The one form of bigotry that’s okay with coastal-state liberals is looking down on rednecks from the heartland. For some reason it’s always been more permissible to make fun of white trash than of po’ black folks. Two new series uphold that double standard with their different takes on disadvantage, and both manage to keep feel-good sentimentality on a tight leash. Everybody Hates Chris, a semi-autobiographical sitcom written by Chris Rock and featuring his voice-over narration, takes us into the home of an impoverished but good-hearted African American family struggling to get by in early-’80s Bed-Stuy. We’re not talking the quickly gentrifying Bed-Stuy of 2005 but the era of Do the Right Thing, back when the neighborhood was heading toward crack-drenched apocalypse. Twelve-year-old Chris (Tyler James Williams) watches his hardworking dad and tough-love mom juggle overdue bills and multiple jobs in a precarious bid to stay clear of the projects and keep their three kids focused on moving on up.
While Chris’s family is decent and determined, the hero of the cartoony new comedy My Name Is Earl is a hapless, shiftless member of the red-state underclass. We first see Earl (Jason Lee) buying a breakfast beer plus some scratch cards at a roadside convenience store, while Beck croons, “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” on the soundtrack to underline the premise that this petty thief and his fat-slob brother have no redeeming social value. Redemption comes from an unlikely source: Earl hears MTV sage Carson Daly mention the idea of karma on a talk show. In a delicious twist on the American Protestant belief that the poor’s plight is their own darned fault, Earl concludes that if his “life sucks . . . it’s because I’ve been a bad person.” He decides to wipe his slate clean, erasing his sins (all 259 of them) by turning bad deeds into good ones. He starts off with a geek he mercilessly bullied at school, who has grown up into a closeted, lonely gay man. In an act of supreme self-sacrifice and bravery (or so it feels to a red-blooded dude like Earl), he escorts the wallflower to his first gay bar. Cue warm tingly feelings all around.
Earl is hilarious, but its laughter is easily earned. The humor in Chris comes with a twinge, based on the uneasy comedy of hard times and parental sacrifice. Chris’s dad can precisely quantify the cost of any wasted food (“That’s 49 cents worth of milk dripping on my table!”). After school, the children’s struggle to avoid waking their Pops (who works several night shifts) is painfully funny—accent on pain. There’s no such thing as a leisurely bathroom break in this family; when his sister pees, Chris has to race into the bathroom with pillows to dampen the sound of the flush. But throwing in a charming kid and running the whole thing through the filter of nostalgia makes it a whole lot easier to laugh than if the show were set somewhere contemporary (say, the Ninth Ward of New Orleans). Think The Wonder Years with an empty fridge, or even Roseanne with a little schoolyard racism added to the working-class family’s bulging sack of woes.