It’s bad karma to steal a car from a one-legged woman. In fact, it’s bad karma to do most of the things Earl Hickey’s done, including letting someone else go to jail for his crimes, fixing high school football games, or faking his own death to break up with a girl. Hickey, the main character of NBC’s new sitcom, My Name Is Earl, learned how important all this karma was when he won a $100,000 lottery ticket, only to lose it to the wind as a car crashed into him. His wife also left him for the illegitimate father of his child, whose black skin was always suspicious, given that both Earl and his ex-wife are white. The karma was catching up.
Bad karma has been catching up to NBC as well. For the past few seasons, it has continually tried to boost flagging ratings by introducing sitcoms with stock characters, clichéd urban settings, and easy life revelations at the end of every episode. But the formula that produced The Cosby Show, Cheers, Friends, and Frasier just doesn’t work anymore, and, thankfully, My Name is Earl takes a completely different approach. Both the show and its main character are likeably earnest—a quality that is as attractive in a sitcom as it can be dangerous: Full House was sweet; Seinfeld was not. Like The Simpsons, though, Earl tempers its life-lessons with a dark sense-of-humor that almost always shows up in details or minor vignettes. It’s nice to know Earl is getting his life together, but it’s also funny to see a flashback of a young Earl kicking a kid in the crotch. Hmmm… a comedy that succesfully blends moral development and a kick in the crotch—perhaps NBC has finally hit on a succesful post-Friends formula.
The Tao of Carson Daly
While recovering from the car accident in the hospital, Earl sees Carson Daly on a talk show claiming that karma is the reason for his success. Do good things and good things happen to you, Earl realizes, and so he resolves to make a list of all the bad things he’d ever done and fix each one of them. As Earl explains this epiphany to his brother (who has moved from residing on Earl’s couch to residing on Earl’s motel-room bed), the winning lottery ticket literally blew back into his hand. Aided by 100,000 dollars, a helpful though less-than-brilliant brother, and the motel’s thoughtful and friendly maid, Earl is slowly making his life right. Let the good karma begin!
Three episodes later, Earl has patched things up with a victim of his childhood bullying, confessed to someone who went to jail for his crime, quit smoking, helped his friend’s mom quit smoking, returned money from a dishonest bet, and got his brother back into high school so he could finally score a touchdown. Of course, things usually happen quickly in sitcom land and Earl is no different, all of his wrongs are neatly righted in the space of a half hour. In the beginning of episode three, he feeds quarters into a vending machine to buy his regular breakfast of donuts and gets two packets instead of one. Earl nods and smiles to himself, bragging to his brother that things really are getting better.
On a theological level, Earl‘s take on karma is sophomoric at best. Karma is an ancient belief with roots in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh traditions, that claims that what you do will come back to you. Believing that everything we do has an effect on our future and everything we experience now is the result of our previous actions is a fascinating explanation for why bad things happen to good people. It all works if you believe in reincarnation: we might never see the results of our good deeds in this life, and we may be punished right now for things we never did in our current bodies. Why do bad things happen to good people? They don’t: they happen to people who used to be bad.
Now that Earl is good, it makes sense that good things would start to happen to him, but it doesn’t make sense that all these good things would start to happen right away. Karma doesn’t work like that. It could be many lives before all that karma kicks in. From a Christian perspective, forgiveness is an incredibly painful process that sometimes only God can provide. Jesus forgave Peter, but it’s hard to imagine a lot of other apostles being able to do it first. I secretly wish that, just once, one of Earl’s plans doesn’t work, for someone to say, “Hell no, Early Hickey, I’m not going to forgive you.” That’s when Christian forgiveness would really kick in, or when the Hindu understanding of karma as existing beyond our own lives would really start to matter.
But this is a sitcom, and so sitcom karma, or solving all of our problems in thirty minutes, will have to do.