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Garcia knows about traditional sitcoms too. He co-created CBS's Yes, Dear, the 10K gold standard for mediocre, safe family comedy. But in the early-morning hours, before heading to the office, he began working on a script about a petty thief who has a scheming wife (Jaime Pressly). He wins $100,000 in the lottery, immediately gets hit by a car, then decides it's all a sign he must fix his Karma. Earl made the rounds of networks, which praised it but passed. Then Reilly took the reins at NBC, with a reputation (from heading edgy cable network FX) for boldness and the mandate to find the next thing--anything--that would work. "I felt it was inventive and original," says Reilly. "It had a great American theme: redemption." NBC conditioned the deal on getting a strong lead. It pursued Lee (Almost Famous), who had no interest in doing TV until his manager made him read the script. "It wasn't what I was expecting," he says. "It didn't read like a TV show."
Indeed. Although NBC is the bigger, more established network, Earl (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) is more nontraditional than Chris. It has the deadpan, off-kilter feel of a Coen brothers movie (specifically, Raising Arizona). And whereas TV sitcoms, led by NBC's, have become relentlessly upscale, Earl is like the anti-Frasier: "Ain't no use runnin', fool!" Earl tells a guy in a bar. "I know where your momma parks your house!" But like Chris, Earl has a gigantic, unsentimental heart. Lee plays the lead with a dazed, beatific air, like a man who's just been hit with a frying pan but realizes he probably deserved it. There's something sweet and innocent about his inept quest for purity--even if he gets the idea from watching Carson Daly while in a hospital bed, whacked out on morphine.
As faltering as the sitcom genre is, do the masses want one that "doesn't read like TV"? Plenty of inventive shows of late have looked like the savior of the sitcom--Bernie Mac, Scrubs--until the viewers failed to materialize. But sitcoms are due for a comeback, and for the first season in recent memory, most of the best-looking fall pilots are comedies (see box). (Don't worry, there are plenty of stinkers too, including an atrocious star vehicle for Freddie Prinze Jr.) And it often takes an unusual show to revive a TV genre--even Cosby was radical for being a family comedy where the adults were smarter than the kids. What matters more than how different a sitcom is, how many cameras it uses or which famous person is in it is whether it has a voice, which is a fancy way of saying that it sounds like itself, not a network committee. Earl and Chris have voice to spare. Are you listening? --With reporting by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles