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'Earl' enjoys a breakout

The sitcom's prison parody has been a bit confining, but it has also yielded sharper bits.

December 09, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

At the end of last season, Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) began, finally, to learn that no good deed goes unpunished. The karma addict found himself heading off to jail -- so that his ex-wife, Joy (Jaime Pressly), wouldn't have to have her baby behind bars, he confessed to a crime she committed. For a man who's spent two seasons trying to undo his rough past through a naive, sometimes mundane quest to do right by those he'd previously hurt, this was cruel comeuppance.

Maybe it's not strange, then, that Season 3 of "My Name Is Earl" will forever be remembered as the season the show morphed into "Prison Break."

The parallels have been accumulating for weeks. To navigate life behind bars, Earl partnered with his brother, Randy (Ethan Suplee); not an inmate, as on "PB" -- Randy instead becomes a prison guard. Earl also befriended the warden (an overly shabby Craig T. Nelson), whom he helped bring order to the prison, much in the same way he restored order in the course of completing the tasks on his list. And last week, the "Prison Break" allusions became overt -- when formulating an escape from A.J. Johnson Prison, Earl has a fellow inmate copy the prison blueprints onto his back with a marker, a la Michael Scofield's elaborate tattoos.

But what probably began as a clever wink has come to feel cheap, especially given that this season has featured some of the show's sharpest and most idiosyncratic writing. Some of Earl's tasks in the prison have been vividly hilarious. He quelled tensions between rival gangs by making sure their leaders had time alone . . . to be intimate, even as their crews thought they hated each other. Another episode, in which Earl takes a creative writing class, was psychedelic in both visuals and narrative arc -- a highly successful stunt. And the show gets away with remarkably raunchy humor.

Surprisingly, given its sometimes tunnel-like perspective, "Earl" also succeeds with topical humor. One of this season's -- and the series' -- best episodes was a flashback to a local fair in 2002, at the height of jingoism and xenophobia. Almost everything stung, including the Steve Perry-esque singer repeatedly shrieking "America rocks!" and cops evaluating people's likelihood of being a terrorist by matching their skin tone to paint chips (a cruel, ridiculous riff on the "paper bag test" of old).

And style was not sacrificed for ideas -- the episode also included a sublime shot of Tim Stack, the neighborhood faded celeb played by the underrated comic actor of the same name, drunk-driving a bumper car down an empty suburban street, sparks shooting out of the top.

Over the course of its run, "Earl" has frequently relied on an aw-shucks cuteness to substitute for substance, despite being one of the few sitcoms with a developed, articulated ideology. Take Darnell, a.k.a. "Crabman" (Eddie Steeples), Joy's current husband and a character who was too often a visual punch line. This season, though, he's become more vibrant, helped along by performances in two outstanding musical sequences.

Maybe the writers took a lesson from last season, in which they complicated the character of Joy and were rewarded -- Pressly earned a 2007 Emmy for the role. Or maybe three seasons of do-goodery have become boring. In the show's next new episode -- titled "Bad Earl" -- Earl, finally released from prison, decides karma is for saps and declares himself finished with the list. ("Bad Earl" was originally scheduled for this week but will now air in January -- recent episodes are available at A twist at the episode's end might renew his faith, but one hopes it won't. Certainly being all nice all the time must be suffocating -- karma is its own jail.

Now if only "Prison Break" could morph into "My Name Is Earl" . . .

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