TV, Myself, and I (Part II): Rediscovering Ed

by Christopher M. Rzigalinski

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TEASE

Imagine this article is playing out before your eyes like a television show. The screen is black. The Foo Fighters’ song “Next Year” plays as we fade in on a familiar scene and the voiceover says, “Last time on “TV, Myself, & I.” We flashback to Part I of this article in which I discuss the Four Factors of Televisual Familiarity, or the major reasons certain television shows become significant in our lives. A montage of clips illustrates the following examples:

  1. Finding shows during transformative periods in our lives.
  2. Someone we love turning us onto a particular show and sharing it with them.
  3. Shows with sex appeal and characters we find desirable.
  4. Programs that help us develop professional dreams and attitudes we carry into adulthood.

Finally, in a dramatic cliff hanger, the voice-over reminds you that these categories often overlap and a personal case study of my relationship with the cult-favorite Ed is promised for Part II. You laugh. You cry. You get a new plate of nachos. And we’re back.

ACT ONE

TV was a lot different in 2000. We were still about two years away from the reality boom of competition shows, docudramas, etc. Sitcoms, dramas, and the occasional variety show still reigned at the major networks. Some of the most popular shows ran on NBC, my favorite of the big three. I religiously watched Friends (2000-2004). Plus, I was just falling in love with Saturday Night Live (1975-Present) and the genius of Jimmy Fallon. It was a strange time in my life. I started high school that year without any sense of identity. I thought “Chandler Bing” was cool — yeah, I admit it — so I dressed in preppy sweaters and pleated khakis. And I tried to replicate Jimmy Fallon’s bird’s nest-mess hair style. Is it any wonder I never got laid in high school with that panache? It was also a strange time because of my living situation.

chandler2Left: “Chandler Bing” (Matthew Perry) looking stylish on Friends. Right: Jimmy Fallon’s many SNL hairstyles

 

For years following my parents’ divorce, I was only allowed to see my biological father during police-supervised visitation hours in the local courthouse basement. By 2000, however, my dad had cleaned up his act and the judge determined it was safe for me see him anytime. My dad was living with my grandparents, and I made the decision to make it a happy foursome. It was time to try and cultivate some kind of relationship with that side of my family. In another step toward being the most popular dude in high school, I hung out with my grandmother most of the time. My dad worked nights and my grandfather spent his evenings with a pal named sweet vermouth. So most nights grandma and I shared some nachos and settled in for her favorites, Frasier (1993-2004) and The West Wing (1999-2006). That’s when we first saw the promos for a new show premiering on Sunday, October 8th called Ed. Before anything about the show was revealed, I heard “Next Year,” my favorite Foo Fighters song, and wanted more.

 

Ed was different. It was an hour long show, the running time usually given to dramas, but the promos made me laugh. The show’s genuine humor was remarkable because it was shot in the single camera, cinematic style without a laugh track or live audience. Years before The Office (2005-2013), 30 Rock (2006-2013), Parks and Recreation (2009-2015), and Modern Family (2009-Present) presented comedy in that form, Ed was already blazing a trail. Looking back, humor website SplitSider gave Ed a lukewarm but solid endorsement: “While it’s not the edgiest of programs, it did have it’s own style and brought something fresh to television that really hasn’t had an equivalent since. Ed may not have been for everyone, but it did what it did well, and was truly something special.” It had to rely on good writing to trigger natural laughter. The playfulness augmented touching moments that spoke to my young romantic heart.

 

 

ACT TWO

In the pilot episode we meet “Edward ‘Ed’ Stevens” (Tom Cavanagh) after he’s been fired for costing his law firm a huge amount of money after forgetting to place a comma in an important contract. As if that wasn’t bad enough, “Ed” comes home to find his wife cheating on him with the mailman. Feeling he’d lost everything, “Ed” leaves his New York City apartment and goes back to his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio to reconnect with a former life. He reconnects with old friends and works up the nerve to finally win the love of his high school crush, the all-American blonde-haired Venus “Carol Vessey” (Julie Bowen.) “Ed,” in the throws of passion, buys a bowling alley, opens up a law practice inside that bowling alley, and settles into Stuckeyvillian life. From the pilot until the show’s finale on February 6, 2004, I was hooked.

 

A month before the premier of Ed, I started high school and was reconnected with my “Carol Vessey.” Jessica Ramone and I met in catholic school during second grade. (That’s not her real name. I’ve changed it so that when the Netflix series of this article comes out, she won’t sue me. Plus, I don’t think her husband and newborn baby would be thrilled about my nostalgic lust.) Jessica was blonde, had blue eyes, and her smile made me melt like a block of brie baking in the sun too long. What, is that reference too cheesy? See what I did there? One Valentine’s Day I bought Jessica a bear holding a heart that had her name sewn into it. I was too bashful to give it to her, so I asked Sister Rose Angela to give it to her. In case you’re wondering, yes, Sister Rose Angela was a nun. It’s always smart to work with nuns when orchestrating foreplay. Long story short, Jessica wasn’t into me. I tucked my tail and stayed away from her for the rest of the year. Before third grade, her family split to another town. Then, right before my freshman year of high school, she moved back. I couldn’t believe it. I was determined to win her love this time.

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“Ed” at his own Stuckeybowl, also the site of his law practice

I’m fascinated by the emotional fulfillment actors provide. A few times in my life I’ve had feelings for a woman and, for various reasons, I began to associate her with a particular television character. By proxy, I developed an attraction to that character. Because “Carol Vessey” looked and acted like an adult version of Jessica, I developed a fondness for Julie Bowen that still warms my heart when watching Modern Family today. It was like looking into the future and seeing my wife. As a result,. I took cues from “Ed” and kicked up my romantic game. When he dressed in a suit of armor and delivered flowers to “Carol” as her trusty knight, I started a pen pal relationship with Jessica. The idea was to illustrate that I was there for her no matter what. Smooth, right? As “Ed” played the supportive friend when “Carol” saw other guys, I played it cool when Jessica dated my friend Steve. My courtship with Jessica, oddly, mirrored the one I watched staged on Ed for four years. And two months after “Ed” and “Carol” — WARNING: SPOILER ALERT — finally married at the end of the show, Jessica and I finally had our moment. Near the end of senior year we kissed in a scene straight out of a Nicholas Sparks novel: the rain fell softly on the window panes; there was a light breeze making the curtains dance; and Billy Joel’s “To Make You Feel My Love” poured over the stereo. Then we kissed. It was perfect. Unfortunately, before we could get the blood tests and head down to City Hall, she started dating a dude named Brian. We graduated the following month, and that’s the last time I ever saw Jessica.

 

Ed was a helpful distraction through the agony of high school love. But the show also helped me imagine a better life for myself. My grand experiment of living with my father and trying to establish a relationship with him was failing hard. His drinking was out of hand, and I was tasked with searching for the vodka bottles. I found them in briefcases, under mattresses, behind sheds, and everywhere in between. All I wanted to do was get out of my small New Jersey town and away from my family. Therein was the major problem that kept me from fully appreciating Ed. His philosophy of going home to start over was foreign to me. Despite that, I continued to love the show and missed it after it was cancelled. That week after a show you love has been cancelled is strange. You feel like a friend has died. In some ways, the characters are real people that we mourn just like they were flesh and blood. But we move on and find other characters in which to invest. That’s the cycle of life in the entertainment industry.

 

characterdeaths

I tried locating Ed on DVD during the thirteen years after its cancellation. But it was nowhere to be found. The show continued to stick in my consciousness as the actors popped up in several projects, though. Tom Cavanagh did a stint on another of my favorite shows, Scrubs (2001-2010), playing the brother of “John Dorian” (Zach Braff). As I mentioned, Julie Bowen went onto mega success as “Claire” in Modern Family. Justin Long, the precocious high school student “Warren Cheswick” with an unhealthy crush on his English teacher, went onto star in Apple’s “Get a Mac” commercials and as the voice of “Alvin” in the Alvin and the Chipmunks reboot. There were also several famous faces that played guest roles on Ed that became household names, including John Slattery (Mad Men), Kelly Ripa (Live with Kelly), Ginnifer Goodwin (Once Upon a Time), and Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory). I kept the show with me as I finished college and graduate school, taught college courses at Rutgers University, moved to Los Angeles, got engaged, saw both the first African American president and the first orange president elected, and started that entirely new life I dreamt about in high school. Then it all fell apart on November 18, 2016.

 

ACT THREE

Frustrated by a career impasse, disillusioned by Donald Trump’s election, and heartbroken after my fiancé and I called it quits, I hopped in my car and drove back home. I traveled through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and landed in New Jersey. After doubting I could ever go home, I was there. The following month I found that the entire series of Ed was posted on YouTube. Illegalities aside, I was glad to dive back into the show. I wondered how my viewing experience would be different now that I was 30 years-old, about the same age “Ed” was when he and I first met. I had to rewatch the entire series to find out.

 

I discovered that the show was even closer to home than I realized. Stuckeyville’s streets looked a little more familiar, so I did some research. I found out that the majority of the scenes were filmed in various northern New Jersey towns, about 40 minutes from where I grew up in South River. With adult eyes, I recognize the streets of Montclair and Westfield. I learned that the show was filmed in the New York area instead of California because its producers also worked at The Late Show with David Letterman, which, of course, shot in New York City. I wasn’t old enough to recognize Letterman’s importance during my first run with Ed. It was only in college that he became a huge influence on me. So his association with Ed made me love it even more. I also saw myself identifying with “Ed” at the beginning of the series, after his divorce and before he begins courting “Carol,” rather than during the storybook phase. After traveling through the arc of the show with him, I was now at the very beginning. What struck me most, though, was the wisdom which I missed the first time around.

 

davidletterman

David Letterman and Rob Burnett, Executive Producers of Ed along with Jon Beckerman

 

The show’s brilliant philosophy can be summed up in an episode titled “Home is Where the Ducks Are” (Season 1, Episode 06). “Ed” is tasked by Stuckeyville’s mayor to sue a travel guide that only rates Stuckeyville 3 out of 5 stars. The dutiful lawyer makes it his mission to impress the travel writer by showing her the uniqueness of his hometown. Along the way, however, he realizes that it’s changed since his childhood. That reality causes “Ed” to challenge not only his perception of the town but also his relationship to it. Supplying guidance, the mayor posits that “Like a painting, [the town] has a way of changing over time. If you look at a Rembrandt when you’re 15 and then again when you’re 45, you find a whole new set of things to fall in love with.” The obvious yet profound nature of that statement shook me just like it shook “Ed.”

South River became a different world to me. I noticed peaceful beauty in the old Hillside Avenue graveyard that used to scare me. I waited for the soft rhythm of the 6AM train that used to wake me up. And I even heard energy in the suburban atmosphere of playing children that used to choke me. After years of swearing I’d never have a family of my own, my perception was changing. I understood why “Ed” wanted to be home: the people. After being away in Los Angeles for so long, I saw in very real time the benefit of connecting with family and lifelong friends. I always valued their places in my life, but now I saw that they fortified me and made me a better person. I’m not sure if it was age, pain, or distance that finally got me to accept the things I’d be running from for so many years. But I learned to find “a whole new set of things to fall in love with” about my hometown and my life. I became “Ed.”

 

A montage of scenes plays that indicate a bright future in which I joyously eat plates of nachos with family and friends. The Foo Fighters’ “Next Year” plays us out. We fade to black.

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