The Strange Disappearance of Ed, the Great Show That Time Forgot

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

This week, Vulture is taking a look at great unproduced, unreleased, or unheralded entertainment.

Three days after Gilmore Girls debuted on the WB in October of 2000, another show about life in a charming American small town arrived on television. That show was Ed, a one-hour NBC dramedy that starred Tom Cavanagh as a man attempting to reboot his life by opening a law practice inside a bowling alley in his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio. With its mix of warm optimism and wiseass humor, not to mention a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend–esque narrative in which Ed doggedly pursues his high-school crush Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen), Ed, while not as ethnically diverse as more contemporary shows, had a sensibility that would not seem entirely out of place in today’s TV landscape. Yet unlike Gilmore Girls, Ed has almost completely disappeared from the cultural conversation, in part because it’s virtually impossible to find.

Occasionally, episodes of Ed show up on cable. Earlier this year, the UP Network, which, as its name implies, focuses on uplifting programming, re-aired it for a while but has since removed the program from its schedule, at least for the time being. The series is not streaming on Netflix or any other platform — it’s not even available on DVD.

“It’s upsetting to me,” says Rob Burnett, who co-created Ed with fellow Late Night and Late Show With David Letterman veteran Jon Beckerman. (Letterman was also an executive producer of Ed.) “I don’t even know exactly why there is no Ed available.” Burnett adds that music rights and the fact that the show is co-owned by two studios — NBC-Universal and Paramount — have made it more legally complicated to get wide distribution. “I had grown to believe that the powers that be didn’t have the bandwidth or didn’t think there was enough of a way to monetize it to really go for it,” says Beckerman.

That’s a shame because at one time, Ed had a fervent fan base, and one that — at least in its first couple of seasons — was not an insignificant one. Nearly 16 million viewers tuned in for the first episode of Ed; while the audience didn’t remain quite that large throughout its run, Burnett says it performed well enough in some coveted demos – particularly among viewers with high incomes who appealed to advertisers — that the prospect of cancellation never felt like a real threat until its third and fourth seasons.

Ed arrived on the air at a time when the mainstream networks were still primarily driving the television content engine, and it still felt refreshing and rare to find scripted shows that couldn’t easily be pigeonholed. “It isn’t often that the season’s best new comedy is also its best new drama,” Tom Shales wrote in the fall of 2000 in the Washington Post, where he declared that Ed was indeed both. Alan Sepinwall, then writing for the Newark Star-Ledger, included Ed on his list of the year 2000’s best new shows (it tied for ninth place with Gilmore Girls) and called it “basically a comedy in drama drag.” These days, practically every comedy is in drama drag. Ed would fit right in.

Ed was funny, in a sometimes goofy, relatable way. Its most consistent running gag — the $10 bets that Ed and his best friend Mike (Josh Randall) made with each other in an effort to see who would willingly make the bigger fool of himself — was silly, but also recognizable to those who engage in similar behavior with their oldest friends. (Because of one of those bets, I still, on a regular basis, pronounce lettuce as let-toose.)

But what made the show really special was its sense of humanity. True, it was overpopulated with white actors. (Daryl Mitchell, who played the disabled African-American Stuckeybowl employee Eli, eventually joined the cast of regulars in season three.) But it advocated for equality and the importance of lifting each other up in many of its story lines. For example, long before This Is Us introduced audiences to Kate, Ed showed us characters who struggled with their weight, most notably Mark, a teen who underwent gastric-bypass surgery at the same time that the actor who played him, Michael R. Genadry, did it in real life. Yet neither Mark nor Carol’s best friend Molly (Lesley Boone) were defined by that issue alone. Burnett, Beckerman, and the other writers made sure that they, Eli, and the other characters were fully dimensional human beings. Ed may have worn its sentimentality a bit too nakedly on its sleeve at times. But especially once it got moved to Wednesday nights, where it served as a lead-in for The West Wing, the fact that it stood as a testament to the decency in people felt very valuable.

Its cast of actors, many of whom have gone on to greater prominence, was also pretty extraordinary. In addition to Cavanagh, now on The Flash, and Bowen, best known as Claire on Modern Family, Ed starred a pre–Mad Men John Slattery, Michael Ian Black, and both Ginnifer Goodwin and Justin Long in the earliest roles of their careers. And then there was its near-perfect finale, which aired with little fanfare on a Friday night in February of 2004 but closed the show with the same poignance and humor that characterized its best moments.

The highlight of that finale, which focused largely on the wedding of Ed and Carol, comes during a lovely toast given by Ed during the reception. His remarks double as a thank you to the cast and crew, and that’s obvious from the looks on all the actors’ faces, not to mention how hard Bowen, as Carol, is crying.

“Jon and I wrote that as our farewell to everybody, and Tom delivered it as his farewell and it was completely received that way,” says Burnett.

“I remember that wedding feeling like a real wedding, and feeling also — this sounds ridiculous — but like a wake for all the years we had spent together,” adds Beckerman.

These days, it feels like practically every show ever made is available at our fingertips, which is why it’s so strange that Ed, a series that lasted several seasons and had such a top-notch creative pedigree behind it is, is not. Both Burnett and Beckerman remain hopeful that this will change and Ed will find a way on to a streaming platform at some point. Given the mood in large swaths of the country right now, there may be an even greater appetite for shows that are life-affirming, intelligently made, and offer an escape from current events.

“September 11th happened right as we were filming our second season,” Beckerman notes. “I’m not saying now is September 11th, but I detect a similarity in the air, at least in some parts of the country. It made it very hard to make Ed after that happened, way more than it would be to make it now.”

“Ultimately we did not address these [more serious] things on the show Ed,” he adds. “It just wasn’t the place for it. It was a place to reflect on what is good and silly and fun about life, and I do think there will always be a place for that. I hope there will always will be.”