HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: EDtv

1999 Movie-versaries: EDtv

1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix‘s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with staff writer Matthew Widdis reflecting on EDtv.

In 1999, reality television wasn’t new but still a novelty more than a genre. Still, it was making an impact and EDtv was actually seen as late to the party. The Truman Show had already been a major hit about a year earlier, generating numerous award nominations and opening the door for Jim Carrey to take on dramatic roles. But, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, the comparison is not fair. Truman was a full-on allegory, inspired by a classic Twilight Zone episode, and ED was more of a sit-com adapted from the 1994 Quebecois film, Louis 19, le roi des ondes.

The (then) fictional True TV network makes sensationalist documentaries and news programs. To impress Rob Reiner’s Mr. Whitaker, one of their producers, Cynthia (played by Ellen Degeneres just after her self-titled sit-com had ended) has come up with a novel idea: film a regular person 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Ray Pekurny (Woody Harrelson) is a boorish attention hog that borders on sociopath. When the audition crew shows up at his favorite bar, Ray is all over it, telling embarrassing stories and putting his girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman,) on the spot. Because of his extroverted personality, Ray draws attention not just to him but to his younger brother, Ed (Matthew McConaughey). Like Ray, Ed is an attractive and outgoing dude-bro, but more easygoing and sensitive.

After he agrees to the show and becomes less wooden, Ed develops a diverse fan base: sorority girls, gay couples, black housewives, middle-aged men working in a pawnshop, etc. Early on, it becomes obvious to viewers that Ed and Shari are attracted to each other and an accidental reveal of Ray’s infidelities (coupled with Cynthia’s ratings-motivated prodding) allows them to explore that. Good times are had at hockey games and enjoying preferential parking spots…for a while. As Ed and the general concept of the show are scrutinized by everyone from Michael Moore and George Plimpton to RuPaul and Jay Leno, Shari is picked apart by fan polls—especially after she finds it harder and harder to ignore the cameras that irk her. Shari transfers her job in frustration.

That’s just the start of Ed’s problems. Ray starts a smear campaign out of jealousy. Their estranged father (Dennis Hopper) re-emerges after nearly 20 years to reveal family secrets behind his and Ed’s mother’s (Sally Kirkland) indiscretions and his own financial hardships. Cynthia and the network orchestrate a relationship with Jill, a gorgeous model/actress played by Elizabeth Hurley. If that last part sounds not-so-terrible, it ends in a pet injury and public humiliation (having then-conservative Arianna Huffington go on record, saying that you have failed America as man is a pretty deep gopher hole to step into). All of these embarrassments contribute to the ratings as sponsors progress from local laundromats and restaurants to national brands like Maytag appliances, American Tourister luggage, and an appropriately placed ad for Trojan condoms. (I’d imagine a fun was had during the product placement of KFC, Mountain Dew, and other PepsiCo brands.)

Once Ed’s father dies in another family debacle, it appears that the network will hound the entire family, Shari included, or Ed will be in breach of contract. It takes a guilt-wracked Cynthia who has become more personally invested in Ed than professionally to give him the leverage he needs to pump the network for his release.

The over-arching theme is, of course, the nature and cost of fame. Ed’s friend played by Adam Goldberg offers to the intellectual panel of Plimpton, Moore, and Huffington that people used get famous by being special but, now, they’re considered special for being famous and fame has become a virtue unto itself. 20 years of reality television later, and we can see plenty of people “famous for being famous” as pro wrestling champs, fashion designers, Broadway stars, White House staffers, and even cast on other reality shows. But, as Biggie Smalls once postulated: “the more money we come across, the more problems we see.” Ed, but especially Shari, are confined by the spectacle around them. Easily compared to an athlete dating an ever-exposed reality star or an actress marrying into royalty.

A secondary theme is the undercurrent of self-consciousness and concern for appearance that runs throughout American culture. Ray is a workout warrior and obsessed with his status and physique. Shari is bothered by a client’s suggestion that she wear more make up and shamed by the fans who say she’s “not even hot.” Ed and Ray’s mother attempts to emulate Donna Reed once the cameras come to her home. Cynthia is shown pairing cigarettes and margaritas with exercise and facial masks. Even a producer played by Clint Howard sprung for (obvious) hair plugs. The characters seemingly most unaffected are Ed’s father and stepfather (delightfully played by Martin Landau), rendered without pride from poverty and physical debilitation, respectively. Combine this theme with the first and we can see a world where someone can earn six-figures a year simply by flaunting themselves on Instagram, enjoying a perpetual vacation.

EDtv scored decent with critics (64% on Rotten Tomatoes) but failed to recoup even half of its budget at theaters, likely a heartbreak even if not a hiccup for director, Ron Howard. The cast listing is a lesson in longevity. Jenna Elfman was in the middle of her Dharma & Greg run when the statuesque blond became an alternative sex symbol in films as well and she can still be seen in such projects as Fear the Walking Dead. Woody Harrelson has mixed arthouse films like Defendor and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri with appearances in The Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes, and Star Wars franchises.

Elizabeth Hurley has recently ended a run on E! network’s The Royals, where she had plenty of opportunity to flaunt her 51-year-old bikini body. Looking back at Ellen, it’s funny to hear her still with that awkward hitch in her voice that endeared her to so many as a stand up and it’s incredible to think of how she’s become a media juggernaut. Sadly, this world lost Martin Landau in 2017 but Sally Kirkland and Dennis Hopper continue with acting, art, and activism. As for Matthew McConaughey, the eponymous Ed? An Oscar here, a Golden Globe there, a few Independent Spirit, Saturn, and Critics’ Choice awards and I’d say he’s done alright, alright, alright for himself.


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