Remember when NBC used to be known for its sophisticated sitcoms - savvy series like Seinfeld and Friends?
Well, hold tight to that memory, because NBC's reputation for comedy may never be the same after tonight's debut of My Name Is Earl.
The show stars Jason Lee in the title role as a lowlife, petty criminal who suddenly gets religion (of a sort) when he discovers a TV version of karma. With it, NBC, which last season plummeted to fourth place among the networks, seems to be struggling to attract the young men of Spike TV - and, perhaps, the women of the NASCAR circuit.
The series' premise is succinctly delivered in voiceover by Earl at the very start of the pilot: "You know that guy you see at the convenience store, sort of a shifty-lookin' fella who buys a pack of smokes, a couple of Lotto scratchers and a 'tall boy' at 10 in the morning - the kind of guy you wait to come out before you and your family go in? Well, that guy is me ... "
Earl has been doing bad things most of his life: Breaking into cars, robbing houses, beating up weaker men, regularly getting drunk, routinely disparaging members of minority groups - in general, living like a poster boy for rude and crude behavior.
But one day, Earl wins $100,000 playing scratch-off lottery, only to be hit by a car and lose the ticket on the way home. While lying in the hospital with a morphine drip in his arm, he sees and hears NBC late-night host Carson Daly attributing his success to the principle of karma, which is simplified to a bromide: "Do good things and good things will happen."
Earl immediately believes that he lost the Lotto ticket because of his nasty ways and sets out to make amends. He begins by listing wrongs he will try to right: "Burned down a barn at camp. Stole a cooler with a donated kidney in it. Stole a car from a one-legged girl. Peed in a cop car. Replaced Sheridan Lang's birth control pills with Tic-Tacs. Beat up Joy's nitpicking Internet friend. ..."
Joy (Jamie Pressly) is Earl's ex-wife and the target of endless sexist jokes. Earl's efforts to right his wrongs as delineated by his list structures the series.
The pilot features Earl trying to help a gay former classmate whom he once tormented. The portrayal of this man as weak and frightened and the notion that he needs Earl's help to fashion a meaningful life is simply offensive.
My Name Is Earl is not a stupid sitcom - that is what makes its sexist and homophobic jokes so maddening. The sitcom cleverly depicts Earl as a Capra-esque everyman who has seen the error of his ways and is trying to do good in his own bumbling manner. One criticizes the character at the risk of being called elitist.
But there is an implied superiority - even a sneer - beneath Earl's populist veneer. Viewers aren't encouraged to laugh at Earl, as much as they are with him - at the people on his list.
That might just be a formula for success in these mean-spirited TV times.
My Names Is Earl premieres at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).
TransGeration - This eight-part documentary series is a compelling look at four college students on different campuses as they undertake journeys to change their gender. Thought-provoking and eye-opening without being sensational or exploitative, this is the kind of documentary filmmaking that does the medium proud. Tonight at 9 and airs at the same time Tuesdays through Nov. 8 on the Sundance cable channel.
For reviews, previews, photos and schedules of this fall's TV shows, go to baltimoresun.com/falltv.