John Walker's Electronic House

My Name Is Earl – Still Great

by on Nov.10, 2007, under Television

One show that’s been continuously great, but rarely gets any coverage, is My Name Is Earl. And its third season is developing really nicely.

Season two ends with Earl taking the rap for his ex-wife Joy’s kidnapping crime, and has gone to prison. Which you’d imagine would put something of a dampener on a series about a man trying to make up for the wrongs in his life by helping people on his list. But, no.

Thanks to the show’s frequent use of flashbacks, and Earl’s dealings with a number of other prisoners, there’s no problems there. But interestingly, recently they’ve entirely ignored the list, and yet the show hasn’t lost anything for it. Over the first two seasons they built up such a fantastic collection of recurring characters that it’s almost as developed as the Simpsons for being able to spin off new stories by mixing and matching from the collective (except unlike the Simpsons, it’s funny). So the one-legged woman, the middle-aged hooker, drunken Timothy Stack, the weedy thin gay guy… these ludicrous stereotypes, all presented with real affection, let it concoct any nonsense that comes to mind. The feel-good, do-gooder morality that spoiled the endings of some of season two’s episodes is completely abandoned now, far more interested in really well presented silliness.

A recent double-length episode saw them returning their second season idea of showing the characters through the eyes of Fox’s show, COPS (which is a weird collaboration between NBC and Fox). Again, it gave them an excuse to set a show in the past – the prisoners were watching the episode – this time set in 2002, on the 4th July. And, amazingly, the entire episode was a satire of the over-reaction to terrorist fears inspired by 9/11. Sure, it’s six years later, but it’s hardly any less topical, and some of the gags felt surprisingly close to the knuckle, mocking not the government, but the public response. Even the show’s pun jokes were delivered in a surprisingly deadpan manner, creating a weird atmosphere that felt far from sitcom. A highlight was a cop walking around with two paint sample cards, one a beige “Swiss Almond”, the other a brown “Coconut Husk”, seeing if people’s skins fell between the two to see if he needed to question them.

Then the following episode takes the mocking in another direction, tackling last week’s completely daft initiative by NBC to have a “green” theme in every programme, with their peacock logo all green. 30 Rock apparently did some whoops-my-trousers-have-fallen-down-vicar references to networks overreaching, but My Name Is Earl’s approach was far more direct. There’s a story about the inept, incompetent prison warden asking Earl to organise a “Scared Straight” initiative (with the obvious jokes involved) taking prisoners into primary/junior schools to scare children out of committing crimes. During a meeting about this, there’s the following exchange:

Warden: Just had another thought. What if the Scared Straight show had a green message too?
Earl: I don’t follow.
Warden: Green! It means environmentally friendly.
Earl: Yeah… The thing is sir, going green… doesn’t fit with the rest of the show.
Warden: Well work your magic, make it fit.
Earl: Well I’d just be wedging it in.
Warden: What if I told you you had to do it because I’m your boss?
Earl: Then I’d say I could take the shower kill in the story and turn it into something about the importance of conserving water?
Warden: That’s good… And how about if we start the show when the guy bends down to pick up the phosphate-free soap?

It must have been the exact exchange between the writers’ room and the network execs.

Another line later on:

Prisoner: Things were going from worse to even worser. Not only did the cops have my footprint from the casino vault, but my carbon footprint was off the charts.

And finally,

: Great show guys! I heard one kid say he’d never stab anyone, or order Chilean sea bass.
Huge Terrifying Prisoner: They are dangerously over-fished.

Don’t forget it. It’s been consistently brilliant this season, with a much more careful use of guest stars that the sophomore year, and the smarts to know when a character is good enough to keep coming back. If you ever worried that the show would die with the list, put that aside. Also, try to forget that Jason Lee is a Scientologist.

7 Comments for this entry

  • The_B


    I’m still pissed off with Channel 4 again screwing around with Earl’s schedule so much that I keep missing it. They did it halfway through Season one, and they did it again halfway through season 2. I half blame bloody Big Brother, but it still pisses me off that they don’t quite give it the chance it deserves.

    As an aside (and I know I keep asking about this, so apologies) but are your thoughts on the sublime Pushing Daises anywhere near the forefront of your keyboard yet? That anaology works a lot better when referring to a pen and ink…

  • pharoahe_monch

    i am, too, pleasantly surprised how Earl s3 is much better than hoped and always finding new ways to surprise and entertain us. the first two seasons were not so inventive.
    also, what is it with Pushing Daisies you love so much? i watched episodes 1&2 and it’s not bad but it’s nowhere near really good or great, either! the characters are boring and the art direction is stylish without soul. dialogue is actually not so bad, but they seem to be making fun, not being genuinely funny, which also ruined most episodes of Weeds s3 for me.
    (from fuller, i really liked dead like me, but even that ran out of steam on the 2nd season)

  • H

    Big fan of MNIE, but alas I only have poor person’s telly and so am only on season two. Still enjoying it, thoroughly. I’m curious as to how they’ll end season three, as from what you’ve said about it being in prison, largely, it might also only be an idea of limited scope.

  • The_B

    I would have to disagree with several of your points about PD, the characters aren’t boring at all, and I somehow think you’re slightly missing the point of the show. It has a whimsicality about it, and the characters are just about brilliant in the way they are pretty much handled in a modern fairy tale fashion.

    I could (and probably should) elaborate, but I’m in Uni right now, so just stealing a moment here to repsond, especially as I was loving PD up to the point I’ve seen personally.

  • pharoahe_monch

    i think i see the point of PD, but i don’t think what they have is a really good entertainment. it’s always easy to label people with “you don’t see the real point” if they disagree, don’t you think? then again, you gave the perfect answer why you like the show (whimsicality, good story well told, really liked the characters etc), so i don’t need a deeper debate there.

  • The_B

    I agree about the just labelling people bit, but as I said I was in Uni at the time. ;)

    I think my main reason for stating you were missing the point was that I personally thought you were analysing it a little too clincally.

  • pharoahe_monch

    i’m not sure what you mean by “analysing too clinically”; i just didn’t find the first and the second episode especially enjoyable and tried to convey that feeling. speaking of good things, recently i discovered a great show Medium, which, after four episodes, feels just superb. have you tried?