Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Tuned Out

By Susan Ellis

APRIL 5, 1999:  If you spend any time watching Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown, you’ll notice that squeezed between all the broken-up couples squabbling over loans and the whereabouts of boom boxes, there are a good number of cases involving exotic dancers – exotic dancers suing (“she stole my rubber dress”) and being sued (“she gave me the rubber dress”) – so much so that you may come to think that our nation’s courtrooms are clogged with exotic dancers seeking justice. A more plausible theory is that these women simply want to be on TV, maybe catch a break and become a celebrity. Stranger things have happened – for example, MTV’s Jesse.

Director Ron Howard’s latest film, the comedy EDtv, delves into this phenomenon of real (and, at the same time, not-so-real) TV and the effects it has on the lives it captures and on society at large. Except he and his writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel don’t go at it too deeply or with much originality.

EDtv stars Matthew McConaughey as Ed, a video-store clerk, West Texas transplant to San Francisco, and the only hope for a struggling cable network that deals exclusively in reality-based shows. Ed is recruited by network executive Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres) to star in his own show. Unlike MTV’s Real World or PBS’ documentary on the Loud family, Ed’s show will be 24 hours a day and unedited, with room only for potty breaks.

From the moment it airs, Ed’s a hit. And what’s not to like? He’s sweet and has little quirks such as wearing a beer tied around his neck. Plus, he provides the viewers with a storyline to follow. His family is a bit nutty, and he’s stolen the heart of his brother’s girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman).

Ed’s on top of the world. He makes an appearance on The Tonight Show, has all the free Pepsi he can drink, and has had his show’s contract renewed. While Ed is basking in the glow of attention, Shari is being bruised by it. Newspaper polls hate her and say that Ed can do much better, so she splits. And just as the show is at its peak, its star begins to consider the repercussions of the gig, and he decides he wants out. The network bosses won’t give him up so easily, however, and they turn devious to keep Ed in line.

The trouble with EDtv is not with its stars. McConaughey is a beguiling presence; his Ed is such an all-around good guy that you could watch him all day. The supporting cast (Martin Landau, Sally Kirkland, Woody Harrelson) is just as good. It’s the script that’s the throwaway. There’s no real satire, no real irony, only so-so jokes and a tiresome glut of cameos from the likes of George Plimpton, RuPaul, Arianna Huffington, and the ubiquitous Jay Leno (what, no Larry King?).

Part of the problem is clearly timing. Howard and his longtime producer Brian Glazer first toyed with the idea in 1994 after the release of a French-Canadian film, Louis XIX: Roi des Ondes (Louis the 19th: King of the Airwaves). Five years later, with The Real World, The Truman Show, and Internet sites such as Jennycam, this is a gimmick that’s been done. The filmmakers try to take it further by getting into the costs of celebrity and the loss of privacy, but only to a point. This is about hurt feelings, not the warping of perception, which is the true sign of celebrity.

What makes reality-based TV so popular is the spectacle, that essence of seeing-is-believing, the exotic dancers clamoring for their rights. Without bite, EDtv can’t even compete with what it tries to portray.

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