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EDtv proves less interesting than real life, and profoundly more commercial.

By Zak Weisfeld

APRIL 5, 1999:  Imagine being able to tune in and watch someone else's life, all day, every day. It's a premise that 10 years ago, or perhaps even five, would have seemed like a bold look at contemporary culture. Today, in the aftermath of the Lewinsky affair, it sounds like a show that Fox would cancel and replace with two hours of When School Buses Explode and America's Most Hideous Child Maimings III.

The Ed of Edtv is Matthew McConaughey, a 31-year-old San Francisco video store clerk with movie star teeth, a crazy family, and his brother's girlfriend. Ed is chosen to become the sole subject of a second rate cable network called True TV. Cameras follow Ed every waking (and not waking) moment, from the morning's genital rearrangement to the evening's Zambonie ride. Supposedly, the trials and tribulations of the charming, laconic, and good-natured Ed are enough to rivet a nation. From St. Louis to San Diego, the fans just can't seem to get enough of Ed and his life. Which, sadly, was not the case in the movie's audience. Fifteen minutes with Ed was enough to leave me hoping for a commercial—a long one.

The opening exposition of Edtv should have been enough to dissuade the characters in the movie from following up on their idea, and the audience from sitting through two hours of Edtv. In these first few scenes, young network executive Cynthia argues with her boss Whitaker about the merits of her concept. He explains that PBS aired a show as early as the '70s that documented the day to day life of an ordinary family and that MTV does it routinely. Cynthia counters that those shows were edited, and the situations were set-up. Edtv won't be. It will be real. But there is a very good reason those shows were edited—people's lives are mostly boring, at least from the outside.

Of course it quickly becomes apparent that Edtv doesn't believe its own pitch. The script, by writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, abandons its concept as quickly as it can. After a few scenes where Ed gets comfortable with the camera—clipping his toenails, looking at his own butt, Edtv reveals itself to be a trite relationship movie plastered with a veneer of social commentary thinner than its own plot. What's amazing is that even with editing, movie stars, and implausible plot lines, Edtv still manages to make the Real World or, even, real life seem profoundly interesting by comparison.

And Edtv's cynicism doesn't end with its lack of conviction in its own premise. Despite the feeling of having been done before (in film, the Truman Show; on TV, The Real World et al.; and on-line for real) the idea of actually being made into a national star solely by virtue of being available to the nation at every moment still has some juice to it. What if, rather than making a Flyntian bargain to expose the network executives in order to get the show to end, Ed exhorted his viewers to simply stop watching? What if Ed went on a hunger strike to get people to stop watching but they didn't? What if Ed decided to use his access to take up a good cause—and what if that stopped people from watching?

Instead, at every opportunity, Edtv takes the road more traveled. Given the choice between the bold and the banal, Edtv, under the sure, milquetoast hands of director Ron Howard, always chooses the latter. By the second, agonizing hour of the film it is clear that Edtv is less a satirical indictment of our voracious voyeurism, or our willingness to sacrifice our privacy and dignity for a moment in the spotlight, than it is a celebration of product placement.

The cynicism behind Edtv makes it almost impossible to have much sympathy for Ed when he realizes the Faustian bargain he's made to become a star. When he finally does figure out a way to escape from his cable yoke, I was left contemplating a far more terrifying, and more likely, scenario. What will happen when we are all on television 24 hours a day—and there's no one left to watch?


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