Friday, March 31, 2006

What I like about 'My Name is Earl'

There are very few reasons to watch TV these days, sad to say. You tubeless few are missing out on exactly ONE drama and ONE comedy, and right now, I'm going to talk about that comedy because, dammit, I can talk about whatever I want on my little soapbox here.

If someone is intending to tell a story, a good story, then it has to have a plot of some sort, right? Ideally, the plot will be interesting, so it can't just be about someone going to the store and buying milk; something unusual has to happen that the main character has to deal with. At the end, the problem has to be dealt with, and here we reach a problem with many TV comedies; due to limited time for production, limited budgets, and the limited patience of the TV overlords, one has to either sacrifice interepisode continuity, or ensure that every episode ends pretty much as it began.

Major changes in casting, location, anything related to actual production have to be made beforehand; if you finish an episode and the main character is dead, you're going to hear mean things from their agents. So, production is dealt with long in advance, but writing isn't. Oh, it's in advance, but not the same way... stories are fluid things, being reworked constantly. Contracts are not. In addition, multiple writers are often working simultaneously on completely different ideas. Because you're writing by the seat of your pants, you can't make major changes (and if you do come up with an idea for a major change in time, you can't back down from it), and it becomes prudent to decide that whatever happens in one episode has little to no relation to what happens in the next, so that every writer knows the given situation. As as result, because the given situation cannot change, the show either sacrifices continuity altogether, or more commonly, ensures that at the end of every episode the given circumstances are the same as they were in the beginning.

Because of this, nearly every episode of a television comedy has the same plot: things are normal, something happens, things are normal again. Hilarity ideally ensues. That this is severely limiting is not the issue here, it's a necessary evil, but the problem is in how it's dealt with. I will point to 'The Simpsons' as the most egregious example of the 'Redundant First Act' out there; in nearly any episode (especially in the later years) the first five to ten minutes are there to demonstrate things being normal, before the plot (the "something happens") comes into play. A half-hour, with commercials, is already a painfully short length of time to tell a story, and when a third of that is lopped off between the opening, the credits, and the need to introduce the normal situation, then the story is practically lost. Unfortunately, most do not care or complain because it's merely a comedy, a ridiculous double standard of entertainment*.

What 'My Name is Earl' does, which I have not seen in a TV comedy before (it may not be the first, but it is certainly one of the few) is give an overarching plot for the series: Earl is attempting to make amends for every bad thing he's ever done. The given circumstances have a direction... in most shows they only have characters. If one were to write an episode of 'Friends', for example, one would not have to define the main six characters or their relationships, it is assumed the audience knows that, but one would have to show the normalcy at the beginning and then introduce the plot. On 'Earl', however, there is no normalcy. The viewer comes in knowing that Earl is changing his life, and so when an episode immediately jumps in with his buying a car for his ex-wife, for example, the viewer understands this, not just because of the relationship between Earl and Joy, but because of what Earl is going through. Should an episode of 'Seinfeld' open with Jerry buying a car for Elaine, even though the relationship is understood, there's no plotted reason for him to do that, so the viewer is left in the dark.

In effect, 'My Name is Earl' gets a running start into each episode, because the plot is an overarching thing, whereas other shows must begin at a standstill. What this means for the viewer is that they are going to watch a longer, more in-depth and cohesive story than they otherwise would... Earl does not have a normal state to start at or return to, for he is on a Journey**. The built-in plot is somewhat common among dramas, but because they are an hour long, they would actually lose less from having to start and end at normalcy. They still have enough time to create a cohesive story. That's an example of the double standard in entertainment, which 'My Name is Earl' is (successfully) attempting to step around.

The fact that it's also damn funny is irrelevant to this discussion.

*This leads to ostensibly comedic shows like 'Robot Chicken' that abandon any pretense of plot whatsoever, because hey, it's comedy... who cares? The fact that there are no correlated shows that fit in as much drama as possible without bothering with a plot is mystifying. If people watch Lifetime Original Movies, surely they'd get as much out of just watching some guy beat up a woman for two hours straight, right?

**The 'journey' theme has been done before in dramas. I point to the third season of 'Enterprise' as a particularly good example, the bulk of the season took place between point A and point B, so to speak. Even though the amount of time it took to get there was arbitrary, and the in-between episodes were really just filler to pass the time while the writers figured out how they wanted things to end, they nonetheless FELT like progress being made. A notable poor example: all of 'Voyager'.


Blogger Ford Dent said...

Plus it's got Jason Lee.

Come on, the dude's awesome.

4/03/2006 10:57 PM  

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