For a series that helped save the bacon of the comedy genre — and the network most noted for sitcoms in recent years — “My Name Is Earl” seemed to come a little out of left field.
Series mastermind Gregory Garcia’s previous creation was CBS’s very traditional studio laffer “Yes, Dear” — not the kind of work that predicts future success with a wickedly smart single-camera show.
Meanwhile, “Earl’s” key talent includes title role player Jason Lee, a feature thesp most versed in straight-man, best-friend parts, who claims he never even thought about doing TV before; and Jaime Pressley, a former Maxim model admittedly typecast as “the girlfriend of the jock” in feature roles.
But the series — which tracks a ne’er-do-well’s discovery of basic Buddhist principles, and his attempt to, one by one, make up for a list of 260 bad things he’s done over the course of his life — scored right out of the gate.
As they’re prone to do with hip single-camera comedies, critics jumped onboard with the formula, which plunges into such risky-for-primetime topics as homosexuality, the disabled and infidelity — all in the pilot episode — then makes up for any taste transgression at the end, when the characters finally understand their flaws and intolerances.
“Finally, a hit sitcom that’s actually funny,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman. “For critics, there’s much to love, but on the simplistic end, ‘Earl’ gets belly laughs every week, and that’s a rarity.”
Still, the show’s principals had trepidations — after all, they’d already seen what happened to Fox’s “Arrested Development.”
“We were nervous originally because we thought we might be one of those critically acclaimed single-camera shows that don’t have much of an audience,” Lee notes.
But, to tweak “Earl’s” Zen-fueled mantra, do good shows and good ratings happen. The series averaged 10.9 million viewers in its first season and a 4.9 rating/12 share in adults 18-49 (it ranked as the No. 2 comedy on television in this demo).
“It saved NBC’s backside on Thursday nights,” Goodman notes. “It helped along ‘The Office’ until people could find it.”
“We feel like we won a battle,” Lee adds. “We’re a smart show that has an audience.”
In terms of Emmys, the series, Lee, Pressley and the writing staff all seem logical contenders — as does Ethan Suplee, who plays Earl’s simpleton brother and gets some of the best lines. Notable guest appearances by thesps including Beau Bridges, Jon Favreau, Giovanni Ribisi and Juliette Lewis might also garner a look.
Best episode: “The Bounty Hunter.” Juliette Lewis plays a former girlfriend of Earl’s who was cuckolded — and punched toothless — at the hands of the obnoxious Joy years earlier. Now trained in martial arts and various other combat skills, Lewis returns as a bounty hunter determined to bring Joy down. She has her hands full.
Funniest character: Easy choice — the queen of the trailer park herself, Joy. A selection from her better lines: “I’m gonna get into art school, and when I do, y’all are gonna have to take care of the babies, mmm-hmm. Then you gonna see what it’s like to have to get up at midnight ’cause they’re crying for more Mountain Dew.”
What should happen next season: More big-name guest stars — perhaps a visit from Carson Daly himself, whose discussions on TV about the concept of karma turned Earl around in the pilot. Also, there might be some romance for Earl — a dynamic he’s thus far resisted, sensing karma wants more payback before it will let him enjoy such pleasures.