My name is: Jason Lee receives a San Francisco International Film Festival Midnight Award Saturday at the W Hotel. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

I [heart] Jason Lee

Dennis Harvey April 25, 2008

Dear Higher Being Should You Exist:

When I prayed for the American public to wake up and smell "reality," I didn’t mean American Idol, Survivor, America’s Most Wanted, The Biggest Loser, Breaking Bonaduce and Temptation Island. To list just a few highlights in the TV genre to date.

Seriously, who could’ve imagined a decade ago we’d reach a point where the sitcom was a species endangered by even dumber-and-dumberer wastings of viewer braincells than Gilligan’s Island or The Beverly Hillbillies dreamt of?

Still, there remain isolated bright spots on the tube. Even amongst sitcoms. Even on the non-cable major networks.

One of the brightest is a show about a dim bulb. My Name is Earl, currently in its third season on NBC, stars Jason Lee as the titular oaf whose double-whammying by fate—hit by a car seconds after discovering a winning lottery ticket—convince him to abandon a prior life of petty crime for one newly dedicated to repaying his karmic debt. Specifically by looking up those he’d already wronged…though Earl’s efforts at reparation often result in new offenses he’ll have to add to the list of repentances.

A handsome fella in real life who gamely conveys permanent Bad Hair Day-dom and general trailer-park "trashiness" as Earl Hickey, Jason Lee is (alongside Grindhouse superstarlet Rose McGowan) the recipient of this year’s SFIFF Midnight Award honoring a "dynamic young American actor and actress entering the prime of their careers." He’ll be feted Saturday April 26 in a W Hotel event that’s more pure party than the usual sitdown honorary clipshow/interview type thang.

Why do we wuv former pro skateboarder Lee? Well frankly it ain’t his thespian "discovery" by Kevin Smith, a filmmaker whose work regularly gives me hives. Nor is it his casting in other directors’ routine movies like Kissing a Fool, Mumford, Enemy of the State, Stealing Harvard, A Guy Thing and "Alvin and the Chipmunks. He did make an impression in better films like Almost Famous (as the peeved lead singer whose spotlight is stolen by guitarist Billy Crudup), Stephen King Dreamcatcher (as the one among five friends who suffers the first/most excruciating death…involving toilet-bowl invasion, yet) and Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis.

But it’s not those turns 4 which we heart him. It’s not even his character-diverse contributions as a talented voice actor to cartoon The Incredibles and semi-animated Underdog (as you-know-what-mutt).

Nope: It’s Earl. Lee’s TV incarnation is an endearing doofus whose "just tryin’ to be a better person" quest is goofy yet sincere, lending the perfect grounding note to this ingenious sitcom conceit by creator Gregory Thomas Garcia. (In Earl’s spirit of magnanimity, we’ll forgive Garcia the fact that he previously co-created the long-running Yes, Dear.)

If Earl is unsophisticated but unstupid—or at least resourceful in his dedication to redemption—his intimates make up for it by being dumb as several boxes o’ rocks. That doesn’t necessarily include Jaime Pressly’s hard-as-nail-polish ex-wife Joy, or smoking-hot platonic pal Catalina (Nadine Velasquez). But it definitely applies to Earl’s brother/constant companion Randy (Ethan Suplee) and Joy’s replacement spouse Darrell (Eddie Steeples), neither of whom possesses a mean cell—or possibly an I.Q. point—in their bodies.

The white-trash-cartoon thing has been done ‘n’ done to death in recent years, in every medium. My Name is Earl manages to make Jerry Springer Show culture funny without condescending to it. Lee’s protagonist is a know-nothing fool—but in an ideal world his desire to do good would be an inspiration to every know-nothing fool in a U.S. future bound to be full of ‘em.