Just a year ago, Tom Cavanagh was a quirky side-character named Doug on NBC’s Providence, a charming fellow who thought he was a dog. Despite a deepening character relationship with desperately man-hungry Joanie (Paula Cale, the one without the big hair), Dog Boy got the boot from Providence before he could do any permanent damage to her heartstrings or pant legs.
Then along came the pilot for a half-hour sitcom called Stuckeyville, which was being produced by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants for CBS. Cavanagh landed the lead as Ed Stevens, a New York lawyer who, upon getting canned from the firm and finding his wife cheating on him the same day, decides to move back to his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio—nowhere near Fox’s Normal, Ohio, by the way.
The Eyeball Net eventually passed on Stuckeyville in favor of alleged comedies like Bette and Yes, Dear, and Letterman’s old archenemies at NBC grabbed the show immediately. Worldwide re-titled it Ed (which was the original name, anyway) and expanded it into a full-hour comedy-drama. If you were among the few who caught Ed’s Sunday-night debut last month and wondered why, since it’s never been on before, it started with a “flashback” montage explaining the show’s setup, here’s the deal: That two minutes is all that remains from the $3 million Stuckeyville sitcom pilot.
Now NBC has finally wised up to the fact that Ed is its one-and-only freshman hope for salvaging a badly tanked 2000-’01 season (Tucker, Daddio and Deadline are already gone; The Michael Richards Show and Cursed are on the brink of cancellation; DAG, well, too soon to say). Consequently, the execs have given it a shot. No more Sunday-night suicide runs against favorites like The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle on Fox, and Touched by an Angel on CBS. Next Wednesday at 7 p.m., Ed becomes a player on West Wing night, serving as lead-in for that politico powerhouse and displacing Titans, NBC’s ultimate 2000 embarrassment (Well, not just yet—see Tube Stops, below).
Why is all this such a big deal? Because it will shut TV critics up.
Sure, introducing a smart, high-quality show to a new (hell, any) audience and giving it a chance at survival is fine and all, but if that annoying chorus of “give Ed a better timeslot or we’ll be forced to wring our sweaters in righteous indignation” coming from the television critics’ camp can be slapped down in the process, all the better.
Not being a member of that prissy club (as the Television Critics Association has reminded me on occasion), I’m fully prepared to let Ed sink or swim on its own merits without a whole lotta begging. Yes, I did some TV critic-like stumping for another acclaimed-but-mostly-unseen show in last week’s Only TV Column That Matters®, The WB’s Gilmore Girls, but that was different. As soon as lovely star Lauren Graham sees it on the Internet or reads one of the dozens of copies I mailed to her publicist, she’ll realize that she can’t live without me, then she’ll move in and microwave Hot Pockets for me in a little plaid miniskirt every single day. What other TV critics do is just delusional and crazy.
Ed has been quickly labeled as the next Northern Exposure, thanks to its cast of eccentric—but never stupid—characters surrounding Cavanagh, who ain’t exactly playing straight-man himself. Ed buys the Stuckeybowl bowling alley on a whim after getting the idea in his head that he still has one shot in, oh, a billion of getting close to his high school crush Carol (Julie Bowen, who’d like you to remember her for ER, not The WB’s Three, a ’98 howler of a Mission Impossible rip-off). He’s not an idiot—he’s a full-tilt romantic.
Ed also runs a law office out of the bowling alley (the strangeness of this wore off in the first episode, believe it or not), leading to the kind of loony court cases that Ally McBeal and the rest of David E. Kelley’s pantheon has only hinted at. The townsfolk may all be nuts, but Ed’s their champion—the choice between him, Ally or those well-dressed freaks on The Practice would be an easy one.
David Letterman himself has written some of Ed’s more bizarre turns, such as a head-scratching exchange between Ed and his newly acquired bowling alley employees about “Kenny the kitty” (you had to be there). The most flamboyantly whacked of Ed’s workers, Michael Ian Black—most recently seen as Johnny Bluejeans on Comedy Central’s Viva Variety and unseen as the Pets.com sock-puppet spokesdog—can barely be contained in a TV screen. His Phil, like good-in-small-doses Jack and Karen on Will & Grace, makes everyone else in Stuckeyville seem (almost) grounded.
NBC should consider setting Black loose on the reality-and-ratings-challenged Titans and let the pins fall where they may, or at least hire his now-jobless sock-puppet for a torrid affair with Yasmine Bleeth.