NBC's Thursday-night comedy My Name is Earl got its start on a pretty gay friendly note (Earl's first good deed was to help his former victim, Kenny, come out of the closet late in life) but the show hit a high note last night.
Earl is currently serving time in prison after confessing to a crime his ex-wife, Joy, committed. In last night's episode, "Gangs of Camden County", Earl played cupid to two inmates. So far, Earl has avoided cliched jokes about gay sex in prison and continued to avoid that kind of juvenile humor, even while telling a story centered on gay sex in prison.
In last week's season premiere, Earl helped make the prison a more peaceful place by helping one of the most violent inmates (who, it turned out, owed his life of crime to Earl). That good deed is noticed by the warden who asks Earl to try to get two contentious gangs to stop fighting. The tension between the two gangs got worse after the warden locked up their leaders together in a solitary cell for a month. If it didn't get them to make peace, the warden hoped he'd at least get some Odd Couple-style hilarity out of the effort.
After a few failed attempts to find the cause of the gang rivalry, Earl decides to get the two gang leaders, Hector and Jamal, for a one-on-one talk in the warden's office. Thinking it's making them reluctant to talk, Earl offers to disconnect the office's security camera. Just as we're expecting Earl to get beaten for being too trusting, we instead find Hector and Jamal sharing a kiss.
It turns out that, when they were locked in a cell together, Hector and Jamal eventually tired of fighting and discovered all the things they had in common. However, since their gangs wouldn't approve of the relationship, they have been instigating gang fights and getting a few seconds of closeness amid the chaos. Unfortunately, Earl starts an argument between the couple, causing a full-out gang war to erupt.
Earl tries to undo his damage by pushing the two towards a reconciliation. He tries to get Hector to miss Jamal by making his pillow smell like Jamal, arranging for Jamal's t-shirts to shrink in the laundry, spraying Jamal with water and substituting Jamal's ice cream cup with a phallic push-pop (which he eats to the tune of "Hot, Sweet, and Sticky").
Eventually, Earl is successful at reuniting the two and negotiates for them to regularly get time alone in the warden's office. Free to express their love without any distractions, Earl brings peace to the prison. "If two people want to be together," he muses as Hector and Jamal's gangs quietly co-exist on the prison yard "they'll just somehow find a way."
What stands out about "Gangs of Camden County" is that Hector and Jamal's relationship is based on the two making a personal connection, not from a lack of options from being imprisoned. Earl has a history of treating its oddballs with respect and, along those lines, it avoided making Hector and Jamal's affection fodder for gross-out humor.
When it turned to sexual innuendo for laughs, it felt like something you'd see if Earl were trying to reunite an opposite-sex couple. The addition of Brokebackground guitar music and lines like "You're my pouty-lipped he-slut" amped up the gay element in the comedy, but never in a way that was offensive.
I've been expecting a little bit of gay content on this season of Earl since Kenny was one of the Camden county residents to show up in the Free Earl music video that was released this summer. Kenny hasn't made an appearance so far, but instead we got Earl most gay-inclusive episode yet.
You can watch recent episodes of My Name is Earl on NBC's website, including "Gangs of Camden County" which just became available.