Illusionist David Copperfield once made the Statue of Liberty seem to disappear in front of a live audience. Perhaps I should give him a call and see if he could make a terrific TV show reappear.
In this day and age of bargain-priced DVD sets of just about everything ever to grace or disgrace the boob tube screen, cable networks galore and streaming services offering up even old chestnuts like Green Acres and Dad’s Army for insomniac subscribers, you’d think a hit show from this century would be easy to find. Hard to avoid even, perhaps. Particularly if it starred one of the leads in one of this decade’s most popular shows, was created by TV “royalty” and kicked off the careers of a couple of movie stars plus the star of the most popular sitcom going these days. Sadly you’d be wrong.
Despite having Modern Family‘s “Claire’ (Julie Bowen) as the female lead, being the first place anyone saw Jim Parsons (now Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory) or Justin Long on the screen, despite being a product of David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, and having the Foo Fighters do the theme song, Ed has become a ghost. TV’s equivalent of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – well-loved but known these days only through rumors, memories of old-timers and grainy photos. That bugged me back in 2005 after it ended; it bugs me more now.
Ed (not to be confused with the similarly-titled movie, Ed TV) was a rather brilliant but hard to define show that ran for 83 episodes from 2000 through early 2004 on NBC. It was a dramedy before that term – or genre- was well-known. A drama with a sense of humor; a comedy that at times could be heart-wrenching at times. Lovable, Relateable. Quirky like Seinfeld but a version where the characters weren’t obnoxiously self-absorbed and were dropped into a small town. It was also could be seen as something of a male bookkend to The Gilmore Girls which debuted the same autumn. Just like Ed , Lorelei and Rory, those feisty Gilmore Girls had oddball small-towners to contend with, lots of music and main characters looking for love. Unlike Ed, however, The Gilmore Girls live on in Walmart discount video bins, Sunday afternoon reruns and most notably, in a limited 4-episode resurrection from Netflix. All accomplished while averaging only a little over half the number of viewers as Ed in its first run.
Ed was several shows in one really, a somewhat risky proposition for TV of the day. Romance, workplace dramas, lightweight legal eagles.Sounds messy, yet it worked. Wonderfully.
The central story was based on Ed Stevens (played by the affable Canadian actor Tom Cavanagh, little known outside of his homeland at the time. In Canada he starred in a series of popular Labatt beer ads in the ’90s) and his search for love. Ed was a big money, big city lawyer, we’re told, who had one bad day. A missed comma in a business contract cost his firm millions, and led to him being fired. When he returned home early, he found his pretty wife in bed with a stranger. Ed decides he’s had enough of that life, and – cue the TV show’s beginning – returns to his hometown, Stuckeyville, a smallish town in Ohio stuck in a Frank Capra movie.
Having tasted a good deal of failure in his life, but also some success after his school days, he decides to look up his high school crush, Carol (played by Bowen.) He falls back in love with her and spends 4 seasons wooing her with up-and-down results and the sexual chemistry of David and Maddie from Moonlighting.
Of course, just as in real life, there was more to both their lives than their oft-thwarted attraction to each other. Ed needs to do something to keep busy and as he’s a lawyer, he goes into practice in Stuckeyville. But instead of working on behalf of big business, as in his past life, he looks after the town’s good people … the gal being sued by her lecherous used car dealer boss for back wages after she turns down his advances; the beloved Stuckeyville Stan, magician whose tricks are being explained to the town by a malicious rival… even Carol’s boyfriend (played by a pre-Mad Men John Slattery) when the rival was falsely accused of causing a car crash. In short, the good guy everyone loves. Oh, and since he liked bowling, he decided to buy the town bowling alley and work from there!
Stuckeybowl offered up its own storylines and weird but pleasant characters and stories, most notably the good-hearted Phil, (Michael Ian Black), the highly ambitious but quite so clever manager.
Carol had become a school teacher since Ed left town, and the other half of the story involved her work and the high schoolers she taught, as well as her co-workers, including her best friend Molly and in the first couple of years, Slattery as the principal and her beau. Two of the high schoolers are Warren and Diane, high school nerds played by Justin Long (before the Apple ads) and Ginnifer Goodwin, some 9 years before they sizzled together in He’s Just Not That Into You. Warren has a thing for Carol, which frustrates Ed, but doesn’t stop him from trying to help the youth find his way … and see that his soulmate is his classmate, Diane.
And of course, Ed has a school buddy too – Mike. Mike is now married and a young doctor struggling to win respect from the townspeople and the crusty old doctor, Dr. Jerome whom we always expect to prescribe leeches or bloodletting. Of course the old goat gets Mike’s goat… while quietly pushing the young one to be the best he can be.
Mike and Ed hang out together and relive their youth, often with a running series of “ten dollar bets” in which one bets the other ten bucks to do something crazy. Mike bets Ed he can’t meow loud enough in a park to make a stranger turn around, bets Ed he won’t play “It’s raining Men” on his bowling alley jukebox on a busy night and so on. Ed inevitably is not one to turn down a challenge. At the end of the day, they all tend to hang out in the neighborhood pub, The Smiling Goat, rather like the characters in How I Met Your Mother socialized at their bar, albeit with a lot less intoxication in Stuckeyville. Oh, and yep, …Mother‘s Neil Patrick Harris showed up on Ed too, as a competing bowling alley lawyer. Jim Parsons, Rena Sofer and Kelly Ripa all made appearances before becoming household names.
For all the laughs and romance, from time to time the show broached serious material. Perhaps a decade before it became trendy or even polite, it dealt with obesity with sensitivity, with Carol’s friend Molly being a little curvier than most and at times fighitng prejudices because of it. Then there was Mark, a school kid who was largely unpopular and always self-conscious because of his own more-than-ample weight, leading him to consider gastric bypass surgery (which the actor, Michael Genadry had in real life.) Fast forward to today when This Is Us is called “brave” and ground-breaking for having plus-sized Chrissy Metz as one of its stars.
Critics adored Ed. I did too. It was my weekly “must see” show; in cruel irony the one episode I missed was…yep, the finale. I had to work and there was a glitch – a brief power cut I think – and my VCR didn’t tape it!
The rest of the public liked it, but not as much as the critics and I. It typically ranked in the middle of the ratings, with an average of between 10 million (in its first season, when it was in an unfavorable Sunday night slot against The Simpsons and Touched by an Angel) and 8 million in its last few months. It bears mentioning that if a show had those numbers these days, it would be a blockbuster hit. The aforementioned This Is Us averaged 5.4 million viewers this season according to Nielsen, about the same as the apparent breakout hit of the decade, Black-ish. Even stalwards like Grey’s Anatomy dip below 10 million some weeks.
All of which might make its cancelation marginally understandable …after all, how many quirky characters can one small town offer up, and sooner or later we knew Ed and Carol had to figure out what we all knew – that they belonged together. What makes no sense is that the show has disappeared into the ether in a time when almost every program ever made is available in any number of formats.
Fans and creators Rob Burnett (formerly the head writer at Letterman) and Jon Beckerman have constantly been reported as disappointed to quite pissed off the show hasn’t made it onto the DVD shelves or Netflix playlist yet. We’re told problems with doing so abound, owing to the show’s unusual production (David Letterman’s company, NBC and Viacom were all part-owners and distributors creating some problems on figuring out the copyright, costs and revenue-sharing) and with another one of the show’s appealing features- the music. It seemed there was always music playing on the show. In the bowling alley, in the cars, in the bar… even background music to serious walks in the snow to think! A number of great tunes, largely ’90’s alt rock ones but including at time everything from classic rock to old fashioned torch songs, appeared in the show. I used to try and track the songs episode by episode. It was a chore! Well, all that music, as the creators of WKRP In Cincinnati likewise found out, makes the legal work more difficult. Every musician or publisher needs to be individually negotiated with in terms of future royalties, which is why a lot of non-descript elevator music appears in WKRP videos instead of the old Foreigner, Earth Wind and Fire and Stones stuff you might have remembered hearing Johnny and Venus spin.
Whatever the reason, I wish they could put the differences aside and sign some papers and bring back Ed for those of us who remember it fondly. The sweet, gentle comedy was especially refreshing by the second season, when the world was thrown into disarray (the season premiere was scheduled for Sep. 12, 2001 and was pushed back by three weeks by… well, you remember) . Its light-heartedness and big-hearted message seems needed and once more. Paging David Copperfield… or maybe Viacom and NBC should go bowl a few frames and get a certain small town lawyer to draw up the papers.