David Letterman's production company is producing the new low-key drama

By Ken Tucker
Updated September 29, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The season’s most intriguingly low-key show is Ed — this despite the fact that its premise is, when stated baldly, quite appalling: Ed Stevens, a big-city lawyer played by Tom Cavanagh, is first fired by his firm and then cuckolded by his wife (with their mailman, for Pete’s sake — Ed catches them in flagrante postino, as it were). Ed heads back to his tiny hometown, called Stuckeyville, and realizes he’s still in love with a girl he had a crush on in high school, Carol Vessey (the luminous, wry Julie Bowen), and sets about winning her over.

Oh, yeah — he also buys the town bowling alley (to attract customers, he gives out free legal advice if you bowl three games).

And Ed’s idea of courtship includes donning a suit of armor before asking Carol out on a first date.

”The last show that was like this was Northern Exposure — not always hilarious, but interesting and different,” says executive producer Rob Burnett, semi-famous as the gnomic, gnomish producer David Letterman used to pick on almost nightly before he started picking almost nightly on Maria Pope.

Ed, though an NBC show, is produced by David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, and Burnett says the old man himself ”took the [pilot] script home, wrote some lines, added some jokes.” What should we watch for? ”He added something that Shirley, the diffident woman working in the bowling alley, says — the bit about ‘I have a kitty named Kenny.”’ (”Kenny,” longtime Letterman watchers know, is a name that strikes the talk-show host as inherently funny.) ”Dave tinkered a lot with that,” says Burnett.

Bowen, whose TV career until now has been shackled either by dumb shows (The WB’s dunderheaded 1998 spy flop Three) or roles that reduced her to playing tough (remember her hard-charging insurance saleswoman who turned dating Noah Wyle into a business negotiation in the 1998 season of ER?), blossoms here as Carol. ”I love the idea that Carol is both very no-nonsense yet very romantic,” says Bowen. ”I knew when I read the script that this was going to be a woman that people don’t often see on TV, and the way Rob and [coexecutive producer] Jon Beckerman have written her, Carol can also be as goofy or as sarcastic as any of the guys in the cast.”

Cavanagh plays Ed with a wide smile masking a shrewd mind. Born in Africa to educators who did a lot of traveling, he’s spent the past few years in Canada, ”show hopping,” as he calls it, ”guesting on a show, then coming down to the States to look for more work.” Viewers may remember him as the odd young man with an affinity for dog food in a Providence story arc.

Parts of the Ed pilot are being reshot to accommodate the late-in-the-game casting of Gregory Harrison as the boyfriend from whom Ed must woo Carol away. Burnett promises, ”Even with the reshoots, this will remain the funniest bowling-alley-slash-lawyer-slash-romantic comedy on the air — I guarantee it.”

Cavanagh expresses a little dismay at having his character competing with a dashing devil like Harrison, but says with a carefully pondered logic worthy of Ed himself, ”As good-looking as [Harrison] is, I keep telling myself, the show’s called Ed, so I’m bound to get the girl, right?”