“My Name is Earl” certainly isn’t the funniest show on television. It’s often so sappy and simplistic that even its few good jokes are easily overlooked. Still, NBC’s hit sitcom, now in its sophomore season, is among today’s most original and surprisingly introspective shows. It sets itself apart from all its soulless, clueless genre counterparts by highlighting the difficulties involved in doing even the smallest bit to affect change. It’s often said that crime doesn’t pay, but in “Earl” we see the myriad structural barriers that ensure charity and goodwill are equally as frowned upon and unsung.

Morgan Morel
Imran Syed

For those who have yet to figure out exactly whose name is Earl, the show centers on a lifelong petty criminal named Earl Hickey (Jason Lee). Its concept is simple: Earl is trying to turn his life around. From stealing to vandalizing to bullying, Earl did just about every un-“Sesame Street” thing you could think of. Then one day, he wins the lottery, only to be hit by a car in the midst of his street jubilation.

In the hospital late at night, barely conscious, Earl catches a bit of “Last Call with Carson Daily,” where Carson explains that his outlook on life is based on karma. “Do good things,” he says, “and good things will happen to you.” Earl takes this advice to heart, knowing all too well what happens when you don’t do good things. With his faithful and lovably clueless brother Randy at his side, Earl embarks on a mission to change (save) his life, using his lottery money to right all the wrongs he has ever committed, all scribbled on a scrap of paper residing indefinitely in his shirt pocket.

A sitcom with such a sanitary concept can easily be shallow and lack the subtle touch that makes any good TV show work. But for “Earl,” the push to do good isn’t good enough. Everyone wants to do good; no one walks around saying “I will ignore three people today, backstab six others, steal a drink from the office fridge and top it all off by crashing into a coworker’s car and not leave a note.” But it happens.

“Earl” truly breaks new ground in its analysis, dissection and ultimate appraisal of what makes good and bad. It is a show of not simply committing a crime or making amends but about the consequences of both. Its setting in a rural town is a perfect place for such a portrayal – people’s lives are complex and so are their problems, but the outcomes lead to simple lessons that apply everywhere.

Making it right years after the fact, as Earl tries to do, isn’t so simple after all. He may have only stolen money from a guy to buy beer, but is returning that money enough? Aren’t the consequences that guy suffered Earl’s responsibility too?

And is it really payback if it’s done under different circumstances? If as a 35-year-old millionaire, you pay back $5 of a 10-year-old’s lunch money you stole decades ago, can we really call it all even? “Earl” never pontificates – it simply explores such questions with the humility and simple sincerity that anyone who has ever faced the humbling everyday of life can relate to.

And finally there are the barriers to doing good, probably the show’s single biggest theme. Why is it illegal to put change in other people’s parking meters? If someone wants to do such a thing, why should the government stop him? The simple, despicable, yet pragmatic truth: If all meters get fed, the government issues less parking tickets and loses money.

But other bureaucratic barriers make even less sense. Knowing he committed fraud on his taxes for years, Earl tries to give the government the money he owes by writing a check and taking it to an Internal Revenue Service office. Thanks but no thanks, he’s told: The government only takes money it misses. Even if you committed fraud, it’s your right to withhold that money until compelled to pay it back.

So the government forces Earl to remain a criminal even when he tries to make amends and move on. The perils of a cops-and-robbers justice system, all neatly packaged into an entertaining 22 minutes.

While pointing out the complexities of the simple problems of our lives, “Earl” doesn’t shy away from the simple truth our hectic lifestyles tend to belittle: No matter the barriers, we can right our little parts of the world – if we only choose to try.

– Even if Syed won the lottery, he says paying his parking tickets would be out of the question. E-mail him at galad@umich.edu.

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