Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
When My Name is Earl was canceled by NBC in 2009 after its fourth season, fans were heartbroken that our final glimpse into Earl Hickey’s life was a simple title card promising “to be continued…” After four years of watching Earl transform his life—and so many others’—it felt like a punch in the gut to see his story end this way.
Starring Jason Lee, My Name is Earl was a show about asking forgiveness and doing what’s right to make up for your past mistakes, no matter how long it’s been. Lee played Hickey, a two-bit criminal with no ambition, no drive, and no motivation to do anything except troll around the fictional Camden County in his El Camino with his equally burned-out brother, leaving a wake of destruction and pissed-off people in their path. But all of this changed when Earl had a particularly brutal wake-up call in the form of a little old lady running him over. Earl, never one to see a win in any way, shape, or form, had just scratched a lotto ticket revealing a $100,000 jackpot. What started as an innocent celebratory dance in the middle of the street led to an extended hospital stay, and while recovering, Earl discovered exactly how he was going to turn his life around.
Carson Daly may not be who we immediately think of for life-changing advice, but Earl—drugged up and defeated after losing the scratcher in the accident—hears the TRL host explain his mantra: “Do good things and good things happen, do bad things and it’ll come back to haunt you.” For someone trying to make sense of why the universe would give him $100,000 and then immediately rip it away, this message of karma seemed like a cut-and-dried explanation to Earl. He’d never done anything good in his life, of course he deserved this. Thus, Earl sets off on a journey of righting 30 years of wrongs.
My Name of Earl is built on this idea that it’s never been too long to say you’re sorry. After making a list of every possible bad thing he can think of, Earl tackles each item with the same approach: first, wholeheartedly apologize. No “I’m sorry if I …” Just a sincere apology. Next, he gives those wronged the chance to decide how he makes it up to them; since most of the list items don’t have a direct one-to-one reciprocal response, Earl allows them to define what atonement looks like. It’s an honorable endeavor, and it seems like for every item crossed off, Earl adds two more. He continues crossing list items off for a few strong seasons, but somewhere along the way, My Name Is Earl jumped the shark.
Though wild plotlines and story arcs dragged us away from the central themes of the show, it felt like Season 4 was bringing us back on the right track. After getting out of jail (yup) and rescuing Catalina from Mexico (yup), Season 4 was finally trending upward… and then the show was canceled. Creator Greg Garcia has made vague comments in the years since about studio pressure hindering his ability to tell Earl’s story the way he envisioned. Further, they even allowed him to end Season 4 on a cliffhanger, allegedly promising the opportunity to finish the story in one final season. Instead, moments after discovering that Earl actually had fathered one of the illegitimate children he helped raise for years, we were left with nothing but the tease of a story to be continued.
It’s not just that we don’t get to see exactly how Earl, Joy, and Crab Man react to this life-changing news, it’s that we never got to see the true extent of Earl’s journey. We know that everyone in Earl’s periphery was impacted by his list. They’ve received apologies for mistakes made decades ago and many made adjustments to their own lives and how they treat others in their small, close-knit community. But by stripping us of the chance to see this effect on a grander scheme, we can’t feel the full magnitude of what My Name is Earl had been consistently saying.
When asked about how My Name is Earl may have ended, given the chance to do it right, Garcia shares a clear vision that embodies this idea. In a Reddit AskMeAnything, Garcia says: “I had always had an ending to Earl and I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to see it happen. You’ve got a show about a guy with a list so not seeing him finish it is a bummer. But the truth is, he wasn’t ever going to finish the list. The basic idea of the ending was that while he was stuck on a really hard list item, he was going to start to get frustrated that he was never going to finish it. Then he runs into someone who had a list of their own and Earl was on it. They needed to make up for something bad they had done to Earl. He asks them where they got the idea of making a list and they tell him that someone came to them with a list and that person got the idea from someone else. Earl eventually realizes that his idea started a chain reaction of people with lists and that he’s finally put more good into the world than bad.”
My Name is Earl was always an important reminder that even small actions have a major impact on others. In the last year or so, with an increased awareness of inequities related to the pandemic or social justice movements, mutual aid has flourished. This type of community-based assistance creates a stronger society and brings all of us closer together. We can all learn from the example Earl set and help strengthen our local communities on a small scale with individual actions. Whether it’s volunteering your time or just bringing some groceries to a neighbor in need, these seemingly small actions can lead to a butterfly effect of good deeds. Earl was never able to see the chain reaction of generosity and atonement he started, but it’s a legacy we can still carry with us anyway.
Kristen Reid is a culture writer and TV intern for Paste Magazine. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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