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A trailer-park hero shows a ton of heart

If you follow TV buzz, because it certainly follows you, you might already be a little burnt out on ''My Name Is Earl." It's the latest comedy the critics have been lavishing with advance praise all summer -- you know, the next ''Arrested Development" that you absolutely must watch or be doomed to a life of shame, despair, and aesthetic inferiority.

But if any sitcom can overcome your resistance to excessive hype, it will be ''My Name Is Earl," which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 7. The NBC sitcom is so unpretentious and original, it will probably win you over on its own sweet merits. Like its hero, Jason Lee's Earl, it is askew, funny, scruffy, and unexpectedly touching. Interestingly, ''Earl" takes place worlds away from more familiar NBC urban sitcoms such as ''Friends" and ''Will & Grace," set instead in the heart of American trailer-park culture. If there's coffee involved here, it's served with Cremora and not steamed milk.

Lee, with a doltish mustache, is instantly likable as Earl, who narrates the show (which is made with no laugh track). You take one look at this guy, and you can tell his clothes smell like stale beer and crab cakes. Earl is a two-bit crook whose profound mellow borders on mental disability. One day he wins $100,000 in the lottery, then gets in a car accident and loses the ticket. On morphine in the hospital, he sees Carson Daly on TV (on NBC, natch) talking about karma -- ''You do good things, and good things happen to you" -- and he decides to change. And so Earl embarks on a journey to right all his wrongs, which range from littering to stealing trick-or-treat candy from kids.

Tonight's episode is filmed like a little indie movie -- it's being compared by some to ''Raising Arizona" -- with offbeat camera angles and comic edits. And it features vivid secondary characters who add to the eccentric vibe. Joy (Jaime Pressley) is Earl's soon-to-be-ex wife, a shrill opportunist who takes advantage of Earl's pronounced naivete. One drunken night six years ago, the two met and married -- but she conveniently forgot to tell him she was pregnant at the time. Earl's brother, Randy (Ethan Suplee), is a lump who lives on Earl's couch. And Sonny is a local dodo-brain who plays an ongoing game of beer-can tag with Earl. ''I know where your mama parks your house," Earl yells playfully at him.

The ''Earl" gang is loosely descended from the Clampetts of ''The Beverly Hillbillies," with Earl as Jed. We laugh at their stupidity and lack of sophistication, but then the show also makes them lovable and, in Earl's case, noble. Earl is a pickup-truck slacker who has been profoundly enlightened by a late-night TV host. Yeah, that's not the height of intelligence. But then he's wise enough to see the benefits of becoming a giving person, and so he's pursuing it in his unique way. Tonight, for his first act of penitence, he tracks down a guy he bullied as a kid, hoping to do him a favor. The resolution is slightly sentimental, but it's nonetheless hard to resist. When ''My Name Is Earl" does sentimental, after all, it still smells a little trashy.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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