Can one hit revive a network's fortunes? The theory is tenuous, but if any show can single-handedly turn around NBC this fall, it's...

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Can one hit revive a network’s fortunes? The theory is tenuous, but if any show can single-handedly turn around NBC this fall, it’s “My Name Is Earl.”

NBC executives hope so, too. President Jeff Zucker said last May that “Earl” did better in audience testing than any Peacock sitcom of the past decade.

As a result, it’s debuting at 9 tonight — a pivotal time slot that rarely gets awarded to a freshman series.

It will have to make do with “The Biggest Loser” as lead-in and in turn lift “The Office,” both of which return tonight.

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But “Earl” may be up to the crushing task at hand. It’s the funniest pilot I’ve seen in years, and that includes this year’s other great comedic buzz-generator, “Everybody Hates Chris.”

The story begins with Earl (Jason Lee), a loser from the wrong side of the tracks, recounting his sorry history in a hilarious string of vignettes that feature the staples of a shiftless life: the booze-addled romance, the cheatin’ wife, the corner bar and jukebox.

Executive producer Greg Garcia swiftly establishes an adept mix of physical slapstick punctuated by observations that Lee delivers in a pitch-perfect tone of rueful understatement.

Earl buys a winning lottery ticket, walks out the door and promptly is hit by a car. As the ticket flutters from his hand, Earl registers his response: “That was the happiest 10 seconds of my life.”

By now it should be clear that Earl is not a garden-variety drifter. He is a philosopher waiting for a bigger idea to grab him, and this is the show’s great emotional strength.

Watching TV from his hospital bed after wife Joyce (Jamie Pressly) has filed for divorce, Earl has an epiphany when late-night host Carson Daly mentions karma.

“Karma,” repeats Earl. “There it was. The secret of life coming straight from Carson’s lips to my morphine-laced ears.”

Earl decides he must reform, a hunch that hardens into conviction when he conducts an anti-litter campaign and finds the lottery ticket.

Not everybody shares Earl’s metaphysical wonder. One is brother Randy (Ethan Suplee), whose horizons do not extend beyond the day’s quota of beer and sex.

Still, he loves his sibling enough to help after Earl draws up a list of past crimes and misdemeanors in order to atone. The two are abetted by Catalina (Nadine Velazquez), a motel maid who brings a much-needed lucidity to the proceedings.

As Randy, Suplee very nearly steals the show. His feral cunning and childlike pleasure prove irresistible, thereby humanizing a role that easily could have deteriorated into mere moronic foil.

The second half of the show is devoted to crossing sins off Earl’s list. First up is a former childhood schoolmate named Kenny, whom Earl mercilessly bullied.

After some stealthy surveillance of Kenny’s present life, Earl concludes that his erstwhile victim has everything except a girlfriend.

This turns out to be enormously incorrect, because Kenny is gay. But as it’s meant to do, the twist allows “Earl” to enter the tricky territory of how a low-rent, regular-guy hero would respond to such information.

It’s handled pretty well. Earl doesn’t immediately become enlightened; he backs off and tries to tackle other tasks on his list. The ending is a happy one for Earl and Randy, whose decision to take Kenny to his first gay nightclub ends in a flourish of compassion and pragmatism.

Yet here is exactly where I’m tempted to turn spoilsport.

“Earl” has well-drawn characters and a humor that’s raucous and vulgar without being cheap. The show’s plot and underlying warmth counteract any signs of condescension toward the lower classes. Earl is firmly in control of his fate.

Nevertheless, it isn’t clear where “Earl” goes from here. The brilliant pilot succeeds in part because we get to see the lows as well as the highs of his existence. A weekly series that runs mainly on making amends may feel slack, even sappy.

NBC has a challenge as well. A network known for focusing on affluent urban singles is trying to court an America it’s long ignored. Will America respond?

Kay McFadden:

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