Written by Musgo Del Jefe
One of the most important things for a sitcom is that the premise is simply explained in the credits. In the case of Two And A Half Men, it's all summed up in the show title. In classics like Gilligan's Island or The Brady Bunch we meet all the characters in the opening credits and know the central backstory through the theme song. The same applies to My Name Is Earl. We see Earl scratching a winning lottery ticket and then getting hit by a car. The narration tells us that he was a bad guy and now he's making up for his bad karma by crossing items off his list of things he's done wrong.
The first season of Earl followed a pretty predictable pattern. Some event caused Earl to decide to fix a particular item on his list. The easier the task sounded, the harder it was to solve. Sometimes, solving one problem, lead to having to solve two or three others before the first was righted. Each of the episodes introduced us to fun new characters of Camden County. And we got to know more about main characters Earl Hickey (Jason Lee), Randy Hickey (Ehtan Suplee), Joy Turner (Jaime Pressly) and Darnell Turner aka Crabman (Eddie Steeples). But at the end of each episode, we were usually back where we started.
Season Two starts what will become a much different tact. In "Very Bad Things", Earl wants to fix #183 - "Never Took Joy's Side." Joy wants to get a "disappearing TV" like she saw on the Britney & Kevin TV show. When it won't fit in her trailer, she's unable to return it to the store because she got Fruit Stripe gum on the receipt. This innocuous moment is the catalyst for the next 23 episodes of the 2nd Season. While we'll still follow Earl and his list, this brilliant move creates a new energy that most sitcoms can't come up with in their second seasons. From a writer's point-of-view, you have a built in B-Story for every episode. But it's not that simple.
In "Jump For Joy," Joy's problem returning the TV has turned into her being arrested for stealing a delivery truck. This is her "Third Strike" and she's facing years in prison. This episode's A-Story is all about raising money to bail Joy out of jail. But the offshoot of this will be to start the other ongoing storyline of Catalina (the maid at the motel where Randy and Earl live). Catalina's story will weave in and out of the storylines, while Joy's will be a constant background through the season. This episode clearly defines the relationship between Catalina and Joy with Catalina's quote, "Joy's a butt bag. A bag of butts."
When not featured, Joy's story will be a solid B-Story, like meeting her lawyer (Marlee Matlin) in "Sticks & Stones." Or as a catalyst for Earl's list. Like when he's helping Joy volunteer at a nursing home and he meets #50 - "Kicked The Lead Singer Out Of My Band." As the season progresses, Catalina will go back to Mexico and eventually return to Camden. Joy will get pregnant, further complicating her upcoming trial. The looming trial and pregnancy put this season squarely on her character and give us viewers the feeling of forward progress that wasn't present in the first season.
The show makes great use of guest stars. They are written into the stories very naturally and don't feel forced. This season features fun appearances of Burt Reynolds, Roseanne Barr, Norm MacDonald, Jenny McCarthy, Marlee Matlin's recurring lawyer character, Amy Sedaris, and a memorable performance by Christian Slater as a stoner named Woody.
The two best episodes of the season show how this fresh approach has improved the show. In "Sticks & Stones," Earl sets out to fix #91 - "Made Fun Of Maggie Lester." Maggie is now a bearded lady living in an apartment building with other carnival folks. Earl is reminded of a time that he wouldn't go swimming as a youngster because of his hairy nipples. And he's never jumped off the high dive since then. The B-Story has Joy meeting her lawyer and initially dropping her because she doesn't want a deaf lawyer. In the end, everyone learns not to run away from their problems and it's set to the Cat Stevens' song "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out."
Earl, Maggie and her carnival friends, and Joy all learn to face their fears.
In, "Buried Treasure," the usual plot threads are dropped in order to spin a fun tale. This Rashomon-type story is divided into "My Name Is Earl," "My Name Is Joy," "My Name Is Darnell," and "My Name Is Randy" as each fills in part of the story of the "Buried Treasure" from different points of view (even including Dotty the librarian). This self-referential parody gives us insight into the characters through narration that we're not used to and is a fun break from the structured plots of the first half of the season.
The ongoing story arcs make this a very enjoyable season. The DVD has a nice collection of deleted scenes and commentary tracks, giving it extra value for those that have seen the episodes in their original airings. The only complaint here is the replacement of some of the music with some very generic sounding background music. The show's feel is fresh and new still. Like Randy tells Catalina about the list, "Sometimes you're doing one thing and Bam! It's something else." And that "something else" is exactly what makes you want to keep tuning in for the next episode.