No other sitcom world about slackers is more adrenaline-filled than "My Name Is Earl," which begins its fourth season tonight on NBC with two back-to-back episodes. And from what star Jason Lee and executive Producer/creator Greg Garcia told our Jim Halterman, the show is getting back to its roots after slightly veering off path last season.
Making no apologies for the direction the "My Name Is Earl" stories took last season, Garcia explained that while the writers may have gotten away from Earl working his way down his karma list of righting his past wrongs, some of the choices were made due to events out of his control. "At the end of Season 2 we always knew we were going to send [Earl] to jail and we didn't know how long we would keep him [there]. But then we kind of broke stories and we kind of figured out a bunch of them to do so we kept him in there for a little while. And then we were going to get him out of jail and involved in a relationship." However, like the majority of the series last season, the writer's strike derailed their plans and shortened their episode order and required a trip back to the drawing board. "The thing I came up with was that we needed to get [Earl] in a coma for five or six episodes because I needed to delay this relationship with Alyssa Milano because that's how we were going to end the season. So that's kind of how the whole coma thing came about. And, you know, I was happy with what we did with it."
In the new season, however, Garcia admitted that he and the writers "were just kind of thirsty to go back to the Season 1 formula of, you know, let's concentrate on some list items and just get back to the basics of what we loved doing in Season 1 and not have to be so crazy and worried about how do we keep getting them out of corners we've painted them into."
Guest stars have always been aplenty in the "Earl" world and the new season is no different. In tonight's first episode, Seth Green ("Austin Powers" "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") appears as a dying man whose last wish is to make a movie. Earl, thinking Green's character had died years earlier, enlists everyone to help fulfill this wish and, of course, things couldn't go more wrong. As for Green's guest turn, "Seth was amazing," Lee said. "It always means something to us when we're fans of somebody, when they say yes to coming on and doing our show. [Seth is] one of those guys who's always on and impersonating people and telling jokes and being friendly with the crew and bringing a certain kind of energy to the set." Lee added that the episode that Green appeared in, "was a really fun episode. Any time we get to sort of goof off and do something outside of the everyday... well, I guess there's not really much of an everyday on 'Earl' is there?"
Garcia revealed some of the other names coming down the pike this season as well. "We usually get pretty lucky with people we have on the show and we've had Seth and Beau Bridges back, and Jenna Elfman, Jerry Van Dyke and John Amos. And David Arquette just did an episode... and we just cast Malachai from 'Children of the Corn' to play a Unabomber type fellow � [actor] Courtney Gains."
In speaking of Arquette's guest role, Garcia revealed that Arquette "plays a stuntman and Earl was encouraging him to do more and more dangerous stunts so he could sleep with his girlfriend while he was in the hospital. [Earl] was literally � he was almost killing the man."
One actor who probably will not be making a guest appearance anytime soon (or ever) is Alec Baldwin. Baldwin and Garcia have had a war of words lately after Baldwin vented to The New Yorker about his frustrations over NBC's lack of promotion for his show "30 Rock" and lambasted "My Name Is Earl" as well as the NBC-to-ABC sitcom "Scrubs." Garcia laughed about the notion of Baldwin guest starring but said, "That'd be great. I mean, if we can get some press out of it, come on in. I mean, either him or [Baldwin's ex] Kim Basinger. One of the two we should have on the show soon." Lee also joked by saying that, "What really happened was I'm friends with Alec Baldwin. I told him to say that stuff unbeknownst to Greg so that Greg would retaliate so that we could get some press for the show."
One challenge that Garcia and Lee are clearly aware of is how to keep "My Name Is Earl" fresh. Garcia explained "the important thing is you have to spoon it out very carefully or you could change this guy. And the only time that we ever really started to change [Earl] too much was at the end of Season 2 when he got a job and he got his apartment and his life was really getting together." In true "Earl" fashion, however, even giving Earl everything he ever wanted is something that is not done without intention. "We only did that because we knew we were going to take it all away from him when he went to prison. So, it is a dance to try to figure out ways to continually enlighten him but also keep him true to who he is."
In his also keeping his portrayal of Earl from going stale, Lee has his own acting methods that he employs. "The worst thing that I could do," he said, "is settle into a kind of routine or rhythm that might happen if one just sort of started falling into I guess what might be considered their job. I have to do a lot of things with my body and my facial expressions and the dialogue that's been written to basically keep Earl likeable... he's not a professor by any means so we're constantly having to walk that line." Lee added that it's definitely challenging for him after several seasons of playing the Earl character. "I think more goes into it than just sort of trying to act funny because this is a guy who is progressing but we have to watch the pace at which he progresses."
Besides Earl himself, the supporting characters will also be getting plenty of airtime this season as well. For example, in tonight's episode, Ethan Suplee, who plays Earl's brother, Randy, gets a chance to show an unexpected acting versatility in the season opener when the cast of characters assist in making Seth Green's film. Lee laughed as he explained, "One of the things I love about the show is the things that you wouldn't expect and then they become things that you actually start expecting. Like, of course, Randy. Even though he's a man-child, of all the people in the cast, he would end up being the best actor." In fact, Randy has a showcase moment where he starts a diatribe of multiple characters that is one of the funniest moments in the episode. Garcia said that Suplee "just rattled off so many of those. They were fantastic... we just thought that a dimension of [Randy's] character is just that he has the ability to soak up performances that he's seen and mimic them and he has no probably being a fantastic actor."
Garcia also promised that later in the season viewers will find out why Darnell (Eddie Steeples) is in the Witness Protection Program, a plot point that hasn't been explained even after its reveal in the first season. He also cited the October 2nd episode called "Joy in a Bubble" where Earl gets Joy a hot tub but, in turn, she gets a flesh-eating toe infection. That episode, Garcia said, is "just a perfect example of the perfect 'Earl' episodes in that it has just big, funny things along the way and just probably one of the sweetest scenes at the end that we've ever done."
Heart ranks right up there with the consistent components of "My Name Is Earl" no matter how zany or ridiculous the plots become. "That's always kind of been our mission from the pilot, " Garcia shared. "We try to mix big, funny stunts, people getting smacked in the face and big cartoonish-type things and then combine it with characters that hopefully have some realness to them. When we earn it, [there's] a nice, sweet moment at the end [that] kind of makes you feel good." In the tradition of heartwarming sitcoms, Garcia shared a personal preference that "the most rewarding comedies that I've watched are the ones that make me laugh but then at the end kind of make me feel a little something, too."
"My Name Is Earl" airs two back-to-back episodes tonight on NBC at 8:00/7:00c.