Photo by Chris HastonThe dirty secret of Foxs not-long- for-this-world Arrested Development is that despite its unfailing comedy smarts, its heartless. This is why its gone begging for viewers. Of course, its heartlessness is actually legitimate, since its a show about overprivileged, rich whack jobs. Any whiff of sentiment would probably be as welcome as a thorny moral issue in CSI: Miami. Seinfeld famously shunned hugs, but there was a friendship glue to the Jerry-Elaine-George-Kramer system those four were inseparable that provided the trace amounts of emotional fulfillment needed to get the most important result: a big bear squeeze from viewers. In fact, the unspoken reason devotees dismissed the bloated finale of Seinfeld in which the foursome were put on trial for their self-centeredness was that nobody wanted to be reminded of how loathsome their beloved prime-time buddies would have been if they existed in the real world. Seinfelds big lesson was that TVs half-hour comedies could adopt a more biting, more cerebral and even flat-out weird tone not to mention play with form, eventually get off the sound stage and supposedly set aside worries about tugging at heartstrings. No one would have to endure any more very special episodes where cute little Arnold barely escapes child molestation on Diffrent Strokes, or a Facts of Life girl almost gets pimped out. Its been a hard transition, though, because Scrubs never broke through, and the label for Arrested Development something like the funniest show you never watch has ceased to sound cool and now just reeks of bitterness.The dirty secret, then, of this seasons breakout hit comedy My Name Is Earl with Jason Lee as a repentant scoundrel is that its charming in spite of its well-crafted comedy: It actually makes you feel good. Earl Hickey, who proudly wears his faded jeansT-shirtflannel overshirt combo and stubbly countenance like a uniform, describes his petty-criminal self in the pilot as the guy you wait to leave the convenience store before entering with your family. But on a day when he loses a winning lottery ticket, gets hit by a car and is dumped by his two-timing wife (a spectacularly trashy Jaime Pressly), he becomes convinced that his life of ill repute and bad deeds needs rectifying. After watching Carson Daly refer to karma on TV, Earl pegs the age-old cause-and-effect principle as his own path to betterment. Armed with a few pages of ruled yellow paper on which hes listed 258 transgressions, a confessional rap sheet of sorts, hes on a mission to right every wrong faking his own death to break up with a girl, letting a friend go to jail for a crime Earl committed, littering until every item has been crossed off. As Earls my bad crusade takes its circuitous, even farcical, route toward charitable outcomes for his past victims, he develops a keen radar to karmas workings: The lottery ticket may have resurfaced, but the vending machine also nudged out an extra package of powdered doughnuts, and the smile on Earls face at that moment was priceless. Karma made for a downer sendoff for the Seinfeld gang, but as a kickoff for My Name Is Earl, it usually leads to a goofy grin on my face, too. Goodness isnt exactly a wellspring of comedy, either, which makes the show all the more ingenious.At times Earl feels like the type of show we were all promised would rule the pop-culture universe after the World Trade Center towers went down, when the death knell for irony or rather, snarky, icy joke making was prematurely sounded. Theres nothing syrupy, though, about Earl, and, if anything, the affability and good will are a regular source of humor. Even though Earls embittered ex-wife, Joy, has become a scheming villain in daisy dukes shes after his lottery stash her lover-turned-husband, Darnell (Eddie Steeples), is still the nice, laid-back dude who serves food with a smile at the crab shack. Joy will viciously threaten to kill her ex-husband to his face, then the men will wave at each other: Hey, Earl. Hey, Crab Man.My Name Is Earl isnt some full-fledged retreat to a kinder, gentler, more boring sitcom era, either. For one thing, it sports the kind of crisp and imaginative camerawork that youd get from a scrappy indie film crew. It also delights in irreverence and indulges in the kind of bad-taste gags youd expect on a Fox show, rather than NBC, but theres usually a good-natured spin involved. Instead of an elderly ex-smoker with a microphone to his throat playing like a typical ick-factor gag, hes a figure of awe to Earls brother Randy, a sensitive yet oafish mouth-breather hilariously played by Ethan Suplee. Say Luke, I am your father, Randy asks with fanboy anticipation. Even better, the old guy obliges. Cue my goofy grin.Its been noted that creator Greg Garcia has obviously watched Raising Arizona a few times, but I dont detect any of the Coen brothers legendary chilliness. My Name Is Earl wrings laughs from easy stuff the detritus and simple pleasures in a world of tallboys, pawnshops, beauty pageants, cheap motels and trailer parks but it would die without the enveloping silly warmth. A closer connection would be to the Farrelly brothers, who never met a member of societys fringe the disabled, the stupid, the style-challenged they couldnt laugh at, laugh with and love. Or perhaps Damon Runyon, who practically invented the genre of personable lowlifes with generous hearts. Even the shows language feels white-trash Runyonesque, precise in its cultural details, its slang and its hilarious sense of understatement. Reading from the list, Randy notices that his brother once peed in a cop car. I am no longer proud of that, Earl declares. Lines like that roll effortlessly out of Lee, an actor for whom deadpan articulation is like a snipers sense of aim. Lately this graduate of the Kevin Smith/Cameron Crowe sidekick school has seen his movie career sink in a series of negligible romantic comedies. But Earl Hickey is a crackerjack part, and feels like a spirited do-over for Lee, who now seems more comfortable with everything from being a leading man to doing physical comedy to simply smiling. Hes also figured out that Earls sincerity has to include an element of his former rascally self for it to work. Maybe Lee is so good because he can identify with the spiritual conversion of his born-again protagonist: He now knows what its like to have a rewarding new role fall in your lap and be able to run with it.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.