Being funny is always a good place for a comedy to start, but when the title character is a crooked lowlife suddenly overwhelmed by the redemptive notion of karma, there’s reason to fear that might not be enough. Blessed less with belly laughs than an amusingly wry tone, this single-camera half-hour disarmingly focuses on an underclass that seldom gets much attention in the neatly manicured world of primetime. Yet NBC has done this promising series no favors by asking it to be a self-starter, underscoring the deep state of disrepair into which the net’s comedy footprint has fallen.
Then again, the advance critical euphoria surrounding “My Name Is Earl” and a few other new sitcoms this fall actually relies in part on diminished expectations, which at least from a ratings standpoint might be the best thing “Earl” has going for it.
A quickly paced montage augmented by star Jason Lee’s aw-shucks voiceover presents Earl as a thieving, lying, hard-drinking bottom-dweller with a brother (Ethan Suplee) who’s at least as big a blight on humanity and an ex-wife (Jaime Pressly) who tricked him into marrying her during a drunken stupor.
In one of those life-changing moments that Earl takes as a sign from a higher power, he scratches a winning lottery ticket only to abruptly (and pretty hilariously, with “I’m a Loser” playing in the background) misplace it, which briefly lands him in the hospital.
Watching TV in bed, NBC’s own latenight guru, Carson Daly, introduces Earl to the meaning of karma, inspiring his self-appointed mission to do right by all those he wronged in the past as his “road map to a better life.”
Of course, this do-gooding thing is new to Earl, and his first beneficiary, a schoolmate he tormented named Kenny (Gregg Binkley), isn’t initially interested in any assistance — especially when Earl decides the way to help is to find him a woman, which isn’t the direction ol’ Kenny swings.
Lee brings such a goofy, dimwitted earnestness to the role that it’s hard not to smile at him, what with his hair perpetually disheveled and one eyebrow askew. Moreover, series creator Greg Garcia (whose credits — go figure — include CBS’ lightly regarded “Yes, Dear”) has a good ear for his simpleminded approach to life, which has a way of working out almost in spite of his misguided efforts.
The other characters aren’t quite so convincing, though Suplee exhibits a daft, dazed look as Earl’s brother who becomes “unpredictable” after too many beers, while Nadine Velazquez is a welcome addition to this year’s bumper crop of sexy Latina comic support. Fortunately, “Earl” is pitched so broadly that no one should be offended, including rednecks.
The show’s demeanor, in fact, is essentially that of the Coen brothers’ “Raising Arizona,” which is to say more an arthouse snack than a full-blown meal. With NBC lacking a solid comedy foundation, the network can only hope that “Earl” and companion “The Office” prove an acquirable taste capable of building a loyal core following.
Back when Grant Tinker took over a then-ailing NBC in the ’80s, he famously told his lieutenants: “First be best. Then be first.”
“My Name Is Earl” isn’t the best comedy around, but it’s pretty darn good. As for being first, well, it’s probably going to be a while before that little bit of karma pays off.