But One Plays Me on TV

This fall, Slate presents reviews of new fall TV shows by people with real-life knowledge of the experiences the shows depict. Our third installment is from Seth Stevenson, who recently moved back to his hometown, on the NBC show Ed, premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. ET (click here for the first “Dispatch,” on NBC’s Deadline, and here for the second, on Fox’s Dark Angel). 

In Ed we see our protagonist (yes, Ed) lose his job and his wife (she sleeps with the mailman) on the very same day. Crushed, Ed leaves New York City to visit his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio. There he woos his high-school dream girl with a kiss, moves permanently to Stuckeyville on the basis of this kiss, and buys the Stuckeyville bowling alley. Finally, he discovers that the kiss wasn’t all that, for the dream girl at least.

Whew. End of episode? No, that’s just the first two minutes. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they edited down the entire contents of a previous, failed one-hour pilot (the one that CBS didn’t pick up, for instance) into this whirlwind montage. Life gives you lemons, make a prologue.

After the intro, Ed’s first episode is … pretty decent. Its formula is derived from three shows: 1) Providence, last year’s big NBC debut, which centers on a grown-up moving back to her hometown; 2) Picket Fences, David E. Kelley’s old series, which found humor in kooky courtroom scenes (Ed’s a lawyer, running his practice out of the bowling alley) and; 3) Northern Exposure, in which a New York professional set up shop in a remote town peopled by lots of pleasant weirdos and a love interest.

I’d say Ed is better than 1 but not as good as 3 (I didn’t watch 2 enough to judge). I applaud the attempt to throw comedy and angst together in a one-hour format. In its better moments, Northern Exposure pulled it off. But while Ed scores with the comedy, the angst just ain’t there yet. The whole tone is too happy-go-lucky for anyone to get caught up in emotion. And Ed seems pretty upbeat for a cuckold.

The supporting weirdos supply some clever laughs. A mean old doctor takes sarcasm to its apex, putting ridiculous effort and preparation into his rants (at one point using sandwiches as props). Ed’s bowling alley employees are good for several chuckles, as when they suggest the business might boom if they filled the place with whores—”nice, friendly, singing kind of whores, like in the Dolly Parton movie.” The married friends Ed lodges with are a charming, funny couple. In fact, the whole show is charming and quite funny.

At least until it turns emotional. When Ed goes into romance mode—showing up at his gal’s work in a suit of armor, for instance, or having a “meaningful” conversation on her front porch—the show falls flat. As with a real high-school dream girl, this one’s nothing but a cipher. While lovely, she manages to be blander than Janine Turner—no mean feat, that. And Ed himself (as played by Providence alum Thomas Cavanagh) is likable enough, but lacks the gravitas of, dare I say it, Rob Morrow. You just can’t take the guy seriously enough to care if he gets the girl. And his facial features jerk around way too much for my taste. When a leading man gets dramatic, he’s got to choose between twinkling pupils, hopping eyebrows, and dancing dimples.

The general inability of Ed to get real could stem from its creators, both veterans of the David Letterman show. Letterman is the king of comedy that never, ever turns meaningful. (I saw Cavanagh interviewed on Letterman recently, and Dave raved about Ed, predicting a hit. If he disclosed the fact that he’s an executive producer of Ed, I sure didn’t hear it.)

I was asked to review this show because, like Ed, I recently moved from New York back home to a cute, provincial hamlet—in my case, Boston. It’s hard to compare my experiences hanging out with high-school friends to Ed’s, because Ed seems to have only two such buddies. And where’s his family? Presumably they retired to Florida, or died—we never find out. For more of a hometown feel, Ed’s high-school pals should pop up wherever he goes. That’s what’s been happening to me. In all, I’d say the ups of moving home (friends who know where you come from and keep you brutally honest) outweigh the downs (friends who know where you come from and keep you brutally honest).

Ed’s second episode features some funny bits with a senile magician, plus a really good Marshall Crenshaw tune. This could bode well. Would I watch Ed again after that? Yes. But for now, it’s not appointment TV.

Photograph of Ed cast members by Chris Haston © NBC.