There are many ways in which Ed, the best new show of the season, could have been perfectly awful. The premise is hokey: Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh, a string bean with lots of teeth) is a big-city lawyer who gets fired from his job just as he discovers that his wife is being unfaithful to him. With the mailman. So a hangdog Ed slinks back to his teensy, fictitious hometown of Stuckeyville because he’s decided that the woman he’s really in love with is a high school crush who’d never given him the time of day, Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen), now a Stuckeyville schoolteacher.
On a whim, in a show that might have drowned in whimsy, Ed buys the local bowling alley, which is staffed by a gaggle of oddballs, and sets up a law office on the site: how cute. He runs the alley, takes the occasional court case, and pursues Carol, who’s intrigued by him but constrained by the fact that she’s been dating a novelist pretty seriously for the past seven years. (Gregory Harrison uses his pretty-boy looks to play a self-absorbed jerk.)
As I say: Man, oh man, this could have stunk as badly as an old pair of bowling shoes. At best, we might have ended up with a piece of popular piffle like Providence, which shares both Ed‘s basic idea — thirtysomething achiever goes back to his/her hometown — and its star. Cavanagh, in a multi-episode Providence arc, played a guy referred to as ”dog boy,” who thought he could talk to animals. But rather than settle for this sort of shaggy whimsicality, Ed possesses all the bright romantic magic and tart humor of a first-rate screwball film comedy. This series is a perfect example of why you should never judge a TV show by its premise.
Ed is overseen by three executive producers: Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman (both of whom worked on David Letterman’s talk show for many years) and Letterman himself. Like other productions by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Bonnie Hunt’s two superlative, low-rated ’90s sitcoms, Ed is meticulously unsentimental about subjects most prone to sentimentality: love and friendship (Ed has a hometown buddy in the person of Mike, a jock-ish doctor played with low-key charm by Josh Randall). An hour-long comedy with no laugh track and plenty of lovey-doveyness, Ed benefits immensely from its air of understatement, and from its fondness for the bowling-alley supporting characters, like the lumbering, garrulous Kenny (Mike Starr, from Dumb & Dumber) and the flamboyantly goofy Phil (Michael Ian Black, from the comedy troupe The State).
The show’s writing — much of it by Burnett himself in the early episodes — makes the potentially awkward bowling alley-law office combo seem like an example of clever American enterprise. If Ed is a somewhat tentative boss, unsure of his role in this tenpins-‘n’-beer atmosphere, he is a delightfully confident lawyer, coming up with clever strategies for clients such as an old local magician who’s suing a competitor for revealing the secrets of his act. (The elderly prestidigitator is played by Eddie Bracken, once the young star of great Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero — dazzling, moonstruck comedies similar in spirit to Ed.)
Above all, however, Ed benefits from its two stars. Cavanagh has a gulping sincerity that can remind you of a young Jimmy Stewart, but he also radiates a deceptively all-smiles shrewdness, like a young Andy Griffith. Cavanagh’s originality lies in the way he makes his geniality seem both sincere and intelligent, never doofy — which is of crucial help when Ed has to lose his grin to romance Carol convincingly.
And what a gal to romance. Bowen did a variation on this role as Adam Sandler’s girlfriend in Happy Gilmore, but her performance was obscured by the necessity of Sandler’s scene-dominating clowning; she raised her profile a bit by being bravely unsympathetic as Noah Wyle’s hardheaded insurance-agent girlfriend for a round of 1998 ER episodes. But nothing she’s done prepares us for the bright-eyed braininess and fragile romanticism that Bowen brings to Carol. The way Bowen plays her, you can understand why this woman would stay with a commitment-phobe stud like Harrison’s Nick — he’s the best hunk in a small town, and a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do. But Bowen also makes utterly convincing how susceptible Carol is to Ed’s halting, often stunned reaction to her beauty and smarts: She wants to be adored — swept off her feet — and this is the guy who’ll do it.
If it seems odd to be talking in such serious terms about what is essentially a droll comedy, it’s just a measure of the emotions Ed can tap into; it’s why this is likely to be the show that will keep you toasty-warm all fall and winter. A