Much Ado About EDtv

What happens when a 31-year-old video store clerk with no direction in life gets his 15 minutes of fame? Plenty, if he happens to live in our media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed culture. In fact, he gets much more, in fact, than he bargained for: money, fame and the attention of beautiful women — but at the price of privacy and freedom.

True observations, but certainly not new ones. In EDtv, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Ransom), is content to provide a wry snapshot of a society smitten with media and celebrity. And though he fails to dig deeper into what that portends for the culture, Howard's bemused take on the subject makes for an entertaining film.

The plot is simple enough: A programming executive (Ellen DeGeneres) at a cable network with even worse ratings than the Gardening Channel, proposes TrueTV, 24-hour-aday coverage of an average Joe's life. After a little searching, they find their man in Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey): a friendly, funny, telegenic underachiever. A few screen tests and a few cable exec meetings later, and EDtv is born.

If the premise of “all Ed, all the time” television reminds you of last year's Truman Show starring Jim Carrey, be assured that you won't be seeing the same movie twice. One seemingly small difference — that Truman's life was broadcast from birth without his knowledge, while Ed willingly signs on — actually makes a world of difference.

The birth of EDtv is uneventful enough. Ed wakes up. Ed clips his toe-nails. Ed toasts a Pop Tart for breakfast. Ed recommends Burt Reynolds over Steven Segal to teen video renters. Not exactly the kind of high drama to sell you on the new cable offering.

Not surprisingly, initial ratings are lukewarm, but Howard makes it a point to show that even Ed's mundane activities are enough to compel some people to tune in. The action switches away from Ed to show a cross section of people around the country with enough patience to see what this newfangled program is all about.

It isn't long before they get their reward. Less than 24 hours into the show, with the suits already threatening to pull the plug, a love triangle develops between Ed; his brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson); and Ray's girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman), a UPS driver.

When Ed, with camera crew in tow, stops by to visit Ray, Shari — along with the rest of the viewing public — discovers that Ray has been unfaithful. Ray tries to apologize to Shari on camera. Ed goes over to her place to comfort her and ends up spilling his guts about how much he's always loved her. They kiss, voyeuristic viewers everywhere cheer madly, and a hit show is born.

Anyone alive in 1999 will find nothing here too far-fetched. This is the filmmaker merely reflecting reality. After all, this messy stuff is the daily fare served up by Jerry Springer, Rikki Lake and the rest of the daytime trash-TV lineup. There seems to be no shortage of people ready for their 15 minutes of fame — or of people eager to see them get it — even if that means discussing the wreckage of their lives in front of a hooting studio of strangers and millions more viewing at home.

Pretty soon everybody's watching EDtv. From one day to the next, Ed, affable video clerk, has become Ed, the star. Small thing that he's famous for exactly nothing except for being on TV. As the programming executive behind EDtv puts it, “He's a Beatle. No, not a Beatle, but a Spice Girl. ... He's a Beanie Baby.” In a word, he's a wildly successful product.

In cutting to shots of EDtv's growing audience around the country, Howard makes sure to show this growing national obsession is shared by all kinds. College students huddle around the tube in their dormitory. An upscale black couple watch from their bed. Sweatshop workers in San Diego stay tuned as they run their sewing machines. Teen-aged boys in Denver watch. Patrons at a diner in Galveston, Texas, watch. Even the president of the United States is watching. Everybody wants to know what will happen next with Ed.

And not only do they want to know, they want to weigh in on the action. If ours is a culture riveted on media and celebrity, Howard reminds us that it is also obsessed with opinions and polls. The filmmaker shows a USA Today poll on whether Shari is good enough for Ed. When 71% say no, he wants to help his fans see her charms. Standing off camera he tries to get her to do a little routine he knows viewers will find endearing. “Is this an audition to be your girlfriend?” she asks, refusing to cooperate.

In the newspaper polls and elsewhere, Howard illustrates how the media machine recycles it's own pale product. Ed turns up on the cover of People magazine. And on a couple of occasions, the film cuts to real-life pundits like Michael Moore, George Plimpton and Bill Maher in cameo roles, analyzing and ridiculing the EDtv phenomenon in round-table discussions. “It's a new low point in our culture,” Moore says on one of the talk shows. Here, Howard reflects just how far we've fallen. In a media-obsessed culture, what's more natural than watching a show about a show that isn't worth watching?

In another cameo spot, The Tonight Show's Jay Leno finds plenty of comedic material in the national obsession with EDtv. But again, it's like Jerry Springer and crew. Everybody agrees what a pitiful spectacle it all is, but everybody's talking about it and everybody's watching it.

It's a dreary state we're in, to be sure, but Howard has a jester's touch in pointing out the folly and that makes a film that could be much darker float right along.

As an idea, it's hard to shake the feeling that EDtv is a little behind the curve. After all, we already have shows about real life teens and real life cops. We've got shows of real life video of plane crashes, robberies and spectacular stunts gone awry. We've already got real people on TV talk shows serving up family secrets without shame. Still, EDtv is a serio-comic reminder of just how deep society's love for media and celebrity runs.

Some of EDtv's actors, by the way, are no strangers themselves to the media's tendency to spill over into the real world. Ellen DeGeneres is famous for mainstreaming her lesbian private life by mirroring it in her TV sitcom Ellen, and Woody Harrelson's role as the cool serial-murderer in Natural Born Killers has inspired deadly copy-cats. Entertainment is a far cry from the days when director Howard played Opie in The Andy Griffith Show.

Larry Montali writes from Miami.