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Adios, 'Ed'

Only one TV show has ever inspired me to read Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

I guess that's why NBC's Ed has a special place in my couch-potato heart. Not necessarily because Walden was all that good -- no matter how skillfully you describe it, a guy sitting in the woods is still a guy sitting in the woods -- but because it was the type of TV show that would encourage you to go out and read a book in the first place. Right down to its premise, Ed was always about the joy of trying something new, or learning to re-appreciate what you've always taken for granted.

NBC's profoundly hateful promotions department ("This week: A father must choose. A daughter finds new love. And a writer pushed to the brink smashes his TV set with a blunt object") is billing Friday's Ed as the final episode -- the long, long, loooooong-awaited wedding of bowling alley lawyer Edward J. Stevens and his wishy-washy paramour, Carol Vessey. If not for Ed's surprise renewal last season, after what could have been a perfect series finale, I'd have no doubt that this will indeed be our last collective trip to the small town of Stuckeyville.

As it is, I still give Ed long odds at a fifth season, considering it's reaching the finish line this year with only 17 episodes. So I'm assuming for once that the Peacock network is telling the truth, and taking this opportunity to give Ed the valedictory it deserves. However forced its whimsy, however manipulative its storylines, it consistently displayed a depth of empathy for its characters that few TV shows have matched.

Of all the things I'll miss about Ed, I think Ed (Tom Cavanaugh) and Carol (Julie Bowen) actually rank right at the bottom. Sure, their first-season courtship was endearingly sweet -- who doesn't like to root for the wide-eyed underdog to win the girl of his dreams? Producers Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman's near-fatal mistake was to drag out this will-they-or-won't-they plot long past the point of sanity. They started inventing ridiculously contrived reasons to keep Ed and Carol uncoupled, including inexplicably shackling Carol to a bitter, alcoholic jerk for a season and a half. And when they couldn't even sustain that flimsy premise, they just had Ed and Carol act like passive-agressive lunatics. ("I don't love you! So I'm going to break up your wedding!" "I don't love you either! So I'm going to get insanely jealous every time you go on a date with another woman!")

The producers finally seemed to realize the depth of their madness halfway through Season 3, and spun some of the series' better stories in their hasty efforts to repair the damage. But Burnett and Beckerman still remained a little too dependent on the will-they-won't-they thing even into Season 4. Thus we were treated to The Adventures of Carol Vessey: World's Least Decisive Woman. With an ever-wavering resolve worthy of Hamlet, she yo-yo'd back and forth between writing and teaching, New York and Stuckeyville, wedding or elopement, often in the course of a single episode. I started wishing Ed would just throw up his hands and move to Arizona.

So, yes, mazel tov to Ed and Carol, get married, stay married, and for the love of God, don't either of you so much as look at another possible object of affection for the rest of your whole damn lives. Let's focus instead on the show's real secret weapon, the element that kept Ed afloat through the stormy waters of romantic stupidity: the supporting cast.

They're funny. They're really, really funny. All of 'em. When things between Ed and Carol took on all the orderly logic of Picasso's Guernica, the supporting characters were always there to drag the show kicking and screaming back toward some measure of sanity. (Or entertainment, at least.)

Among the brightest stars in the Stuckeyville constellation:

The bowling alley folks. Michael Ian Black's Phil Stubbs, the dimwitted schemer behind the shoe counter, never quite wore out his welcome -- somehow, his endless string of scams remained goofily entertaining. He got to be an actual full-blooded human being for maybe 30 seconds in all four years of the show, but damned if he didn't make those 30 seconds convincing. Meanwhile, the scene-stealing Rachel Cronin brought abiding sweetness to bug-eyed Shirley, always off in her own odd little Shirleyverse.

As Eli Cartwright Goggins III, Darryl Mitchell could have been a cheap stereotype -- he's The Guy In A Wheelchair and The Wisecracking Black Man! Instead, he was fearless and funny, creating one of TV's richest portrayals of life with paralysis. In one episode, we simply watched Eli get dressed for work, struggling at great length just to put his pants on. It wasn't played for cheap sympathy -- it was there so we'd understand the determination, and the loneliness, behind Eli's brash confidence.

Dr. Jerome. Marvin Chatinover played the deadpan Bugs Bunny to Dr. Mike Burton's (Josh Randall) hapless Daffy Duck, a venom-spewing bundle of bile disguised as a kindly old physician. Chatinover's gift for conveying such elaborate, florid contempt ("I'm not a veterinarian, Dr. Burton, and as such I am not capable of treating any sort of baboon infection you might pass on to our patients") in such an unruffled manner never failed to entertain.

The younger generation. Seriously, does the WB not know where to find the caliber of young actors that Ed featured, or are they just not really looking that hard? Ginnifer Goodwin hasn't been on the show for more than a year, and I'm still hopelessly smitten with her note-perfect portrayal of wise, lovely supernerd Diane Snyder. (She can currently be seen stealing all of Julia Roberts' good reviews in Mona Lisa Smile.) As her boyfriend Mark, Michael Genadry made the thankless role of "the fat kid" downright debonair. When both actor and character got life-saving gastric bypass surgery, Genadry took the overwrought after-school-special material and gave it real heart.

And last but not least, there's Justin Long as Warren Cheswick. He was every cringe-inducing memory of the stupid things we did and said in high school, turned up to 11. (Or perhaps I'm just speaking for myself here...) I often found Warren hard to watch, but not because of Long's performance. He attacked the role fearlessly, and could always find honesty beneath the shrill, spastic caricature.

Here's a thought for NBC: let Ed and Carol get married, pack them off to New York or Neptune or whatever, and call the show Stuckeyville. Let Eli and Phil, Warren and Mark, Shirley and Dr. Jerome and all the other wonderful oddballs take center stage. I'd tune in. We need more TV shows with this much compassion for the regular joes of the world, in all their imperfection. We need more TV shows that encourage us to get up off the couch and go read a really good book. (Which, uh, may involve sitting right back down on the couch, in all fairness.)

Once Ed goes off the air, I won't remember the excruciatingly long death march that was Ed and Carol's courtship. I won't remember the cutesy ten-dollar bets, or Carol's terminal indecision, or Ed's increasingly Tourette's-like stammering. And, with enough time and therapy, I probably won't remember the dear-God-hide-the-children appearances by Kelly Ripa and her terrible gaping maw.

But I will remember Warren Cheswick in a tent, atop a snow-covered mountain, reading Thoreau. "I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately..."


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