crystal clear, with the forward speakers taking care of business very well. The surrounds tend to come alive when the music score and rock ‘n’ roll tracks kick in, and then we have a pleasantly immersive experience in which to enjoy some cracking sounds, with a decent amount of bass.
Note: For reasons I’m unsure of this release lacks the audio commentary on “Bounty Hunter”, featuring Juliette Lewis. This is stated on the packaging, so something has gone wrong somewhere and if anyone can shed some light on it then that would be appreciated.
Audio Commentaries with Cast and Crew
There are seven of these in total, spanning each of the four discs. Disc one features commentaries for “Pilot” with Greg Garcia, Marc Buckland, Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee, while “Teacher Earl” is accompanied by Garcia, Lee, Suplee and Giovanni Ribisi. Disc two includes a further two commentaries for the episodes “Joy’s Wedding” (Garcia, Buckland, Lee and Eddie Steeples) and “O Karma, Where Art Thou?” (Garcia, Lee, Suplee and Jon Favreau). On to the third disc and we have a single commentary for “Dad’s Car” which is a mums special. Greg Garcia is joined by his mother Natalie, with Mary Fisher sitting next to her son Marc Buckland. Jason Lee’s mother Carol and Ethan Suplee’s mother Debbie also sit in on the discussion. The final commentary graces disc four for the final episode of the season “Number One”, featuring Garcia, Buckland, Lee and Suplee.
The commentaries don’t differ all that much. We’re treated to a lot of discussion on location shooting, with some interesting background details. There’s naturally talk of characterisation and scripting, with a generally fun tone being kept throughout. Some of the guest actors appearing come across as being a little tired. Giovanni Ribisi rarely offers his input, while Eddie Steeples has some fun despite not contributing a great deal. Jon Favreau gets into the spirit of things pretty quickly and remains vocal throughout his appearance. Jason Lee puts in a lot of effort, as does Buckland and Garcia, so there’s always something to talk about. The strangest commentary is that for “Dad’s Car”, in which all the mums get together and talk about their sons with Garcia and Buckland. While it’s decent enough, with each mother recalling when her son first began acting and how they’ve grown and become famous, it’s not particularly the best episode for them to appear on. Personally speaking I would have preferred to hear from Chris Koch as I think it’s one of the best directed episodes of the season, but it lacks all discussion on the quality of the episode. Overall though these tracks are pleasant enough, even with the mucho back slapping and so forth.
Disc four contains the rest of the supplementary material:
“Bad Karma” - An Earl Misadventure (13.08)
This is a gimmicky “what if”/alternate reality short that wonders what things might have been like had Earl decided to use Karma and fortune to get revenge on everyone who annoyed him in life. Events play out much like they do in the pilot episode, only this time Earl receives wisdom from Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin and a couple of other characters are given new directions in life. The episode also includes an audio commentary with Garcia, Buckland, Lee and Suplee.
Deleted Scenes (8.58)
Here we have deleted scenes from selected episodes. These are for “Pilot”, “Broke Joy’s Fancy Figurine”, O Karma, where Art Thou?”, “Something to Live For”, “The Professor” and “Stole a Badge”. The humour is a bit hit and miss between, with some having great gags (Earl and Randy stealing jackpot winnings from a slumbering gambler) and others, such as “The Professor” going a little too over the top, with Alex’s original stung face being way scary, rather than humorous.
“Karma is a Funny Thing” Blooper Reel (19.10)
Quite a lengthy series of bloopers in comparison to a lot we see on DVD releases. It’s you typical reel, filled with screw ups, japery and gibberish. There are some nice highlights and it flies by pretty quickly.
Making Things Right. Behind-the-Scenes of “My Name is Earl” (36.49)
This is the big one, where we learn all we really need to about the series, from original conception to production. Creator Greg Garcia and Marc Buckland discuss how they went about getting the series produced, through to acquiring Jason Lee. It quickly moves on to interviews with Jason Lee who talks about making his decision on joining the cast, which was obviously very difficult. The feature then goes on to talk about the rest of the cast, with interviews; Suplee’s coincidental casting, Jaime Pressly breezing her audition and Valezquez and former Rubber Band Man Steeples rounding off a suitably cast show, while also sharing their initial concerns. Then we go into production with script readings, shooting set ups, make up, editing, writing, although little on scoring and getting lots of classic songs. We also learn of on set practices, creating a fun environment by setting the right tone, developing characters and introducing guest stars. Things finish up with overall feelings from cast and crew who are obviously very proud of their achievement.
A promo spot for the series’ soundtrack CD rounds off the final disc.
My Name is Earl sure did turn out to be the surprise hit of the year, and by taking in the entire first series we can invest ourselves whole heartedly into each and every character. It has that perfect blend of comedy and good intentions, never quite overstepping the mark or becoming offensive. Thanks to a superb cast, wonderful writing and bang on directing it proves to be a series that deserves to carry on for some time to come. Hopefully it can continue to come up with fun storylines; after all Earl’s list is quite a long one at over two hundred and fifty bad deeds. It needs to keep up this momentum if it’s to sustain itself for future seasons.
For fans of the show this is a nice release. Granted it’s a shame that we lose a few cracking songs (so has R1, however), but let me assure you that it doesn’t affect how each episode plays out. We still have an abundance of excellent tracks and all of the humour is left perfectly intact. Worth picking up for the great price that it’s being offered at through online retailers.