'Earl' Improves NBC's Karma
Too many viewers found it "Inconceivable" that a tongue-in-cheek drama set in a fertility clinic could be entertaining, resulting in severe labor pains -- the kind involving actors and technicians being put out of work.
For all her heartland appeal, a warm and fuzzy Amy Grant barely had time to grant "Three Wishes" before that reality series was yanked. The Pentagon drama "E-Ring" should have been retitled "Bo-Ring." Viewers had little faith in "The Book of Daniel." "Four Kings" got royally flushed. "Surface" was a shallow sci-fi muddle. "Heist" couldn't steal a break.
How, then, did a network where one new series after another seemed to crater and die almost instantly wind up with an off-the-wall hit that is arguably the most buzzed-about sitcom of the season?
That show, of course, is "My Name Is Earl," the critically acclaimed Thursday sitcom that wraps its freshman season on May 11. With laid-back indie film star Jason Lee ("Almost Famous") in the title role, this quirky charmer follows a lifelong loser who vows to improve his karma by making a list of everything he has done wrong in his life and trying to make amends.
"Earl" is like nothing else currently on network TV, and there's no reason it should have had a future on a network that has become distressingly trigger-happy with its other offerings. With apologies to Earl and his list of karmic transgressions, however, we came up with a short list of things NBC actually did right to ensure that "Earl" had a chance to thrive.
1. Didn't say "Make it more like 'Friends.'" In an industry that seems to run mostly on fear these days and programming executives look for safe clones of proven hits, NBC actually "got" series creator Greg Garcia's original premise and, at least in all important respects, stepped back and let him do the show as he envisioned it, without corporate "improvements."
2. Acknowledged there are interesting characters in the "flyover country" between New York and Los Angeles. "My Name Is Earl" is peopled by rural, unpolished, outspoken characters who have never seen the inside of a Starbucks. They don't exchange sound bites, they have conversations. Usually, very loudly.
3. Used creative casting. Who knew Jason Lee could sprout a mustache that deserves billing of its own? But triple bonus points for hiring Ethan Suplee to lend an improbable sweetness to Randy, a "simple" character who must be very, very tricky to play, and for giving career sexpot Jaime Pressly a long-overdue chance to dazzle us with her sidesplitting comedy chops.
4. Soft-pedaled the political correctness. "Earl" gleefully lobs one wickedly comic softball after another over the heads of censors for alert (and adult) viewers, like the episode with the boys' ranch that came up with one unfortunate slogan after another ("Touching bad boys since 1963").
5. Resisted the temptation to use "Earl" to promote other NBC shows. Thankfully, none of the show's characters has appeared on, or even watched, "Fear Factor" or "Deal or No Deal," which may suggest they're smarter than they look. Here's hoping chubby Randy doesn't wind up on the next edition of "The Biggest Loser."