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Fall 2000: "Ed"

You've seen the promo on NBC before. Small-town professional makes good in the big city, suffers a vocational setback, walks in on their partner with another man, then snaps and heads back to the cowtown what raised them. Providence, anyone?

Fortunately, the previews for new show Ed were all wrong. The only thing Ed has in common with Providence is a network. The writing is smart, funny and a little bit... weird, and the acting is so effortless and natural, it's easy to get sucked into Stuckeyville, Ed's once-and-again home town.

The premise, for those who missed the promo all eight thousand times it aired on NBC between Olympic profiles, is that lawyer Ed Stevens tires of life in the Big Apple (that he's been fired and has caught his wife in flagrante delicto with a mailman probably had a lot to do with it) and returns to Stuckeyville to rebuild his life as a bowling-alley-owner-cum-lawyer, filling the time between nurturing his business and hanging out with friends by wooing his high school crush, golden girl Carol Vessey. She's currently involved with Ed's former sophomore English teacher, Nick, who's recast himself as a small-town Faulkner and used a lot of artistic license in yanking Carol around.

Carol, now an English teacher at the high school for which she once cheered, is deftly played by Julie Bowen. At first glance, Carol appears to be all shiny blonde hair and cheerleader charm. Bowen tempers the smiles with revealing flashes of temper and insecurity to show someone who's always suspected she doesn't deserve to be the prom queen.

She's a worthy consort for Ed, who's a superlative, if unconventional, suitor. As he says before asking Carol out while clad in a suit of armor, "If you're not born with the broad shoulders and the strong jawline, there's only one way to get the girl. Make a complete ass out of yourself."

Ed does so good-naturedly. Tom Cavanagh plays him as someone who's comfortable with who he is -- an acting move that makes Ed come off like Jon Stewart's goofy-yet-attractive younger brother. Cavanaugh's open, sunny face and wry delivery are fun to watch.

So is the rest of the cast. Leslie Boone plays Ed and Carol's friend Molly with a blithe aplomb that threatens to knock Camryn Manheim out of her spot as America's role model for bodacious beauty. Michael Ian Black, playing loopy bowling alley employee Phil, dances on the fine line between quirky and annoying with ease. The other principal cast members, Josh Randall and Jana Marie Hupp, do a fine job as new parents and Ed's biggest cheerleaders.

The cast is well-served by the writing. In the first courtroom sequence, Ed is defending Molly against a lawsuit brought by a body shop charging her for car modifications she didn't want. As the hometown lawyer gets up in a white suit and begins drawling about "this big-city lawyer with his big-city ways," the judge stops him short. Why, she demands, is he wearing a silly outfit and drawling? It's a hip send-up of classic courtroom scenes.

And that's Ed's final distinction: Ed Stevens gets the same wacky court cases and eccentric clients that the denizens of David E. Kelley shows enjoy, but he treats his clients with respect -- a huge distinction separating him from the folks at the law firm of Cage, Fish, O'Donnell and Quirky. Ed may be nonplussed at the weirdness in which he's become immersed, but he's determined to negotiate it with the three traits that rarely fail him: his humor, his brains and his good heart.

Those three traits also apply to Ed the show. Like Malcolm in the Middle, Ed celebrates the lunacy of everyday life and renders it in fantastic fashion. Given how dull and disappointing the rest of NBC's new shows -- and most of its existing shows -- are, Ed is a lunatic, fantastic show well worth watching.


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