You've probably heard that NBC's new sitcom "My Name is Earl" got surprisingly great ratings in its premiere. It's a bit premature to talk about it as a success, because, as that article points out, even "Joey" got high ratings at the beginning, and look at it now. Still, what intrigues me is that "Earl" has started off with big ratings and a chance to be a big hit -- even though it's heavily influenced by "Arrested Development," a show that has never had good ratings and will probably never be a big hit.
What "Earl" takes from "Arrested Development," apart from several writers, includes the reliance on voice-over narration, the non-linear jokes (flashbacks; showing the punchline first and then showing the setup), and the basic format of having 21 minutes of dysfunctionality followed by one heartwarming minute. There are several other sitcoms this season that borrow some of the same elements -- "Kitchen Confidential," "How I Met Your Mother" -- and I think we're going to be seeing still more, because even though "Arrested Development" isn't a hit, everybody wants to make something that good. And it's not unusual for great but unpopular shows to have elements of their style co-opted by subsequent, more popular shows. Jay Tarses never created a hit, but his shows were highly respected and therefore raided for ideas by creators of later shows, so that "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" was copiously borrowed from by "Ally McBeal" and "Sex and the City," and "Buffalo Bill" probably inspired "The Larry Sanders Show."
So here we have a great but unpopular show, "Arrested Development," and a new show that seems to be doing some of the same things but achieving more success with the public. So the interesting question, and one that the networks are going to be asking if "Earl" becomes a big hit, is what does "Earl" have that the other quirky dysfunctional one-camera (or in "Arrested Development"'s case, two-camera) sitcoms don't?
I put this question to some people and the answer was that NBC promoted the hell out of "Earl" and Fox didn't promote "Arrested Development" enough. This doesn't really satisfy me; lots of shows get a promotional blitz and bomb, and it's become sadly clear that no amount of publicity is going to make "Arrested Development" a hit (we can only hope that it hangs on for a while longer as a prestige item). So what does "Earl" have that could potentially make it more popular than other such shows? Here are my theories:
A Star Character. Sitcoms, more than most shows, succeed on the strength of their central character. Most of the big hit shows have had a clear star character who could anchor the show, like Andy or Lucy or Sam Malone or Cliff Huxtable. ("Friends" was unusual because it became a huge hit with six characters of almost identical importance -- but that success hasn't really been duplicated.) "Arrested Development" is one of those shows that is supposed to have a star character, but can't really focus attention on him, so it becomes a pure ensemble show; "Taxi" was like that, and so was "WKRP In Cincinnati", and I've just named two other shows that were more fan favorites than big hits. I wouldn't call Earl Hickey a great character, but he's clearly the star of the show, the guy any viewer can associate with the show. "Arrested Development" has spent two years trying unsuccessfully to make Michael Bluth into the guy you associate with the show, but it hasn't happened, just as nobody really bought that Judd Hirsch deserved his above-the-title billing on "Taxi."
Unusual setting. Well, a small town in the American Southwest isn't that unusual a setting, but it is for today's sitcoms, which are predominantly set in urban areas and mostly take place in New York or California. This isn't about "Red America" vs. "Blue America" (after all, "Arrested Development" takes place in California, but in the "red" Orange County), just about the fact that "Earl" can use its setting as a calling-card, something to set it apart, in a way that a sitcom set in California or New York or even Miami could not.
Upbeat Tone. "Arrested Development" is a show with a positive message -- selfish people learning to depend on and trust each other a bit more -- but you have to look really, really hard to find it. "Earl" is based on an openly positive, even goofily positive message: make other people feel better and you'll feel better too. Few multi-camera sitcoms could get as sappy and life-affirming and all that as "Earl" got in the last minute of the pilot, not if they wanted to forfeit the good opinion of anti-sitcom snobs. On the other hand, sitcoms with a genuinely dark tone, like "The Honeymooners" or "Taxi," often don't do well in their original broadcast runs.
Visual Branding. I've said before, in arguing in defence of the laugh track, that shows without laugh tracks or studio audiences often have trouble branding themselves as comedies. Despite the wacky music of "Arrested Development," it's not always immediately identifiable as a comedy to someone who happens on it "cold"; it might look like the comedy-relief moment in a drama or something like that. "Earl" seems to be getting around the branding problem by having a protagonist who looks so silly (with that mustache) that you instantly know he's supposed to be funny, whereas you might not know that about Michael Bluth. If Jason Lee ever ditches the mustache, expect the ratings to plummet.
Having said all that, I'm not even sure what I think about "My Name Is Earl" -- the pilot was funny, but there did seem to be a condescending air to much of the humor (oh, those hilarious rednecks) that may grow tiresome if they keep it up. I enjoyed the season premiere of "Arrested Development" much more. But if the ratings keep up the way they are, we're going to be seeing even more people trying to copy "Earl" than are currently trying to copy "Arrested Development" -- because hits spawn even more imitators than respected cult shows.