"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My Name is Earl: My Name is Inmate # 28301-016

The hour-long Season 3 premiere of My Name Is Earl starts off with a funny twist on the show's famous prologue. No longer a free man after pleading guilty to a crime he didn't commit, the show about karma gets a name change: My Name is Inmate #28301-016.

After two seasons of Earl Hickey crossing items off his list, a dramatic change of scenery makes sense to keep the show fresh. Given the character's checkered past, the creators made a plausible decision to put Earl behind bars, even if it wasn't his fault this time. Besides, for a show all about karma and redemption, could you ask for a better setting than prison?

Earl's done shorts stints in county jail, but never hard time. Luckily, at the end of last season, he learned he'd be cellmates with childhood friend Ralph. However, things immediately head south for Earl in this episode as Ralph copies the plot of The Shawshank Redemption (substituting a Dolly Parton poster for Rita Hayworth) and escapes, leaving him all alone in the Big House.

Unfortunately, Earl isn't the only one suffering as a result of his incarceration. Joy is struggling with the guilt she feels for having let Earl take her prison rap and is looking for ways to make it up to him. And Earl's brother Randy is a sad, lonely mess with no one to take care of him. The solution? To return Earl's favor, Joy agrees to let Randy move into her house and to look after him, which turns out to be harder than it appears.

Inside the walls, Earl's biggest concern isn't crossing things off his karma list, but rather figuring out how to survive prison life. Not surprisingly, with his past history of running afoul of the law, Earl knows a few people doing time with him. The first familiar face he meets is Sonny, an old friend who teaches him how to stay invisible to the other prisoners. Unfortunately, Earl can't stay invisible for long because Sonny owes a favor to another of Earl's acquaintances and rats him out.

This acquaintance turns out to be Glen Shipley. Once upon a time, Glen was a squeaky clean boy scout eager to help those in need. As it happened, young Earl was in need of someone small enough to climb through a window and open a door from the inside because he "forgot his keys." As it turned out, innocent Glen was mauled by guard dogs, arrested for breaking and entering and sent to juvenile hall while Earl got off scot free. Thus began Glen's downward spiral into criminal behavior and a life spent behind bars, all of which he blames on Earl. And now that they share a prison yard, Glen isn't shy about telling Earl all the descriptive (and amusing) ways he'd like to kill him.

Overall, this episode is a solid foundation on which to build the third season. Once again, the show succeeds in finding creative ways for Earl to get karma back on his side. However, the first half drags due to a shortage of great jokes and the lengthy exposition of Earl's new surroundings, routines and neighbors. This hour-long show takes a while to get going and even when it does, there are not as many laugh-out-loud moments as I'm used to seeing. Hopefully they'll stick with the prison location for a while because there are plenty of stories and jokes left to tell.

The most pleasant surprise of the show was Joy's continued evolution from one-note trailer-trash character to someone who is truly appreciative of Earl and his sacrifice. Sure, she's a mean bitch who's quick with insults and short on temper. But she's also more mature, as evidenced by her sticking to Earl's bargain and keeping Randy out of trouble, even if it does involve disciplining him with a huge rubber band.

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