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The rise of no-shower star power

October 28, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Is it coincidence that two of the most beloved characters on TV right now are unwashed dudes who've won the lottery?

Earl Hickey of NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and Hugo "Hurley" Reyes of ABC's "Lost" are marginal creatures normally pushed to the background of shows, loosely defined on casting-call sheets as slackers No. 1 and No. 2. And yet this time around they're full-blooded characters. Hurley exudes convenience-store clerk Buddha on a deserted island, while Earl is a born-again Samaritan laid up at a motel that serves as headquarters for his new lease on life.

"My Name Is Earl," while lacking, say, the art direction and deeper cultural critique of the movies that seem to have influenced it, nevertheless represents a sea change in network comedy. NBC, trying to reinvigorate its prime-time schedule, has seen "Earl" become its ray of hope, a series that is ranking so well among 18- to 49-year-olds that NBC is said to be considering moving "Earl" to Thursday nights. That's the night that NBC used to dominate, its comedies replete with Ross and Chandler types -- twitchy, verbose guys in clever Banana Republic combinations of V-neck sweaters and T-shirts, unafraid to expose their feminine sides.

And yet it's simplistic to define Earl as NASCAR counter-programming, because the character, as embodied by Jason Lee, transcends the red state/blue state divide. True, on paper, Earl is a former petty thief and layabout with redneck tendencies, but as played by Lee he's more of an indie-comedy antihero -- less defined by geography than movie iconography.

Ditto Hurley on "Lost" (Jorge Garcia), whose Latino roots don't factor into a show so savant-ish about pop culture it can seem like one giant reference to movies. A few weeks ago, in flashback, we learned that his former life was properly unambitious: a McJob at a fast-food joint and off-hours spent at a used record store, a la "High Fidelity." In the flashback, he quits his job because he knows he's going to come into lottery money, but even that he is not too psyched about, money being its own curse. Similarly, when Hurley is put in charge of a food supply discovered in an underground bunker, he panics. It's the panic of the movie slacker: The thing he fears most is becoming management.

It is a measure of the new durability of this type that Hurley and Earl -- basically the same sentient pop-culture reference -- occupy such vastly different physical environments, neither of which can be found on a map: One is a nameless island, the other a nameless town outside a nameless city.

The ethos of the movie slacker is about the search for identity in a culture homogenized beyond recognition, where the young are cast adrift. Not doing anything about any of this is a form of slacker protest. Thus, Hurley on that island is just Hurley on that island; he's both the least resourceful castaway and the most believable.

The movies both characters have migrated to TV from are deadpan comedies like "Slacker," "Clerks," "Napoleon Dynamite," "Office Space" and "The Big Lebowski"; Internet Movie Database lists 47 titles under the keyword "slacker." That beloved canon of movies worked for the way they captured the rhythms of the unspectacular life as lived by the man of low ambition and offbeat obsessions. The middle-aged Dude of "The Big Lebowski," a Vietnam-era counter-culture refugee, is described as "most definitely a lazy man" (his serenity involves bowling and pot), while "Napoleon Dynamite" is an elegy for high school outsiderness, resonating for a younger age group.

If Hurley has a bit of Napoleon's inscrutability, Lee recalls Nicolas Cage's crazed, scruffy mug in "Raising Arizona," his style practically suggesting a new sitcom-male chic -- T-shirts over plaid shirts, T-shirts over other T-shirts, battered jeans, worker boots; there is something at once young Hollywood and Southern about him. The long sideburns are just part of this crossover appeal.

He is not a hick, even though last week we learned he used to make fun of immigrants with accents. His penance involved teaching an English-as-second-language class. "How hard can it be to teach foreigners to speak American?" he asked in a voice-over, innocently. The show nods at red state vulgarity, most notably through Earl's estranged wife, Joy, in a born-to-play-her performance by Jaime Pressly.

"Honey, I don't care if she's Vietnamese, Chinese or Chuck E. Cheese, she don't need to be learnin' no English," Joy said, angry that a Vietnamese student in Earl's class has opened a rival trailer-park nail salon.

Joy is the show's one consistent cultural punch line. Earl, in the end, is much harder to place, which is fitting for the still-evolving slacker type. The new FX comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," for instance, even has slackers in a "Friends"-like urban configuration. These shows are moving the culture forward in one sense, at least: by throwing out some well-worn signposts of geographic, economic and even racial difference, until you arrive at the godforsaken nexus of all of us, the parking lot of Chuck E. Cheese.

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