My grandmother was born and raised in Spokane, the seventh and youngest child of a philandering Christian Science minister who lost a considerable fortune in the Great Depression. Officially, of course, Seattle, and not Spokane, is my hometown, (these days, home is Pittsburgh), but I feel a strange connection to this now-booming-again Washington State haven, and I have often wondered what it would be like to return to one of my hometowns in the West.
I think about coming home a lot, especially on Wednesday nights when I am watching the fall sleeper hit on NBC, Ed. The show features actor Tom Cavanaugh as Ed, who leaves New York when he gets fired from his high-powered law firm on the same day he catches his wife doing the horizontal hula with the postman. And, if the postman thing is not corny enough, Ed returns to "Stuckeyville," where he grew up. He buys a bowling alley, pursues the prettiest girl in his high school that he was too shy to talk to, and becomes the goofy, charming, eccentric bowling-alley/lawyer hero of NBC's Wednesday night line-up, with his show airing just before West Wing.
The majority of TV critics are nuts about this show, and, as much as I like it, I'm trying to figure out why. The premise is simple enough -- reversing Thomas Wolfe's old maxim "You can never go home again," (Look Homeward, Angel, 1929) by declaring, not only can you definitely go home, but your hometown will be full of sweet, nutty people. Who wouldn't want to return to a hometown inhabited by people like the deli owner who puts dimes in expired meters on Main Street; the magician who has been doing the same act for 30 years (and sues a young upstart who exposes his tricks); and old high school buddies who make you do crazy things?
Going home again is all the rage on new millennial TV. It's the premise of Providence, Judging Amy, and the short-lived Normal, Ohio. But Ed's Stuckeyville is a mythical land -- a 1950s utopia that never existed, where everyone drops by on everyone else at breakfast, where lawyers are nice people, and where it only costs a dime to park for an hour. Ed's not "stuck" in Stuckeyville: he chooses it.
In an even more unlikely scenario, Ed's high school love-object, Carol Vessey (played by Julie Bowen) is still single. Not long after Ed's return, Carol breaks up with her boyfriend of seven years. The break is made when she finds herself in the kitchen, eating breakfast, holding an Eggo waffle, and she realizes that if she tossed it over to her anguished English-teacher/novel-writing paramour, he would be too uptight to enjoy the joke. Carol wants a man she can fling waffles with. Ed would be happy to oblige, but the show's writers must keep Ed and Carol at arms' length in order to keep the romantic comedy alive.
I enjoy the show, especially the scenes set in the bowling alley and the courtroom. The two spaces seem oddly reflective of one another: You have to follow the rules, wait your turn and wear special shoes. But I'm a little disturbed that the mythic town of Stuckeyville seems more like an urbanized suburb than a real place. This is disappointing, especially as one of the writers of the show, Jon Beckerman, grew up in the very real place of Pittsburgh. He left Pittsburgh for Harvard, majored in philosophy, and moved to New York to write for the David Letterman show. He left Letterman to become the head writer for CBS's Late Show. With the backing of Letterman's production company, he then got the opportunity to create Ed with fellow Letterman staffer Rob Burnett (who is from New Jersey, where Ed is filmed).
Perhaps Rob Burnett's hometown of Montclair won out as the model for Stuckeyville over Jon Beckerman's hometown. But I think the writers missed an opportunity to send Ed back to a town that really needs its prodigal sons and daughters to come home -- a town like Pittsburgh, or even Spokane. Rather than set Ed in a mythical post-war fantasy-land, why not feature Ed and his goofy pals buying affordable houses in genuine old neighborhoods, carving a new economy out of a post-industrial landscape, and, by all means, buying and restoring a bowling alley?
My point is simply this: that goofy, gawky, down-home living does not have to be set in a small town. Nor does it need to rely on the old conventions of Main Street, red-brick, and white-steeples. Why not send our television heroes back to the cities of the future, rather than stick them in the small towns of a mythic past?
& & & lt;i & Ed is on Wednesday nights at 8 pm on NBC. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &