Since its debut in the spring of 2005, The Office has become the defining sitcom of the 21st century. But in the fall of that same year, another NBC comedy debuted: My Name Is Earl, a show that, despite being more popular than The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, has been entirely erased from the cultural consciousness in little more than a decade.
Right now, you’re probably trying to remember what My Name Is Earl was even about, so let me refresh you: It focused on a small-town thief named, you guessed it, Earl, who loses a $100,000 lottery ticket when he is hit by a car. While watching an episode of Last Call With Carson Daly in the hospital, he learns about karma and decides to give up his scumbag ways. He makes a list of every wrong thing he’s done, and in each episode, he tries to do a good thing to make up for it. It’s a neat, simple formula that taught a nice lesson about being a good person while delivering solid laughs.
The show starred Jason Lee, best known for his semi-frequent presence in the Kevin Smith cinematic universe, as the titular Earl, alongside Ethan Suplee as his dimwitted but kind-hearted brother Randy and Jaime Pressly as Earl’s ex-wife, Joy. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, creator and executive producer Greg Garcia — the series’ proverbial showrunner — had worked in television for a decade before Earl (on Family Matters as a story editor and Family Guy as a consulting producer).
During their four years on the air together, Earl wasn’t just as popular as The Office; it was way more popular. While The Office struggled to find its footing in its shaky six-episode first season, Earl was an immediate hit when it premiered, drawing in 14.9 million viewers, more than any installment of The Office other than “Stress Relief,” the Season Five episode that aired after the Super Bowl.
Throughout its first season, Earl averaged 10.9 million viewers an episode. To put that in perspective, the beloved 30 Rock debuted the next year and never surpassed 10 million viewers in any of its 138 episodes. Earl did experience a drop in viewers over the years, but even by its fourth and final season, it was still being viewed by 6 million people per episode, a number that Parks and Rec only crossed once in 126 episodes. Basically, Earl was the most-watched of any of the NBC sitcoms of the post-Will & Grace era.
And yet, when is the last time you heard someone mention My Name Is Earl in conversation? Moreover, can you name any characters on the show not named Earl, whose name you probably only remember because the title of the show is literally him introducing himself? Be honest, you forgot it was even a show until you started reading this story.
I mean, a dive into Google Trends shows that The Office has averaged 70 times more searches than My Name Is Earl over the last five years. And while several of its NBC counterparts were included in the 2015 edition of Paul Condon’s book 1,001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die (including The Office, 30 Rock and Community), My Name Is Earl was left off the list.
In fairness, shows get forgotten all the time. Even NBC sitcoms that were on the air during the same time period have become neglected relics of a bygone era. Remember Outsourced? Of course, you don’t, just like you don’t remember Kath & Kim or Go On. But all of those flops were fucking terrible, and they were never nearly as popular or ran as long as Earl. In that way, it’s almost unprecedented that a show of Earl’s level of popularity has so quickly been forgotten.
It all begs the question: Why did Earl fail to make the same lasting cultural impact as so many of its contemporaries?
The most obvious explanation is lack of critical acclaim, at least relative to shows like 30 Rock or Community. Brian Lowry of Variety wrote that the series “isn’t the best comedy around, but it’s pretty darn good,” while The A.V. Club declared the “gimmicky” premise “should provide many seasons’ worth of amiable comedy.” Still, Mike Duffy of the Detroit Free Press called Earl “NBC’s best comedy since Seinfeld,” and the show won five Emmys during its run (including writing and directing for the show’s pilot and Pressly in 2007 for her performance as Joy).
Perhaps then the show’s abrupt ending contributed to Earl being erased from the public consciousness as soon as it went off the air. Because although The Office lasted long enough for viewers to begin appreciating its larger legacy — even to the point where it arguably undermined that legacy by remaining on the air long after it jumped the shark — Earl ended on a cliffhanger at the conclusion of Season Four before being abruptly canceled by NBC. Again, the show had been losing viewers, but the ratings were strong enough to surprise Garcia, who later revealed he specifically ended the season on an ambiguous note because he had been told the series would be coming back.
He and 20th Century Fox Television tried to shop Earl around to different networks, but eventually, the studio declared that it couldn’t come to terms without “seriously undermining the artistic integrity of the series.” What does that mean? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the other networks wanted to drastically reduce Earl’s budget or demanded changes with characters or storylines. Whatever happened, the show was now officially dead.
That said, plenty of other shows have been prematurely canceled only to become more beloved during their afterlife (Happy Endings and Arrested Development leap immediately to mind). Even The Office is more popular now than when it was actually on the air. So why hasn’t this happened to Earl? Was it the episodic nature of the show? Had we burned out on Jason Lee? Or does it have to do with the fact that Earl is stuck on Hulu instead of Netflix, which has helped develop new (and continual) audiences for The Office, Parks and Rec and The Good Place? Did Earl just barely miss the era of internet TV culture that maybe would have earned it a solid, dedicated fanbase?
Maybe it’s not too late for My Name Is Earl to re-enter the cultural zeitgeist. After all, a key tenet of the show’s philosophy was that it’s never too late to turn things around. So perhaps like its titular character, Earl will earn enough good karma to find an audience and be retroactively appreciated. Then again, even Nash Bridges is slated for a reboot.