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TeeVee Awards '02: Biggest Disappointment

We owe Justin Long a really big apology.

Long, who seems like a nice enough young man, plays the part of Warren Cheswick on the NBC TV series Ed. And for a good chunk of the past two seasons, his mere appearance in an episode of the hour-long dramedy was enough to send a plurality of Vidiots into howling fits of fury.

It's nothing against Long, who appears to be doing the best with the material he's handed. But the character he plays, in the considered opinion of the anti-Cheswick Vidiots, is a stammering dolt -- uninteresting, unlikable, the penny on the railroad track that caused the Ed express train to routinely derail. The producers intend for Cheswick to be some sort of everyman, an indefatigable, never-say-die underdog whom you can't help but root for. Unfortunately, since they've also made the character grating, self-involved, shallow, oblivious to the world around him and a slave to convention, the only thing you wind up rooting for is him to be bundled off to the Infernal Region, ideally after a particularly grisly and gruesome demise, perhaps involving a wheat thresher or maybe even a bone saw.

To be fair, not every Vidiot feels this way. There are some in the happy TeeVee family who think nothing but warm thoughts toward Warren Cheswick and what he brings to the Ed table. Maybe they're struck by the cleverness of supplying titular character Ed Stevens with his own awkward doppelganger. Maybe they see a little bit of themselves in Warren. Maybe they're just touched in the head. The point is, we haven't ever given Boychuk's opinion much credence, and we're not about to start now.

So the tyranny of the majority rules -- Cheswick is deemed to be a nuisance, an irritant, the millstone around Ed's neck. And so he has been banished from our TVs, disappearing as quickly as the fast-forward button on our TiVos can race through a Cheswick-blighted scene.

But something funny happened this year, after we stopped fast-forwarding or averting our eyes or sticking our fingers in our ears and saying "La la la, can't hear you, Cheswick, la la la." The parts of Ed that didn't feature the Warren Cheswick character -- they weren't much good, either. In fact, the entire second season of Ed was as uncomfortable and unpleasant for us to watch as -- if body language is anything to go by -- it was for the actors appearing on the show.

Hence, our apology to Justin Long. With Ed awash in myriad problems, his character is no longer the worst thing about the once-quirky, now-confounding show. In fact, we kind of miss the days when our biggest beef with Ed was too much Warren, too much of the time.

It's been quite a descent for Ed, which, in the space of one year, has gone from sharing joint custody with The Job of our Best New Show award to feeling the full weight of our wrath as the most disappointing show of the past season. And this wasn't a close call, by any means -- Ed was a unanimous selection for this dubious honor. Considering we're the same decisive folks who, when asked to pick the Best Actress for an hour-long show, split the title between Sarah Michelle Gellar and Marg Helgenberger, Ed's walkover win is all the more impressive -- in a wide-eyed "How in God's name did this happen?" sort of way.

So what does make a show go off the rails as dramatically as Ed has? How does a program go from delightful and cleverly done to leaden and painful to watch within 12 months? There's no one culprit at work here -- no Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act protracting the Great Depression, no Babe Ruth-for-cash deal to send the Boston Red Sox into a seven-decades-and-counting tailspin. Rather, Ed's troubles stem from a bunch of little things, nothing you might even notice on its own, but, taken together, enough to turn a formerly great series into a thundering bore.

The NBC promotional machine certainly isn't helping matters with its usual hyperventilating efforts. "Ed's Most Important Case Ever!" NBC's voice-over announcer will proclaim, or "The One Case Ed Can't Afford to Lose!" And really, it's just the same quirky, offbeat trials he was handling last season, with maybe a thrown-in homily about how it's not a good idea to be mean to people just because they're different from you or isn't it a shame how we let money get in the way of things like friendship. Saving the job of the school's drama teacher from the secretly homophobic school board member is not exactly straight out of "The Life of Emile Zola," and it's kind of counterproductive on NBC's part to pretend that it is.

More damaging, Ed this year introduced enough ham-handed plot contrivances and convenient occurrences to make one of Horatio Alger's stories seem like experimental German cinema. Take the episode where Ed, played as well as can be managed under the circumstances by Tom Cavanagh, reaches out to a judge who has apparently gone off the deep end. The newly nutty judge, we're told, has been a seminal figure in Ed's life, the reason he pursued a law career. Why, back in Ed's younger days, he used to go to the judge's courtroom just to soak up the legal ambiance, so profound was the judge's effect on our hero's life path. That this was the first time in nearly 45 episodes of Ed that we've even heard of the judge should make the scene no less poignant or interesting. We guess.

Or there's the episode where Ed reunited with his high school basketball team, recognized around these parts as the nadir of Ed's Marianas Trench of a second season. Ed, you see, was on the high school basketball team when it played for the state championship and, in fact, missed a crucial free throw that evidently cost his team the game. As you might imagine, this moment deeply affected Ed -- in his words, altering the entire course of the rest of life. Which must be the case, since the incident apparently traumatized him so much that he never bothered to mention it up until now. But that missed free throw must be haunting Ed -- it says so here in the script.

Entire dissertations could be written chronicling how that one episode encapsulated Ed's subpar sophomore effort, but we'll try and keep it to a paragraph or two: in that one episode, Ed as a character transformed from a fairly likable everyman trying to start his life anew in his hometown into an unsettling creep unable to let go of the past. In case you missed it, Ed becomes obsessed with that high school championship game -- so much so that he rounds up his old team and pays his opponents and even brings the referee out of retirement to recreate -- and, in theory, to atone for -- that previously forgotten but nevertheless momentous foul shout. That he winds up missing the basket, intentionally as it turns out, does not make the scene any more bearable or Ed any less loony. Why not just rename the character Ed Havisham and have him wander about Stuckeybowl in a weathered old wedding gown and be done with it?

It reminds us of a 10-year high-school reunion RSVP we saw a few years back. "I'd love to be there," one of the classmates scrawled on the invitation. "But I'm afraid I'll be busy that night getting on with my life."

Ed clearly isn't getting on with his; the character can't even move beyond the will-they-or-won't-they tedium of his relationship with Carol Vessey (whom Julie Bowen apparently decided halfway through last season to portray as a simpering dolt). Back in the good times, it looked like the producers of Ed were thankfully moving the show beyond the possibility of an Ed-Carol union -- although this year, that solution took an unhappy turn with the introduction of Carol's new love interest, Dennis the Sullen Alcoholic Principal.

Either someone hit the panic button or an NBC executive wrote a memo or someone secretly replaced Ed's scripts with old Northern Exposure teleplays. Because by the end of this year, the Ed-Carol contretemps had the distinct flavor of Boob Tube Couples Past. Imagine the last couple of years of Moonlighting, only in this case, Maddie Hayes would have to get a restraining order to keep David Addison 500 feet away at all times. Or didn't you see the Ed season finale where it looked like a demented Ed might drive after Carol and Dennis, stalking them on their summer cross-country trip, and defending himself after he's accused of horrifically quirky crimes along the way?

Ed Stevens finds there's more than one way to hide a body as he fights extradition in the one episode of Ed you don't want to miss -- all new Ed, NBC Wednesday.

Look, we're not giving up on the show entirely. When the writers aren't thinking up new life-altering experiences Ed had years ago and only now remembers, the writing is actually not bad. There's some great work turned in by the supporting cast, notably Ginnifer Goodwin and Michael R. Genadry as the non-grating teenagers and Mike Starr and Rachel Cronin as the bowling alley flunkies. And if Ed's producers bring back Marvin Chatinover for regular appearances as Dr. Jerome, we are willing to forgive a great deal.

But the jury is still out on whether Ed's third season will be more like its first than its second. Our finger is hovering over the TiVo fast-forward button just in case. And this year, we don't expect it to stop if we don't like what we see.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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