EDtv aims to skewer the boob tube, but misses the real target
Universal Pictures
Directed by Ron Howard
USA, 1999
While many have mentioned their similar themes, the truth is that The Truman Show and EDtv are very different beasts. True, they're both about some average Joe who has his entire life televised. But where Matthew McConaughey's Ed Pekurny deliberately signs up, Jim Carrey's Truman Burbank doesn't know his life's onscreen, aligning Truman more with paranoid films such as Brazil and 1984. Besides, Truman involves the wholesale manufacture of a false reality; the frightening thing about EDtv is how close we are to it.

Human beings have never been indifferent to cameras, regardless of their cultural background. But television cameras have long exuded a mythic appeal, moreso than film--most likely because us non-celebrities have a chance to be on TV, and we still hang on to the notion that equates appearing on the tube with celebrity. In the 1990s, this has escalated to new heights: "reality TV" has become a phenomenon that shows no sign of slowing down, as America's Funniest Home Videos, COPS, World's Wildest Police Videos, The Real World, and even Jerry Springer illustrate. All of these purport to give us real life as entertainment, and the public just eats it up.

And then there's the wacky world of Webcams. Legend has it that the first Webcam was rigged as a means of checking if a Coke machine was empty, but it doesn't matter; the Web is lousy with these things, and--again--people eat them up. One of the best-known is Jennicam, where a camera is set up in young Jennifer Ringley's apartment 24-7; there's also Here and Now, where several roommates broadcast their daily goings-on to the wired world.

While the cameras are on all the time, they have a limited scope; the objects of the audience's affection can easily hide, if they're so inclined. Once they step outside of the house, they're free of the lens. EDtv, on the other hand, gives us the idea of a TV show where a camera crew follows Ed everywhere except the bathroom.

Not surprisingly, the masses are riveted. Not right away, of course; real, unedited reality is boring. But throw in a little spice--such as when Ed breaks the news of his brother's (Ray, played by Woody Harrelson) infidelity to Shari (Jenna Elfman) and they become a couple--and Ed is an overnight phenom.

There are problems, of course; Shari realizes she can't deal with being Ed's girlfriend if it means constant scrutiny; Ed discovers he's contractually bound to continue; an irate Ray (who had initially wanted the gig, if only to advertise his business) writes an angry tell-all. In true Hollywood fashion, Ed embarks on a plan to get the TV cameras out of his life, get Shari back, and keep the money. Since the audience loves him so, they're rooting for him too, although this means he won't be on TV anymore. (Let me get this straight--they love him so much, they want him off the air? Only in the movies.)

Even for a comedy, EDtv is too facile. Celebrities who endure a tenth of what Ed does punch out photographers for being intrusive. He's supposed to be a not-too-bright, aw-shucks kind of guy, but please--to have no solitude except for bathroom breaks, with nary a complaint? In fact, only one member of Ed's family ever gripes about the loss of privacy and the public's leering voyeurism.

Amazingly, though, the viewing public--the very people who, as mentioned before, eat up this stuff--get away scot-free. We see the way Ed is turned into a celebrity, how women suddenly find him desirable, how a mob mentality takes over when he plans to have sex with a model after a USA Today poll says he should. But their whole attitude is never questioned. It's as if we're supposed to expect this from the audience who, in reality, is ourselves.

Maybe we're supposed to expect it. After all, the demand for juicy inside gossip hasn't diminished, despite the outrage at the paparazzi after Princess Di's death. Monica Lewinsky's TV interview was a ratings tsunami, despite the claims that "Monicagate" was beaten to death in the media.

More the pity, then, that the opportunity for some truly vicious satire was wasted. EDtv is entertaining fluff, no doubt about that. But, like the medium it mocks, it took the easy way out when it could have been so much more.

A Critical Eye exclusive (August 6, 1999)
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