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My Name Is Earl – Season One (A TV on DVD Review)

My Name Is Earl

The Complete First Season (2005-2006) (20th Century Fox Home Video-2006)

The darkly cheerful My Name Is Earl, a tale of obsession and redemption, is told through the narration of a newly minted Dudley Do-Right who used to be a backwoods badass. His actions are an exercise in how everything in the universe is connected to everything else (everything is everything).

To once be wronged by Earl, and then to have him return to make his amends, is like having your own personal Jesus. Your happy ending is guaranteed.

No matter how you believe in your higher power, Earl nails the universal basics: nothing is what you think, but you still must subscribe to an unwavering trust in something you don't quite understand and know without question that this force is with you.

It's how Archie Bunker once earnestly described faith: it's believing in something that nobody in his right mind would believe.

What it boils down to, Earl believes, is karma. Karma – according to Wikipedia (and who should know better about karma than Wikipedia?) – is the concept of "action" or "deed" in Dharmic religions understood as denoting the entire cycle of cause and effect described in Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist philosophies.

Or to put it more bluntly, it's like a Johnny Cash song.

Seems like heavy stuff for such a merry lightweight, but Earl, a self-described bad egg, chooses karma as his return to redemption (as revealed to him when he watches Carson Daly discuss his belief in it on a television talk show).

From that moment on, Earl gets religion and vows to make up for every bad thing he has ever done. He devises a list of people he had wronged, numbering into the hundreds (or at least until the series gets its five years of syndication). For example: #186: stole a car from a one-legged girl. And America tunes in to see how he will reverse the bad deed and ultimately exchange the negative energy for the positive.

"That's Earl, I'm on his list!" boasts a golfer who was once wronged by him. Though his former victims are usually skeptical at first, they eventually go along for the ride, and it's a wild one.

The series receives its pass because of sharp writing and passionate acting. How those writers work such high-minded academic principles into the simple minds of the humble (the characters, not the actors, who are all amazing!) is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

It's true that the show is populated by the criminally minded, because every character steals every scene he or she is in. Roles range from dumb to mean to crazy, and in outward appearance are not far cries from those who populate The Dukes of Hazzard, Li'l Abner, and Smokey and the Bandit, which Earl considers to be the greatest movie of all time (even the name – Earl Hickey – sounds like something straight out of that genre).

Brother Randy – a walking id – gets swept up in his sibling's enthusiasm for do-gooding, and often waxes poetic in a strange stream of consciousness: "It's no fun to be blind. Why is Stevie Wonder always smiling? Maybe he can't see that he's smiling." Or "How was prison? Did they make you go to bed real early?"

He's dullard as genius, while Earl's ex-wife, Joy, is sexpot as beeyotch. Though Earl wants to remain friends with her ("I want to be the Bruce to her Demi," he claims), we watch and wait as the oily wheels of her mind turn and dispense TV quotables. She attempts to get around the karma, to no avail, and her ignorance of it makes us believe all the more. Of her high-school nemesis, she ponders sentimentally, "I haven't thought about how much better I am than her in years."

Catalina, the motel maid and illegal immigrant, has little to do, but does much with it. When comforted over the fact that her mother is dead, she shrugs it off with, "It's okay. It was either her or me." And when a kidnapping turns out well, she sniffs, "This is the sweetest, most justified kidnapping I've ever seen." And she claims to have seen five or six.

We also get A-grade character actors and other surprises (Clint Howard, Beau Bridges, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis) having a ball scumming it up.

Here also, karma is a character itself, with a determined mind and a major player in the turning of the plot. Karma literally moves in with Earl, and moves like the wind, blowing a winning lottery ticket in and out of his hands.

If Earl were to choose the Christian route (as opposed to the karma highway), his list would be relatively unnecessary, since Jesus forgives believers for their sins simply in return for their faith (the rest is simply repentance). If Earl were more trendy and shifted toward the Jewish/Kabala direction, his list would be considered mitzvot – he piles on the good deeds in order to get himself closer to heaven, like racking up points on a pinball machine.

However, Earl lives by his list as if it's his own personal Bible; his obsession to right his wrongs becomes his own personal religion. As Earl said, his list is a "roadmap to a better life."

Of course, the last minority group that is tortured on TV without consequence – lower-middle-class white people – is taken full advantage of here ("I know where your mama parks her house," Joy exclaims). For some reason, discrimination against this group is considered easy pickin's and immune from anticipated protest. However, Earl and Randy – whom you first assume to be trailer trash – are later revealed to come from a humble but comfortable suburban family.

What also first appears to be racism is nothing of the sort; in fact, it's the complete opposite, which ultimately shines through as an unbiased love for mankind (watch people of all sizes, shapes and colors dance to "Bust A Move" at a wedding). What characters may be dismissed as stupid eventually reveal themselves to be borderline brilliant and insightful.

The locale – naturally expected to be a rednecked, Dogpatch of a Hee Haw set, is hardly that at all: we see a university, a golf course, a corporate center and pretty suburban houses. Don't look down on Earl and his world – because you're in it. Just make sure you're on his list.

How such two-dimensional characters can feel so real and dispense so much inspiration is as marvelous and as mysterious as karma itself.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: June 4, 2007.

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