My Name Is Earl- a redneck hero
The resurgence in quality TV is usually thought to be on cable (specifically HBO) but even network TV is coming through now with good programming. Lost is an engaging serial that always keeps you guessing and after a shaky start, the U.S. version of the Office is almost looking as good as its original U.K. counterpart.
And then there's a lovable, scruffy show that's become a personal favorite of mine. My Name is Earl has a simple but appealing premise- a former scumbag sees the error of his ways (thanks to, of all people, Carson Daily babbling about "karma") and decides that he somehow make up for his misdeeds (basically, trying to repent though it's definitely not seen in religious terms). He draws up a mile-long list of all the horrible things he's done and takes the lottery money that he's won to try to go back to the people he's messed up and somehow correct everything.
The beauty of the show isn't just the wonderful idea behind it but also the cast that's assembled- Jason Lee as the title character who struggles to be virtuous, Ethan Suplee as his dopey and even more lovable brother and Jaime Pressly as Earl's scheming, scummy ex-wife. Creator/producer Greg Garcia deserves a lot of credit for making this bunch of white trash misfit into three-dimensional characters who try to navigate difficult situations and not just going for easy punchlines like most sitcoms do. At first, the show's ratings weren't impressive but NBC wisely stuck by Garcia and viewers have come around to it. It's easily one of the best shows on TV now- it won four Emmies this year (including one for Garcia) and definitely deserved it.
After coming out on DVD with its first season, the show is about to start its second season tonight and to also celebrate it, they've released a soundtrack album. Granted that most albums tied to TV series aren't much use except for fans but like the show itself, the soundtrack is a cut above its competition. For a series that's made up of rednecks, it's not surprising to find Jerry Reed (twice) and Skynyrd here but how do you explain two late 80's rap hits ("Bust a Move" and "It Takes Two," which is featured in several episodes)? Granted that they're G-rated and not gangsta material or Public Enemy but they're also great tunes and serve as a worthwhile reminder that rap had crossover appeal years ago (even to the reddest of necks), even before a lot of its teen audience of today was born. There's also some remakes of classic rock songs by newer artists to give the material some modern sheen- Uncle Kracker doing fine by "The Weight" (if not as great as Mavis Staples), Matthew Sweet doing even better by ELO's "Livin' Thing" (giving it a power-pop spin that Jeff Lynne would appreciate) and John Hiatt doing a easy rollin' version of John Lennon's "Instant Karma" (which he would appreciate). Sweet and Hiatt are also notable because their vocals show some healthy distrust rather than just simple respectful reverence. Then you also have Los Lobos' wonderfully yearning "One Time One Night" (from the under-rated By the Light of the Moon album), a Sammy Davis Jr novelty that sounds like Reed could have sung it and a honky-tonk weeper by Harry Nilsson ("Joy") which fits in well with the overall look and feel of Earl and like the rap hits, extend the sensibility of the show outside of its expected demographic (both physical and spiritual). That goes double or triple for a metal cover of Nena's "99 Red Balloons" with Lee on vocals and Slayer's Dave Lombardo on drums that ends things off.
The CD packaging makes the album out to be a mixtape that Earl's made for his brother Randy as a sort of thank-you for everything he's done to help him. The resulting sentiment is as wise and big hearted as the show itself.