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TV's 'Ed'

Why NBC's biggest new hit is a success.

by Mark D. Johnson
October 28, 2000

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TV's 'Ed'_Mark D. Johnson-Why NBC's biggest new hit is a success. [Editor's note: also see the author's updated review, posted on 1/10/03]

After three shows, NBC's "Ed" looks like a solid show, both in the ratings and as a source for reliable weekly entertainment. In this age of reality TV mania and cookie-cutter sitcoms, hour-long dramas rarely become smash hits, so it makes sense to ask why "Ed" is a success. Is it the quality of the show? The time slot? Brilliant promotion? A combination of these?

If last year's excellent "Freaks and Geeks" had started in the Sunday 8 PM slot, would we be enjoying a second season? I wish we were, but NBC probably would have canned it anyway. Despite the show's clever humor, insightful writing, and great cast, it unfortunately did not have mass appeal. In contrast, the secret of "Ed"'s success is its lack of originality.

While watching "Ed," one gets the feeling of having seen this show before. We liked it the first couple of times around, and it's still a good show. We liked it when it was called "Northern Exposure" until its producers ruined that show, and we liked it again when it was called "Picket Fences" until those producers ruined that show.

And so it's back: the All-American small town with quirky characters. This time, the main character is a lawyer who winds up back in his tiny hometown, goes after the girl he had a crush on in high school, and buys a bowling alley, where he also maintains a law firm. The courtroom scenes combined with the familiar small town setting creates an alarming similarity to "Picket Fences." Couldn't they think of a different occupation for Ed?

Okay, maybe I'm being a little harsh. Not everything in the show is recycled - it just feels like it. I do like the bowling alley/law firm combination. They earn points for that.

The bowling alley employees are the show's designated quirky types, and they go a little over the top. They're still enjoyable, but you can just see the writers thinking about how to make them oh-so-quirky. Ed himself is a bit of an oddball, willing to make a fool of himself in attempt to win the heart of teacher Carol Vessey. Despite his goofy qualities, he's very likable. The love interest is likable too, but she's involved with another teacher, a writer who was on the faculty when Ed and Carol were classmates. There's a small creepy factor there, but I suppose these things happen in small towns. Another oddity: Ed moved in with his old high school buddy, his wife and their new baby. Why was that again, and why are they so comfortable having Ed at the breakfast table every morning?

"Ed" is a Worldwide Pants production, with former David Letterman producer Rob Burnett at the helm. The writing is good, but I keep wondering about the way the show started. In three or four minutes we were given the whole story of how Ed lost his job at a big city law firm, caught his wife with the mailman, moved back to Stuckeyville, immediately fell for Ms. Vessey, kissed her, and bought a bowling alley. They show clips from all of these scenes, and I wondered if I had somehow missed the pilot episode. There it was - all crammed into the opening segment. I was left feeling somewhat deprived of a show. A strange start, but I'm still watching.

So how will the producers ruin this show? Well, it could start with Ed getting the girl. They've wisely kept the tension going, but other shows in TV history have had difficulty sustaining this kind of tension over a long period of time and give in when the ratings need a boost. "Ed" writers will need to get more creative than they're being now to succeed in the long run. And they'd better keep the silliness in check - too much quirkiness creates a plausibility problem.

So until it's ruined, it's a pretty good show, as it has been in years past, and I'll keep watching. Unfortunately, "Ed" conflicts with "The Simpsons," so beginning November 5, I'll be watching "Ed" on tape.

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