In her recent TV Rewind column about FOX’s 2010 family sitcom Raising Hope, Zofia Wijaszka commended the much-loved comedy—and, by extension, its creator, My Name is Earl’s Greg Garcia—for managing to create such a warm and funny world despite starting from such an absurd (and dark!) premise. I mean, it’s not just anyone who could get a broadcast network to even sign off on a show that launches off a twentysomething community college dropout becoming a surprise dad when his infant daughter is dropped on his doorstep after her mother, an escaped criminal the dropout had a one night stand with, is executed by electric chair. To then spin 88 fun, family-friendly episodes out of it? Incredible.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Garcia’s newest project—a short and sweet limited comedy series called Sprung that’s set to premiere on Amazon’s ad-supported streamer, Freevee, later this week—has set itself up to thread a very similar needle. Nor should it be a surprise that, with Garcia having not just created the nine-episode series but also directed and written the majority of it, the result is pretty much the purest distillation of a Greg Garcia joint one could imagine.
How so? Well, first take a look at Sprung’s basic premise: Set in rural Western Maryland in the spring and summer of 2020, the series’ narrative engine springs (sorry) from both the grifter-friendly chaos of the early days of the pandemic, and the inherent cruelty (and concomitant unjustness) of the American carceral system. After finding themselves released from their sentences early for “health and safety” reasons—an official action which amounts to more or less shoving half of the (conveniently co-ed) prison’s population through the front gates with nothing more than a “good luck!” and the clothes they came in with—a trio of non-violent offenders ends up banding together, first to find a safe spot to “shelter in place” during lockdown, then to take advantage of COVID chaos by doing enough crime that they can support themselves in a job market hostile to anyone with a criminal record.
If that all sounds like a tough nut to crack jokes from, well, you’re not wrong! As charming as Sprung’s cast is—which, more on that below—there’s just not a lot of humor to be found in grifters using the fear and uncertainty of those first months of lockdown to take advantage of (or straight up steal from) their neighbors, or in prisons releasing prisoners early for “health and safety” reasons, but then giving them zero resources to actually leave the facility. Or, for that matter, in the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were so prevalent in the 1990s, the deleterious ripple effects of which shape every aspect of Garret Dillahunt’s character’s arc.
(Which, as much as I like Dillahunt, casting him in this role means that that particular arc plays out for a character who’s white, male, and from an apparently middle class background. Considering that Black people from middle class communities are on average 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people are—a rate that’s significantly higher in the DMV region where Sprung is set—this just complicates the matter further! )
So, okay, none of this sounds fun. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that early episodes include clips of Trump’s infuriating “COVID’s no big deal” March and April press conferences (hate it), or characters we’re ostensibly meant to be sympathetic to drugging, blackmailing, and straight-up threatening each other in the name of Doing Crime (hate it!!).
And yet—in a move that shouldn’t surprise anyone who who’s been a fan since his My Name is Early and Raising Hope days—by marrying this utter bummer of a set-up with a wildly charming cast (see below), a deeply specific production aesthetic (criminal thrift, but make it the 70s), and the kind of confidence only a wholly complete narrative vision can provide, Garcia manages, once again, to thread that absurd/dark/warm/funny needle.
On the cast side of things, Dillahunt’s heartbreakingly ingenuous Jack—the aforementioned victim of marijuana-based mandatory minimums—is the gravitational center around which Sprung’s emotional (and moral) world turns. Having entered the prison system as a kid after cops yanked him off his skateboard mere seconds after he’d taken possession of a backpack full of weed from the local punk dealer, Jack walks out of prison having spent more time in than he ever had out. Decidedly not a criminal at heart, he is first horrified when his shelter-in-place situation comes with a big set of “do crimes!” strings attached, then depressed when he discovers just how many barriers to honest work there are for anyone with a criminal record, then pissed when realizes that his only path to legitimacy is doing enough crime to pay for a fake, record-less identity. Fortunately for his would-be accomplices, what he lacks in a formal education he makes up for with a literal murderer’s row of lessons in just about every criminal art. Unfortunately, both for him and for us (me), the fact that he’s constantly reminded of this makes every episode so much more emotionally fraught than he’d (I’d) prefer.
But while Dillahunt’s Jack is the beating heart of the series, there isn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble. Rounding out the ex-con trio Jack stumbles into crewing up with, for example, are Phillip Garcia as Rooster (who was also Jack’s latest cellmate) and Shakira Barrera as Gloria (who was also Jack’s toilet-pipe girlfriend before they were released, and who might possibly become his real girlfriend in the future), each of whom brings a kind of vitality and vulnerability to whatever scener they’re in. Elsewhere on the outside, you’ve got Martha Plimpton going full slapstick as Barb, Rooster’s overbearing broad of a widowed mom, who takes Jack and Gloria in (and promptly recruits them to her and Rooster’s crew) when Rooster tells her they’ve got nowhere else to go; James Earl and Clare Gillies as Melvin and Wiggles, Rooster’s hustler nemesis and stripper ex, both of whom manage to meaningfully break free of their respective stereotypes in just nine episodes; and finally—in an unapologetically mean send-up of ex-Georgia Congresswoman Kelly Loeffler—Kate Walsh as right-wing rich bitch Paula Tackleberry, who the gang targets as their white whale after they catch her plotting to use insider knowledge to get rich off whichever drug companies eventually win federal contracts to produce a vaccine.
Now in terms of vision, while a ton of the set pieces that make Sprung up draw deeply from the Garcia well (see below for an exhaustive rundown), the Freevee heist-com’s plot leans as much on external influences as it does on internal ones. Sure, in Jack secretly using his crime earnings to help people, Sprung is rhyming slant with My Name is Earl. But between Gloria’s many and convoluted heists and the whole crew’s understanding that the only way they can beat a system bent on criminalizing poverty is by doing more crime, the series’ single-season arc owes just as much to Ocean’s Eleven and Raising Arizona (the latter influence holding such significance over all his work that Garcia literally wears it, in the form of a Woody Woodpecker tattoo, on his sleeve).
Still, any longtime fans coming to Sprung in the hopes of finding something familiar should rest assured that for all that Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers loom large over this little comedy, echoes of Garcia’s past work nevertheless abound. On the cast side, obviously, you’ve got Raising Hope’s Dillahunt and Plimpton playing opposite one another once again—although this time in roles more closely aligned with the FOX series’ naive, kindhearted Jimmy (if a few decades older) and cackling, lusty Maw Maw (if a few decades younger) than with Burt and Virginia. On the character side of things, meanwhile, you’ve got Gillies’ Wiggles as Sprung’s resident stripper/exotic dancer (following Sinnomin and Tickles in The Guest Book and Catalina in My Name is Earl), Barrera’s Gloria as its resident Latina “straight” woman (Nicaraguan here, where Earl’s Catalina was Mexican), Earl’s Melvin as its resident weed-loving Black man (following Darnell, also in Earl)*, and, finally, Dillahunt’s own Jack as the series’ resident middle-aged white man trying to make up for a criminal past by doing good in his community (following, well, Earl’s own Earl). And as for the town that more or less constitutes that community? Well, the fictional blue-collar burg of Kimberton, Maryland turns out to be named after Garcia’s wife, just as towns in previous projects were named after his kids.
(*A favorite Garcia-verse character type that only further complicates the decision here to use a white character to comment on mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession!)
Now, whether you’ll have the stomach to sit through all the early pandemic- and Trump-heavy episodes necessary to get to a point where you can enjoy these more classic Garcia project elements, I can’t say. Personally, I suspect that if I hadn’t had to write this review, I would have shelved it for a few more years. I just don’t think we’re at a point yet where watching fictional characters hustle their neighbors for hoarded toilet paper, scheme to make billions off of stock sales by using insider Congress knowledge, or set an innocent Black man up to be arrested on an empty nighttime highway in the summer of George Floyd (spoilers, maybe, but also trigger warning!) is worth making any kind of comedy about, nevermind comedy as cartoonishly broad as Garcia’s projects routinely use. A couple years from now? Maybe. A couple decades? Sure! Why not! But right now, it just feels bad. I mean, the pandemic is still happening. And it’s lingering in large part because we Americans so roundly failed the tests we were presented with in those first early months.
That said, the one giant thing Sprung has going for it is that, as a limited series, its story ends. And as a comedy, it does so by giving everyone involved a figurative sunset to ride off into. Given what a bummer it was for fans not to get to see the end of Earl’s redemption quest, this feels like a genuine gift—and not least because Garcia only had nine episodes with which to pull the whole thing off. Something, at least, to keep in mind, if a happy ending is something you want out of your pandemic-adjacent programming.
If it feels like I’m landing on a note of greater ambivalence than the top of this review might have led you to expect, well, I suppose it’s because I am. I’m definitely glad I watched the whole series, and would recommend that anyone who starts it does the same—for the catharsis the happy ending brings, the five-ish cumulative hours of time it will take you to get there are probably a fair trade-off.
At the same time, though, if you have any reservations about being asked to laugh at selfish people (both individually and systematically) taking advantage of what is still an ongoing tragedy, give Sprung a pass! Like the internet earworm that haunts the cold open in Episode 6, it’s nothing that won’t keep for another few years (or more).
Sprung premieres Friday, August 19 on Freevee, with two new episodes dropping weekly until the hour-long finale on September 16.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.