Dry Schlumping

The laughter goes back in the can on NBC's 'Earl' and 'The Office'

My Name is Earl
8:00 p.m. Tuesdays
NBC

The Office
8:30 p.m. Tuesdays
NBC

Jason Lee is a mystery wrapped in an enigma garnished with a very bad mustache. Gamely sporting the offending cookie-duster for his role as the titular putz in My Name Is Earl, Lee looks sort of hot--especially to Mallrats fangirls who have been nursing a "Brodie fetish" since '94 (cough).

And yet, this is really the first spark of versatility we've witnessed in the Jason Lee oeuvre. Lee honed his craft playing the same smirking, loudmouthed man-child in a string of Kevin Smith movies. While many of his quotable onscreen rants were inspired, you couldn't help but feel that this handsome advocate of escalator safety was being underused. Who is he, really? we asked ourselves, ignoring his ties to Scientology and clinging fast to our Dogma action figures.

Lee's occasional forays out of Smith's "View Askewniverse" showed promise: The colossal flop Mumford wasn't as bad as the red ink might indicate, though Lee, an accomplished skateboarder in real life, didn't really have to stretch to play a charming millionaire coasting half-pipes. As rock god Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous, Lee perfected his "Indignant Guy" shtick. But the character was relegated to comic relief behind all that misty-eyed groupie drama.

Earl, with its promotional fanfare, is really Lee's first day in the sun. And if the ratings are any indication, boyfriend is basking in it. In case NBC's media blitz hasn't reached you in your yurt, the show has a cleverly self-perpetuating premise: Earl, a drawling lowlife-turned-lottery winner, has made a "karma list" detailing all his bad deeds. (Among the items: "Peed in a cop car" and "Got lap dance from Ray Moody's mom and didn't pay her.") After finding unlikely inspiration in an episode of Last Call with Carson Daly, Earl vows to use his winnings to undo every venial sin he's committed and restore his karmic balance.

In the pilot, Earl tries to make amends with childhood pariah Kenny James (Gregg Binkley) by gifting him with a "daytime hooker" (Dale Dickey). Except Kenny is gay and rejects the offering. ("I even pulled out my good boob," the hooker exclaims, exasperated.) Such are the missteps of our well-meaning hero, and the gimmick isn't likely to exhaust itself anytime soon. Earl's karma list (conveniently posted on NBC.com) is funny and, more important, long.

The B stories aren't throwaways either. In the second episode, Earl's struggle to get his car out of the impound lot is as funny as that week's karmic mission. The supporting cast appears to be having a blast, especially Jaime Pressly as Earl's petulant estranged wife and Eddie Steeples (yes, Office Depot's supply cart-pushing "Rubberband Man") as one of her babydaddies.

The Office,like My Name is Earl, is a one-camera sitcom blessedly devoid of a laugh track. Now in its second season, the underrated series is enjoying a burst of prestige, thanks to star Steve Carell's newfound box-office cachet. (That boffo Earl lead-in probably won't hurt either.) Carell is the Sahara of leading men: His delivery is so impeccably dry that it threatens to siphon moisture from the eyeballs of viewers. Besides that, he's cute (even cuter than Jason Lee now that Lee has been handicapped by a mustache and bad hair) and excels at playing chipper-on-the-outside, dead-on-the-inside. In his early 40s, Carell is experiencing the whirlwind success of a blue-eyed ingenue, and his onscreen presence has gone from merely reliable to truly electric.

Upon its debut last spring, The Office was treated snobbishly by critics, who tentatively praised the writing, but regarded the show as an ugly American cousin to the original BBC series. Brit creator and star Ricky Gervais was the soul of the British Office, and without his presence it seemed unlikely the American show could survive--or escape snide remarks about it being a "pale Xerox copy" of the original.

However, the core lesson of The Office is so universal, so cringe-worthy, that it could probably play in Paraguay: Work sucks, most of us are just trying to look busy, and when bosses attempt to connect with their underlings, they generally fail. Whether it's enabled by Gervais's Reading accent or Carell's deadpan, the premise works.

True to that vision, The Office wisely forgoes the slick sets often found on workplace comedies and instead depicts the stark, oatmeal-drab reality of the modern cube farm. The cast is equally unglamorous. Career weirdo Rainn Wilson is especially effective as passive-aggressive Dwight Schrute, and Jenna Fischer is pitch-perfect as receptionist Pam Beesly. Carell manages to convey the lunacy of delusional boss Michael Scott without ever descending into caricature, and as sales rep Jim, John Krasinski enjoys a chemistry with Fischer that is both sweet and pathetic.

One wonders how this show might have been received if it hadn't debuted in the shadow of its overseas counterpart. Maybe a new influx of Carell-smitten viewers will finally grant it the respect it deserves.

After catering to a broad demo with traditional sitcom fodder, NBC is finally spotlighting comedies that don't condescend to the viewer. Maybe we can thank Arrested Development for that trend--or maybe sitcoms are finally evolving past braying laugh tracks and easy jokes. And although self-consciously quirky shows like Earl, The Office, and even Scrubs can tread perilously close to smug territory, they're a welcome alternative to the Very Special Episodes and lame, forced gags we've come to expect from NBC warhorses. Finally, this is TV we actually might see.

 
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