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Tucson Weekly Special Ed

Move Over Truman, It's Clinton That This Cinematic TV Camera Is Angling For.

By James DiGiovanna

MARCH 29, 1999:  AS A STORY about a man who lives his life on television, EDtv is, of course, being compared to The Truman Show. In fact, it has less than nothing to do with that film: The Truman Show was about a man who didn't know that his life was being filmed, whereas EDtv is specifically about the way someone's life is changed when cameras intrude.

In the beginning of EDtv, Ellen Degeneris, who plays one of the TV executives in charge of this life-as-show, is asked if it isn't just like the Loud family, and she says that it's not. Actually, the Loud family is no doubt the inspiration for EDtv.

The Loud family was the subject of An American Family, a deranged PBS television experiment in the '70s. Someone thought it would be a good idea to move some cameras into "the average American home" and just start filming. As a result, an average American family broke up, an average American teenager came out as gay to an entire country, and lots of average Americans were enthralled and horrified by a family drama that was not merely shown on television, but was simultaneously real and created by television.

Clearly, if the cameras were not there to exacerbate the tensions in the Loud household much of the fighting and familial disintegration would not have occurred.

So it is for Ed, the video-store clerk in EDtv who is to be the subject of failing cable network TrueTV's new series. He signs a contract, and the next morning wakes up with live coverage of his life. This leads to a fight between himself and his brother, a new romance, the reappearance of his long-lost father, a divorce between his mother and her current husband, etc.

If it weren't for the fact that consistently mediocre director Ron "Richie Cunningham" Howard invariably takes a good idea like this and dumbs it down, EDtv could have been a very savvy commentary on loss of privacy. Instead, the good moments are counterbalanced by a fairly obvious love story, with Jenna Elfman wasted in the role of a stereotypically weepy woman.

Howard has never been a feminist genius, of course, but some of the simple-minded sexism in this film is especially rankling. Elfman's skill as an actress is in her exuberance, and to use her as the bland cry-baby who waits for our hero Ed (played to perfect dopeyness by Matthew McConaughey) to come to his senses and love her is both insulting and unfair to the audience. There's also the completely unanswered and unposed question as to why TrueTV is searching for a man's life to film, and not a person's life: There are tryouts nationwide for the role, but only men are invited.

On the other hand, when he's not mired in the kind of baseball-cap-wearing-everyman-style thoughtlessness that's made him such a success, Howard does allow for some reasonably witty and targeted commentary. Perhaps the best moment comes when Ed has a date with a model-wannabe played by Elizabeth Hurley. Since she has implied, on national television, that this date will end in sex, the entire country tunes in to cheer Ed on (not to cheer Hurley's character on; in the world of EDtv, we see women as mere accouterment or impediment to Ed's life). There is a brief shot from inside the Oval Office, as the president waves an assistant away from the television so he can witness Ed's moment of televised coitus.

And really, who knows more about having one's personal life, in all its petty, embarrassing and personal details, televised for national consumption than the president? Not just any president, of course, but this one, our beloved Bill Clinton, whose approval rating mirrors the fictional ratings for Ed's life.

In EDtv the country loves Ed, because he is a philandering Southern mook. Sound familiar?

As the executives at TrueTV point out in their meetings, we are searching for someone who doesn't make us feel inferior. We can really get behind the average guy--one who has appetites and failings we can all relate to. Thus, they pick Ed, who's essentially a Clinton stand-in, elected by ratings to be our national everyman.

Director Howard (who was good enough to give his old friend Ralph Malph a role in this film) notes this with covers from USA Today. Polls keep showing up about aspects of Ed's life, and, much as in the Clinton case, when Ed is involved with a woman he shouldn't be (in Ed's case, his brother's girlfriend) the country expresses its disapproval of the woman, leaving Ed relatively unscathed.

In fact, as Ed gets involved in more libidinous fiascos, his ratings continually improve, until he's trapped in his TV world by the force of the polls. In a move that mirrors the new media in the Clinton era, Ed begins to dominate the national psyche, and television round-table shows like Politically Incorrect put aside discussions of Mideast policy and environmental initiatives to talk about Ed's personal life.

All of this would have made for an intellectually stimulating film if it weren't for the unnecessary love story that ties the film together. Maybe that's just Ron "Opie" Howard's way of saying that he can't make a film about the dumbing down of our national culture without dumbing it down a little himself.

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