Before There Was Reality TV, There Was EdTV

Sure, EdTV seems tame now, but it seemed tame then

True Detective is in the middle of its run at HBO. It pairs Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as weathered, beaten and a little weather-beaten cops. They don’t have so much a love-hate relationship as they do an adversarial friendship. They are at odds. And they’re both pretty odd to begin with. They just get odder. McConaughey is the odd man out at the station and Harrelson is an odd father, though not of the Mad magazine variety. At the very end of the nineties, Harrelson and McConaughey played brothers in EdTV. Matthew McConaugheyheyheyithurtsme played Ed. He was on TV. And TV was on Ed. TV was on Ed like, forgive the cliché but, white on rice. Unless it’s brown or wild rice. TV was on Ed so much that he became EdTV. They were very close.

Before there was reality TV, there was EdTV. Sure, there’d been the Loud family and the Gong Show, but they were just CIA fronts, according to Chuck Barris. The nineties flirted with reality shows, like Real World on MTV, but EdTV, at the time, seemed unlikely. A television crew following someone around all the time and beaming it into people’s houses? It was funny. In the nineties. So let that be a lesson to you. Beware of satire. Especially if Rob Reiner has anything to do with it. Satire has a way of coming true in this laugh a minute world. Reiner’s only acting in this, but he brings the power of Spinal Tap to Ron Howard’s precognitive expose.

Matthew McConaughey plays Edward Pekurny, you know, Ed. He’s about to become the most interesting man on the planet and all he’s got to do is act naturally. Well, a little bigger than natural, because that’s what puts asses on couches. Ed is not only telegenic, he’s got charisma. He’s got dignity, at least for a little while. When they strap cameras to his ass he loses some of that, but haven’t we all?  Woody Harrelson is Ed’s brother Ray. He’s pretty interesting himself. But not quite as much as his brother. Oh, sure, back at the networks there might have been talk that he could be a Fonzie type breakout star, but with Opie Cunningham directing the movie, that would hit too close to home.

Ron Howard knew what he was doing, ushering an era of too much information and the cashing in on that information especially when it becomes too much. He cast Ellen, well, Ellen DeGeneres, a face everyone knew from TV because she seemed to be always on TV. DeGeneres started warping the simple realities of standup audiences and made herself at home in every home, whether you were at home or not. She’d later suffer a public breakup when it happened to her. Ron Howard also cast Jenna Elfman, Dharma Freedom Finkelstein Montgomery of Dharma and Greg, who some people probably also watched because they saw her on TV and weren’t sure why. A TV staple since he ran the Impossible Missions Force and Space 1999, Martin Landau is not a big character in EdTV, but an anchor as the wheelchair-bound uncle with a sexy secret. He doesn’t have to say “British Cocksucker” once to get his point across. Ever funny, ever effective. Totally irresistible. Liz Hurley is sexy and shallow. Dennis Hopper is subdued and Sally Kirkland is not. 

Ad – content continues below

Ed loses himself when he becomes one with public consciousness. He becomes a star of international proportions and really, what’s he done that could have prepared him for that? Ray prepared him for that. That easy grubbing brother of his, with all that competition and the rage that could come bursting through his eyes and nostrils like a bull in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, is Ed’s strength. As actors, Matthew and Woody play off each other like they’re kids in a park. Thumbsuckers or bedwetters, forever doing their chicken dance. They out-fun and out-mean each other and generally just go with each other’s whims so easily they turn scenes with syllables. They would do a mean improv. Ron Howard reins them in too much. Sure, he gets the laughs, he always gets the laughs, even his serious movies get the laughs, which is important.

Matthew McConaughey gives Ed his dignity in the end. It’s proven to be a wasted gesture. Nobody gives a shit about dignity in the way Ed did. His ending seems quaint and soft now. Something Ricky Gervais would do. Walk off a reality TV show? Risk the chance of losing all those eyes and ears on you? Walk out the back door or threaten to expose the admen masquerading as television executives as hack quacks? That’s far too optimistic now. That show would bomb on today’s reality TV. Now, if he grew a beard, showed his ass and could only be understood through closed captioning AND subtitles, we’d have a show.

EdTV works as a comedy and as social commentary. It seems very naïve now because of how far reality TV has gone what with the honeys and the booboos and the Kardashian monstrosity. They’ve rendered the satire of EdTV flat. Really, it’s not EdTV’s fault.


3 out of 5