Wednesday, March 10, 2010

East Meets West, More or Less: My Name is Earl

Raoul Eshelman

East Meets West, More or Less: My Name is Earl
One of the main ideas behind the new epoch that I call performatism is that movies, films and other works of art are “set” towards transcendence. That is, they depict an confining space, frame, or condition of some kind and then show how characters overcome that state. Of course, most performatist works we encounter don’t portray transcendence directly. Dead characters usually don’t fly over their hometowns and tell us about their lives (like in American Beauty) or actually achieve Nirvana (like in Viktor Pelevin’s novel Buddha’s Little Finger). More normally, we find completely everyday situations in which the possibility of transcending something is simply suggested or only partially realized.

One popular American situation comedy that has a surprisingly direct set towards transcendence is the show My Name is Earl. The main premise of the sitcom is that the easygoing hero Earl, a petty thief, drunkard and all-around good-for-nothing, discovers the principle of karma and decides to spend his entire life following it. Minutes after winning $ 100,000 on a lottery ticket, Earl is hit by a car and winds up in the hospital. Lying in bed (and still hazy from painkillers) Earl sees a successful TV host explaining where his good luck comes from—from “you do good things and good things happen to you, you do bad things and they’ll come back to haunt you—karma.” Earl takes this Americanized version of Eastern wisdom to heart and draws up a long list of all the bad things he’s done in life so that he can go around correcting them. Each show revolves around how Earl (helped by his equally ne’er-do-well friends and relatives) go about visiting people on the list to make up for his misdeeds in the past. The list, of course, insures that there is no lack of embarrassing situations for Earl to get in and out of (the bread and butter of all sitcoms). What makes the series performatist is that karma actually seems to be a real force in the fictional world of the show. After Earl decides to start doing good deeds by cleaning up the court of the run-down motel where he’s staying, he immediately finds the winning lottery ticket that he’d lost when he’d been hit by the car. Similarly, when his luck seems too good to be true—as when a cute college professor falls for him (Season 1, Episode 16)—karma strikes back and has them both get so badly stung by bees that Earl decides he isn’t spiritually ready for a romantic relationship (“I can’t be anyone’s boyfriend. I’m karma’s bitch!”) and backs off. So rather than just being an ironic device to send Earl off on another embarrassing mission to accomplish, karma turns out to be a real—or at least semi-real—principle organizing the comic world of the series.

My Name is Earl also has an ethical dimension of sorts. Part of the charm of the series is that Earl’s lower-middle-class laziness and indifference act as a natural basis for his conversion to an Eastern, spiritual way of life. Even before his spiritual transformation, Earl doesn’t seem to mind too much that he has a “cheating wife and two horrible children” (one of them black and obviously not his own) and he seems indifferent to the fact that one of his best friends (a waiter at a crab restaurant and the father of the child) later runs off with and marries his wife. And, the show humorously addresses some fairly heavy social issues like racism, homosexuality, illegal immigration, and treatment of the handicapped. In “White Lie Christmas,” for example (Season 1, Episode 10), it turns out that everyone in the family of Earl’s ex-wife Joy has a secret. Joy (with Earl’s help) pretends that she doesn’t have a black husband, Joy’s mother has secretly gambled away the family’s money, and Joy’s father (supposedly a racist) has been secretly bedding black women for years in the family business—appropriately enough a bed store. The episode ends with everyone being forced to confess to their secrets and being all the happier for it (a standard sitcom resolution). However, the basic, recurring message seems to be that social ills like bigotry and lying are all a kind of illusion, caused in this case by no one “wanting to lose one another” and motivated in the end by love for others. My Name is Earl isn’t exactly a profound exercise in religious thought, but it does do a good job of mixing watered-down Eastern spirituality with a critique of contemporary American morals. And, instead of confronting us with endless irony, it makes a comic case for viewing the world as a whole in which every cause has an ethical effect and there is no escaping the results of your own actions.