While it might sound like a Stateside remake of Shameless at first glance, those unfortunate enough not to be familiar with My Name Is Earl might be surprised to discover that it’s the finest example of the ‘feelgood’ (hngh) sitcom to come out of the USA over the last ten years. Set in fictitious midwestern town Camden County, the show follows Earl J. Hickey (Jason “Mallrats” Lee), a small-time crook with an uncanny habit of blinking whenever having his photo taken, who undergoes an epiphany after being hit by a car seconds after winning $100,000 on an instant lottery ticket. Upon his recovery, Earl compiles a list of every misdeed he has ever committed, and vows to perform a suitably fitting good deed for each person he’d wronged, in the belief that karma (first experienced taking the human form of Carson Daly) will reward him.
Aided by his dimbulb brother Randy (Ethan “Also Mallrats” Suplee), each episode follows Earl as he concentrates on a righting single wrong from his list, usually getting into a number of hugely entertaining scrapes along the way, often involving Earl’s white trash ex-wife Joy and her second husband Darnell “Crabman” Turner (Jaime Pressly and Eddie Steeples, who are both majestic in their roles) and motel maid Catalina (Nadine Velazquez). If all that weren’t enough, there’s an extra dollop of entertainment to be gleaned from the assembled residents of Camden County itself. With the Camden folk added to the mix, My Name Is Earl proves to be a show with the greatest sense of a community sharing an overall sensibility not seen since the golden era of Springfield. Wikipedia actually contains a page of minor recurring characters within the show, currently running to twenty-three characters – and that’s not including celebrity guest one-off townsfolk like Juliette Lewis, Jane Seymour, Roseanne Barr, Christian Slater, John Waters or Danny Glover.
A resolutely blue-collar berg, the population of Camden County might as well be living on the Lost island, for all the influence the greater world has on them – it’s a place where throwing empty beer cans at each other in the street is considered a hobby, and the entire town treats its occasional appearances on Cops as a cause for celebration. The people of Camden County each have their own interesting character traits, from Didi the one-legged girl in the donut shop (who Earl stole a car from, just after telling her he loved her), Willie the one-eyed mailman (who became monocular thanks to shrapnel from Joy’s smashing of Earl’s Def Leppard picture), local African immigrant Nescobar-A-Lop-Lop, Mr Turtle (a turtle), to Tim Stack, Camden County’s only celebrity, now a lonely alcoholic who wanders the streets still dressed as his character from Son Of The Beach (who, in reality, did star in Son Of The Beach, not to mention brilliant 90s Stringer spoof NightStand, and who is a sometime writer on My Name Is Earl).
The lengths Earl goes to in order to atone for his past really add to the show’s enjoyment. One first-season episode has Earl discovering he once forgot to pay tax on the wages he’d earned from an old part-time job. Upon trying to pay it back through official channels, the government clerks he contacts aren’t interested, so he takes to more unorthodox measures to repay his debt. A later episode sees Earl fly the French exchange student he’d bullied as a child back to the USA, only for him not to have remained as docile as Earl would have suspected. My Name Is Earl also sees a welcome return to that grand old tradition: the two male leads innocently sharing the same bed, with the banter therein often matching that of Eric, Ernie, Stan and Ollie (though we’re loath to pad out the word count by throwing a load of quotes at these entries – go watch some episodes of it instead).
One point - if you are going to catch up on the series, try to avoid the repeats on E4 if you can. Despite them going out after 7pm, a lot of really quite tame lines are clumsily hacked out of the show by the E4 Thought Cops (example: the flashback scene where Catalina is being packed into a crate so she can sneak into the USA. As the crate is sealed, she is passed a bunch of bananas for sustenance and a newspaper. "It's too dark to read in here!" she yells, only to receive the reply "it's not for reading". A subtle toilet paper gag that you might even have heard in a slightly edgy kid's movie, only the reply is shoddily cut from the E4 broadcasts. See also the episode where Juliette Lewis co-stars, playing a bail bondswoman looking for a fight with Joy – the fight starts, almost immediately ends, Joy appears in Earl’s car within a split-second, and the pair have driven away, with jarring jump cuts all over the place. This sort of thing happens about three times per episode, and can normally be spotted when the action cuts to a character at the end of a scene, they say or do nothing for half a second, and the scene ends. It's annoying, as MNIE is the kind of show incapable of going more than twenty seconds without something funny occurring, and when anything moderately contentious happens, it's almost always entirely without malice. Get the DVDs instead, which let you see My Name Is Earl is it’s full, unexpurgated majesty.