EdTV, UBS

by Gary Gordon
(published in the L.A. Free Press, 1999)

     There are times when we realize we live in a ridiculous culture and we know we must choose to make the best of it. We have as a society just spent the last 14 months engaged in (or enduring) the Lewinsky saga and Starr's Inquisition, and now we face involvement in a war overseas that has its roots in a 600-year-old religious quibble.
     Fortunately, there's EdTV to the rescue, helping remind us that ridiculosity is ridiculous.
     No, it's not Network, the biting satire by Paddy Chayefsky about the UBS Network, which featured the slogan "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" and asked the question: what would happen if the entertainment division of a TV network took over the news division?
     That was before entertainment divisions had taken over news divisions, so Network was not only satiric, it was prescient.
     Now news is entertainment. And now that we live in and by all accounts enjoy the fruits of our Entertainment Industrial Complex, it's time to celebrate our fixation on blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, fact and speculation, the newsworthy and the ordinary, with a humorous film that asks the question: what if they created a TV show where they just broadcast the unedited life of an ordinary person?
     EdTV is the current commentary on a nation obsessed with fame, hyper-reality, fads, voyeurism, opinionism that pretends to be punditry that pretends to be analysis, and, of course, television. And as entertainment and commentary go, EdTV deserves high ratings.
     At times it's even got a good beat.
     And it should be good. The cast is magnificent: Matthew McConaughey (excellent in Dazed & Confused and Lone Star, horribly miscast in Amistad), Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Rob Reiner, Adam Goldberg-- all pros, all doing fine work.
     And Ellen DeGeneres as the TV producer with the idea-- perfect casting, perfect execution. DeGeneres and Elfman almost steal the movie.
     Plus, there's the great writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the great production team lead by Brian Grazer, and the director who grew up on TV, Ron Howard. There's some choice music (including Dirty Water, Gimme Some Lovin', and some Sly & The Family Stone).
     And there's Donny Most, who, as part of the icing on the cake, is given almost nothing to do.
     The story, like all the best satires, derives from a slight twist on what we already know to be real. DeGeneres comes up with the idea to pick an ordinary someone and broadcast their life 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and on and on-- except when they're in the bathroom. During auditions, Harrelson introduces the camera to his brother, Ed (McConaughey), and within days it's EdTV, "all Ed, all the time".
     And by gosh, Ed is ordinary: he's a 31-year-old who works at a video store, he comes from a dysfunctional family (stepfather Landau, mother Kirkland), his closest relationships left him burned, and he'd like to go after his dream, if he had one. He's an affable guy who decides to do the gig to help his brother launch his dream, a gym. And, he secretly has a thing for his brother's girlfriend (Elfman).
     But the fact that these characters are inviting, humorous, and in many cases all too American (not like the stiffs imagined by Dan Quayle, the uptight racists in Trent Lott's vision, or the Bible-thumpers who dwell in Gary Bauer's America; one can easily imagine Ed speaking at the Lincoln Memorial to hundreds of thousands, proclaiming "I don't have a dream", and sipping his beer as they cheer)-- well that's only partly the point.
     The story isn't just about what happens when Ed is televised kissing Jenna, or about his family history and the truth of his real dad's departure, or about the tons of Pepsi products he's given after he mentions he prefers Pepsi to Coke (the filmmakers have publicly declared they won't say if this was product placement or satire).
     The movie is about the people who watch the show, and for whom it becomes a central part of their lives.
     Jumping from bars to dorm rooms to living rooms to bedrooms; to the increasingly crowded streets outside the video store and outside Ed's apartment, and finally to the crowded intersection outside the apartment where Ed and his date finally-- ooops! Don't want to give that away.
     Suffice it to say the movie depicts people who watch and watch and watch and... watch.
     It's funny. It may be serious. It's seems all too accurate.
     Couples who don't know Ed suddenly argue about who he should date. Post-adolescent sorority house sisters take on strong convictions about whether his date is good enough for him. USA Today runs polls showing how many people approve and disapprove of Ed's choices.
     It doesn't seem farfetched.
     We read polls about polls about polls even as we criticize-- or is it congratulate?-- politicians for paying attention-- or is it ignoring?-- the polls.
     And we watch.
     We watch high-speed and slow-speed chases. We watch fires.
     We have arguments over who is better, or more meaningful, or more indicative of the rise or fall of American culture: Oprah, Montel, or Jerry Springer.
     We have fond memories of Mike Douglas and Phil Donahue and then settle for Rosie O'Donnell and Larry King. And we wish Larry Sanders was still on.
     We have news talk shows with the same revolving set of panelists (rarely including Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, Noam Chomsky, Todd Gitlin-- and I don't think I've ever seen Katha Pollitt) saying the same things over and over.
     Television has grown from the test pattern to the 15-minute network news to live coverage of sports and war, to reality shows.
     The brilliant comic Rick Overton (who has a supporting role in the movie) used to observe in his stand-up act that Reality Cop shows are actually training us to accept the idea that it's okay for the police to come and grab your neighbor.
     What is our relationship to television? How many of us watch too much?
     Or maybe the question is this: why are we so obsessed with television? For those of you old enough to remember the Vietnam War, you may recall some of the protesters would not feel validated unless their demonstration was televised, so they would race home to see if it was on the news. Others of us didn't watch much TV between the cancellation of the Smothers Brothers in 1969 and the advent of Saturday Night Live in 1975. Participating in life (relationships, political activity, social activity, music, massage, "getting back to the land") held alot more interest and was alot more meaningful and compelling than watching The Brady Bunch (Watergate hearings and Wounded Knee takeover coverage excepted).
     The other question might be this: why are we not only so obsessed with fame, why do we give it to folks so easily? Why is someone who does almost anything a candidate for being considered a hero? For fame? For celebration? (It's easy enough to predict that the pilot who was just shot down in the Stealth Fighter will become famous, cast as a hero.)
     EdTV does not pretend to answer these questions. It's observational. And it observes very well. There are, frankly, too many angles and too many choice quick bits to even comment on, all of which are deliciously delivered by Landau, Harrelson, Reiner, DeGeneres, Clint Howard, et. al., all of which and more serve to add to the commentary and fun of the piece. There are alot of laughs.
     There is even a Politically Incorrect-type talkshow, hosted by Harry Shearer, with guests Arianna Huffington and Michael Moore, followed by Bill Maher hosting Politically Incorrect with Ed's brother (Woody Harrelson) as a guest-- the fake TV commentary show has the real guests; the real show has the fake guests--
     What's real? What's fake?
     Does it matter?
     The night before his recent press conference, President Clinton addressed the Radio & Television Reporters Dinner. His writers gave him some great jokes. He was very funny (he told the reporters that he was willing right then to give them the answers to the questions he knew they would ask the next day: "No, I didn't see it. No, I haven't read it.") and everyone laughed and the whole event raised the question: what's serious? What's a joke? Is it all a joke? And if so, is there some way outta here?
     (Of course, it's not a joke. As a recent full-page ad in the New York Times, taken out by the Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities points out, the elimination of 6,500 nuclear weapons in the Pentagon budget could fund 425,000 teachers, the decommissioning of 75,000 troops overseas could fund almost a million HeadStart kids, and the cancellation of the 339 F-22 Fighters could fund health insurance for 11 million uninsured Americans. But that's a different movie. Or headline. Or press conference. Or talk show. If only the intricacies of the federal budget could be symbolized adequately by a slow-speed chase on the 405.)
     No, EdTV is not Network. Ron Howard is not Sidney Lumet; Ganz and Mandel are not Chayefsky, and although these times are ripe for biting satire (Bulworth and the new Serbian TV hit, Wag The Dog), humorous observations about the ridiculous culture in which we live certainly come in handy for helping to make it through the day; it is perhaps as important for this time as Network was for its time. .
     And within the rapid-fire jokes, sitcom set-ups, punchlines, twists, convolutions and cleverness there was one godawful moment of unrelenting truth I think Chayefsky would've been proud of: during one of the talk shows, Adam Goldberg, as Ed's friend, suggests that people used to have to do something special to be famous; now all they have to do is be famous, and that makes them special.
     Okay, it's an observation that's been made before, but like so much else in EdTV, it's an important part of the complete package that is EdTV.
     We'll be right back, after this.      
     


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