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If 'Earl' Is Right About Karma, NBC Is Risking Some Cosmic Payback

Tonight’s return of NBC’s My Name Is Earl features lots of funny lines and good comic performances. It also features two things we didn’t need to see, and which, in this context, are so distractedly and awkwardly unamusing they almost serve as some sort of polar opposite of humor.

One is Paris Hilton, who shows up several times in Earl’s coma-induced sitcom fantasies to smile and say two words: her signature soliloquy, “That’s hot!” Compared to this massively promoted guest spot, Britney Spears’ recent turn onHow I Met Your Motherwas the comedic equivalent of King Lear.

The other painful-to-watch element in tonight’s Earl is the prologue, presented by NBC Universal kingpin Jeff Zucker. He’s there, like a more smug version of Walt Disney, to introduce the evening’s program – and to remind viewers not only where, but why, the show left off. Which, of course, was because of the strike. Apparently, already, it’s a laughing matter.

But once the two-part show actually begins, it’s infinitely more enjoyable. Ethan Suplee as Randy, Jaime Pressly as Joy and Eddie Steeples as Darnell all nail some laugh-out-loud lines, and returning guest star Alyssa Milano, as the (in this case literal) dream girl of Jason Lee’s Earl, is well-suited to her vintage sitcom role.

The sitcom-within-a-comedy trick was used to better effect last year on another NBC comedy, Scrubs, but My Name Is Earl is a welcome return by the first of the missing Thursday comedies. Welcome, that is, once you get past the opening by NBC’s “J. Z.” (his joke, not mine) and by Paris Hilton’s equally off-putting cameos.