What Goes Around: Karma and penance on NBC

Sometimes when I see a movie with a friend in which a mean-spirited character finally gets his (or her) comeuppance, I’ll say jokingly, "It’s like Jesus says in the Gospels, 'What goes around, comes around.’" Usually the friend will smile. But on occasion, the person will pause and say, "Yeah, where did Jesus say that anyway?" Certainly it sounds like one of the gnomic sayings of Jesus. And it is not far from St. Paul’s telling the Corinthians, "The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly" (2 Cor 9:6).

The idea makes sense to plenty of people. If you do good long enough, you might help to create a positive environment that will eventually prove beneficial to you. The same with bad deeds, but with opposite results. In Buddhism, of course, it’s known as karma (the word comes from the Sanskrit, meaning action or deed). In her biography, Buddha, the religion scholar Karen Armstrong defined it as the belief that we had nobody to blame for our fate but ourselves and that our actions would reverberate in the very distant future. Karma is one Buddhist belief that has been more or less incorporated into the common consciousness of the West.


It is also the governing principle of one of the best new shows of the fall season, the NBC comedy My Name Is Earl (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET). Earl Hickey (a relative of the humorist Jean Shepherd’s disastrous fictional prom date Wanda Hickey?) is a longtime petty criminal who has just won $100,000 in the lottery. Good karma! But almost as soon as he collects his winnings, he is struck by a car and lands in the hospital, trussed up in traction like a turkey ready for basting. This, he concludes after watching Carson Daly on television, is nothing more than the result of bad karma. So Earl, tired of his down-and-outness, makes a list of all the people he has harmed during his life, and sets out to make amends. He will create good karma.

The premise sounds tired, doesn’t it? You could imagine, in the hands of lesser writers and actors, a numbing progression of warmhearted episodes in which Earl becomes a better person as he dispenses Touched by an Angel charity to his now-grateful former enemies. But keeping the show from turning into pablum is a superb cast, led off by Jason Lee, a skateboarder-turned-actor, who is the most regular-looking guy on prime-time television today. In his hands, the unkempt and addled Earl, sporting a wicked 1970’s mustache, bed-head hair, heavy-metal T-shirts and scuffed corduroys, never becomes too charitable for his own good, or ours. His karmic assignments are sometimes taken on reluctantly and, before the ultimate reconciliation, lead to unforeseen results.

Visiting the house of a former friend who spent time in jail for a crime that Earl committed, for instance, Earl discovers that his friend is a born-again Christian (with a tattoo of Jesus on the cross emblazoned on his chest). When Earl confesses his sins, his friend pulls open the neck of his grungy T-shirt, peers down his torso and in a whisper asks his tattoo for some advice. In a few seconds a beatific smile crosses his face and he announces, "I forgive you." "Really?" says Earl, thunderstruck.

His karma now righted, Earl can happily cross his friend off his list, which he stows in the back pocket of his dirty jeans. But not so fast. His friend’s mother, a chainsmoking Bible reader, is not as forgiving. "You took two years of my baby’s life away from me!" she screams at Earl before whacking him on the head with a colossal Bible. (Her 50-pound Bible is a Large Type edition.) After he picks himself off the ground, Earl adds her to his list, and returns those two years by helping her to quit smoking. (He does so by kidnapping her and duct-taping her to a chair.)

A foil to Earl’s good intentions is his evil ex-wife, played with scene-stealing aplomb and screaming intensity by the blond bombshell Jaime Pressly, whose character is wonderfully named Joy. She slyly enlists her baby’s father, a skinny African-American fellow (Eddie Steeples) with an impressively teased-out Afro, in her nefarious schemes to retrieve Earl’s lottery winnings. In a clever twist, her new beau is a kindhearted guy, who sincerely apologizes for delivering Joy’s poisoned chocolate chip cookies to Earl. Ethan Supplee plays Earl’s equally hapless brother, who cheerfully agrees to accompany our hero on his list-crossing adventures.

Mr. Supplee and Mr. Lee are just two of many characters on Earl who look like real people, not television people, lending the proceedings not only piquant humor but surprising verisimilitude. The fleshy, overweight characters seem to have stepped right out of a Diane Arbus photograph; the wrinkly, skinny ones out of a Walker Evans print. Without a doubt, the show has the best faces on network television.

Earl also sets out a good message--even a moral one. Both the Buddha and Thomas Aquinas would enjoy watching the show. (Though given their respective eating habits, they might argue about the morality of snacking in front of the tube.) While he may labor to clean out the Augean stable of his moral life, Earl Hickey and his pals are heading in the right direction. Once in a while there is even an explicit moral, which, at least for me, makes the show more fulfilling than, say, Seinfeld, with its infamous no learning, no hugs rule.

But, despite the crossing-off of a sin per week, you can be sure that Earl will never reach nirvana, especially if the show proves a hit. Earl Hickey is a human being like the rest of us, so he will keep sinning and adding to his list. This way, things will keep coming around, and Earl will have to keep going around. And while that may be bad karma for Earl, it’s good karma for viewers.

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