EDtv may have a hard time attracting audiences, simply because it gives out an unmistakable quality of déjà vu. An average guy whose banal life is on television twenty-four hours a day: wasn't that the plot of The Truman Show (1998)?
Happily, Ron Howard's take on this fantastic premise is really nothing like Peter Weir's ponderous, pretentious effort. For starters, this everyman hero, Ed (Matthew McConaughey), chooses his fate as a televisual curiosity. More importantly, Howard's film is not at all cold or didactic – like his best work (Gung Ho/Working Class Man , Parenthood ), it bursts with a genuinely populist regard for daily life and its delicious complications.
The difference between EDtv and The Truman Show is most tellingly evident in the films' respective depictions of the fictional viewers who become so engrossed in this unlikely, eternal program. For Weir, those consumers were glazed, credulous morons, robotically responding to the media's sinister manipulations.
For Howard, such ordinary folk are lively, knowing spectators fully engaged in an ongoing real-life soap opera – cheering Ed when he makes a connection with Shari (Jenna Elfman), the dumped girlfriend of his garrulous brother Ray (Woody Harrelson); or when he stands up to the corporate demands of cable TV executive Whitaker (Rob Reiner) and his reluctant lackey Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres).
Neither EDtv nor The Truman Show entirely solve the credibility problems inherent in the premise of a live, 24 hour, reality-TV show. Veteran screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel try, at least, to explain what the camera does when Ed sleeps or goes to the bathroom.
They are less successful in convincing us that Ed's technical crew stays permanently awake and on the job (one poor guy, played by the director's brother Clint Howard, complains that he lives in a broadcast truck). And they fudge (as The Truman Show did) the most evidently, excruciatingly boring part of an ordinary person's life: those eight, uneventful hours a day at work.
Still, Howard has long proved himself a virtuoso at gliding over the inconsistencies and troubling undertones of his material. EDtv is, like Woody Allen's latest, centrally about the comic vicissitudes of sudden celebrity, and only incidentally a sermon on a media-mad society. Indeed, EDtv treats media analysts with refreshing sarcasm.
Howard always stresses the eccentricities of ordinary people over and above any grand theme. In one hilarious scene, a woman offers Shari unwanted fashion advice; at another highpoint, Ed finds himself intrigued by the list of gorgeous celebrities with whom pollsters believe he should be paired.
The film's generously populist vision does, however, acknowledge a dark side: the fickleness of the media audience as it shifts its sympathy away from Shari (ever uncomfortable on air) and towards the vacuous Jill (Elizabeth Hurley), an exhibitionist hungry for the camera's eye.
EDtv is lively and pleasing, but it has problems. Sometimes, Howard's obvious fondness for a certain hammy tradition in American comedy overpowers all else. Reiner and De Generes cease being their characters every time they get an opportunity to parade their schtick, their stock of familiar vocal and gestural mannerisms.
At such moments, the film forgets its best impulses and – like Ed at his least sensitive – becomes a mere creation of the TV age.
© Adrian Martin May 1999