Monday, September 21, 2009

On DVD: "My Name Is Earl: The Complete Fourth Season"

When My Name is Earl premiered in September 2005, it was immediately (and rightly) hailed as one of the funniest shows on television. It was also one of the slyest and most quietly innovative, a single-camera, laugh-track-free series that often didn’t get credit for its sideways wit and subtle social commentary—a smart show, in other words, about dumb people. In its style and form, it was less like a TV sitcom and more like a series version of Raising Arizona.

Kevin Smith favorite Jason Lee plays Earl Hickey, a two-bit thief and petty criminal stuck in a nowhere life: his cheating wife Joy (Jaime Pressly) is about to leave him for Darnell (Eddie Steeples), aka “crabman.” His slow-witted brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) still lives with him. And just when he has a stroke of luck and wins big on a scratch ticket, he gets hit by a car and the ticket blows away. While in traction, he sees Carson Daly on television talking about karma, and decides that bad things keep happening to him because of all the bad things he’s done to others. So Earl makes a list of all those bad things and starts taking care of them, one by one—an operation financed by that scratch ticket, which reappears after his first good deed.

During that first season, the series really was “must see TV”—series creator Greg Garcia (previously known only for the far inferior Yes, Dear) and his writing staff were able to get plenty of comic mileage out of their central cast (further augmented by the lovely Nadine Velazquez as good-hearted motel housekeeper Catalina). Those key players are surrounded by a truly inspired group of semi-regulars and bit players—the residents of Camden County, where the show takes place: Patty the Daytime Hooker, Kenny, Ralph Mariano,TV’s Tim Stack, one-legged Didi, Chubby, Little Chubby, and Earl and Randy’s parents (well-played by the beleaguered Beau Bridges and Nancy Lenehan). Earl’s adventures were good-natured and often laugh-out-loud funny, and while (like Scrubs) the wrap-up narrations were occasionally heavy-handed, the show’s underlying message of tolerance and doing unto others was rather wonderful.

However, the show started to go astray in season two, going too far afield of its original concept with extended story arcs about Joy’s criminal activities and Earl’s attempts to grow up; the fear of getting stuck in a rut is understandable, but as a general rule, this is show where the quality of the episode has a near-direct correlation to how much time Earl spends with his list in his hand. That was bad news for the show in season three, then, which found Earl in prison for part of the season and, most unfortunately, in a coma for much of the remainder (his comatose fantasy life, in the style of a 1950s family sitcom, marked the show’s creative ebb).

The good news about My Name is Earl’s fourth (and ultimately final) season is that Garcia and his writers seemed to see how they’d gone off the tracks, and did an admirable job of returning the show to its roots. Season four is the series’ most consistently entertaining and funny since season one, and while not every episode is a home run, it remains goofy, enjoyable fun.

Highlight episodes include “Monkeys Take a Bath,” a Garcia-penned episode in which the Hickey brothers accidently stir up some bad blood between their parents; “Joy in a Bubble,” which finds Earl filling in for Joy after his failed attempt to give her a hot tub results in her being stuck in a bubble, waiting out a flesh-eating infection; the flashback episode “Earl and Joy’s Anniversary” (particularly its ridiculous killer bees subplot); the surprisingly sweet tale of childhood romance, “Pinky”; and “Chaz Dalton’s Space Academy,” especially the scenes concerning Joy’s attempts to make friends on the social networking site “BuddyBook.”

As before, Lee is a sturdy, solid anchor for the show, sympathetic and likable while still landing enough laughs to keep from purely playing straight man to the far-out supporting cast. Suplee’s dopey Randy remains a valuable player (his clueless “romance” with a guy named Jim in the episode “Friends with Benefits” is written and played just right), though I still haven’t forgiven them for phasing out the Earl/Randy bedtime chats that played under the closing credits in season one. But Pressly’s Joy is the comic gift that keeps on giving; she’s slowly but steadily become the show’s MVP, imbuing her trailer trash mom with such a full and funny personality that even her throwaway lines get laughs (personally, I fell out each and every time she barked “Dummy!” at Randy).

The force of her comic persona helps sustain a fairly weak mini-arc, in which her on-again, off-again audition for Erik Estrada’s reality competition show show (“Estrada or Nada”) leads to her accidently outing Darnell, who has been hiding in federal witness protection. Their aborted attempts to blend into their new, relocated environments sound like a funnier concept than they end up being, and Danny Glover’s guest shot as Darnell’s dad doesn’t quite land like it should.

Another misfire is the two-part “Inside Probe” episode, in which a years-old TV news investigation of the death of Crab Shack owner Ernie (hosted by a game Geraldo Rivera) is finally aired; there are some good gags in it, to be sure, but the entire enterprise is far too reminiscent of the similar “Our Other Cops Is On!” episodes from season three, themselves a rehash of the “Our Cops Is On!” episode of season two. I’m sad to see My Name is Earl gone, but when they start reworking old ideas this frequently, it might be for the best. The show’s final episode, “Dodge’s Dad,” is funny but tremendously unsatisfying—the show’s writers were clearly unaware that they were on NBC’s chopping block, and ended the season with a “To Be Continued” cliffhanger. One wishes the network would have given the good folks at Earl a heads-up, so the series could have come to a more fitting conclusion.

Though it ends on an unfortunate, unanswered question, the fourth and final season of My Name is Earl provides an abundance of laughs and a long-overdue return to what the series does best. While it never tops the show’s first (and still best) year, it is certainly the show’s strongest season since then—a bittersweet victory, since the show may very well have been ended when it still had some life left in it.

"My Name Is Earl: The Complete Fourth Season" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 22nd.

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