I haven’t seen tonight’s My Name Is Earl episode as of this writing, so maybe it’ll be good. Still, this season has been uneven enough to bring up the point that this show has really fallen a long, long way short of the initial expectations. Remember that when it premiered in 2005, it was considered not just a hit but a potential sensation, a breakout mega-hit that would save half-hour comedy. Bill Carter’s book Desperate Networks writes about Earl as an important hit that helped rescue NBC from its post-Friends funk. That book came out in 2006; now it’s only two years later and not only is Earl not a smash hit, it’s arguably the weakest link of NBC’s comedy lineup.
Yes, it does all right, and it’ll be there for another season, but it’s The Office — a show that looked like it was in big trouble when it first began — that is NBC’s comedy smash, which gets the spinoff, the YouTube videos, and the massive cultural impact. Earl is just sort of there, and while I found it enjoyable in its second season, the third season has been all over the place, and some of the ideas have been really bad ones, like the “let’s make fun of conventional sitcoms and remind people why they still like those sitcoms better than us” routine they gave us last week.
Even at its best, I’ve never been able to watch Earl without thinking that it should be better than it is — whereas when Office and 30 Rock and even Scrubs are at their best, I feel that they’re as good as I can possibly expect. The cast is good, the characters are funny except for Nadine Velasquez’s character. (That’s nothing against Velasquez, just that her character never developed. I mean, she doesn’t figure in the stories very much. I mean…) The writers come up with some great lines in every show. But there’s just something off about it. Probably the best explanation is this: the best comedies allow you to connect with the characters. That’s not the same as saying they have redeeming social value or teach you lessons, just that you feel like the characters reflect stuff we go through or feel, even if it’s just Basil Fawlty reflecting our own feelings of rage and humiliation. Earl is always working against that. Everything on the show is set up to distance us from the characters because the show is pervaded with a sneering sense of ironic distance: we’re always, always supposed to know something that the characters don’t. It started with the very first episode and the whole premise of Earl discovering the concept of karma: we’re supposed to know how ridiculous it is for him to be taking life lessons from Carson Daly, and so to an extent, the whole show is based on the idea that we