Sweet. Charming. Innocent.
Those aren't words you hear used to describe prime-time television much anymore. But NBC's comedy-drama "Ed" boasts sweetness, charm and innocence in equal measure. It's also extremely funny, albeit in an offbeat, low-key way.
"Ed" premieres tonight at 8 on NBC, and it opens with a montage sequence that might confuse viewers. It almost feels like you missed an episode, even though this is the premiere. Fear not, you didn't miss anything. The producers simply chose to fill in Ed's past using shorthand.
Manhattan attorney Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh) loses his job and the same day discovers his wife sleeping with the mailman. So he heads back to Stuckeyville, his Midwestern home town. There he's reacquainted with the prettiest girl from his high school, Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen). After one walk in the town park, he's smitten and ready to put down roots in the community.
"You kissed the guy and he bought a bowling alley," says Molly (Lesley Boone), Carol's best friend and a fellow teacher. "You're lucky you didn't sleep with him, he would have bought a strip mall."
Before you start thinking "happily ever after," there's one complication: Carol has a boyfriend. His name is Nick (Gregory Harrison), and he was Carol and Ed's English teacher when they were in high school. He's a self-absorbed brooding artist-type, but that doesn't deter sincere but awkward Ed.
"If you're not born with the broad shoulders and a strong jaw line, there's only one way to get the girl," Ed says, pumping himself up. "You make a complete ass out of yourself."
And he does, but his devotion is so completely honest that his efforts are far more endearing than embarrassing.
Cavanagh is perfect as the show's title character. Viewers may remember him as the "dog boy" from "Providence" last season, but he's otherwise a TV newcomer. And a welcome one at that. He's pretty much the straight man surrounded by oddballs, but Cavanagh has his own quirks that make him far more real than the typical leading man type.
The eccentrics of "Ed" are mostly his bowling alley employees. Phil (Michael Ian Black) is their whacked-out ringleader, who suggests Ed drum up business by filling the bowling alley with "nice, friendly, singing-kind-of-whores, like in the Dolly Parton movie. These are real down-home, wholesome, Disney-looking whores. This is fun for the whole family."
Shirley (Rachel Cronin) is the timid one, and Kenny (Mike Starr) is a big, quiet guy with his own idiosyncrasies ("I got a whistling lung," Kenny says when Ed tries to get to know him).
In addition to owning Stuckeybowl, Ed sets up a law practice inside the bowling alley. In tonight's premiere, he takes on the case of Molly vs. her mechanic. Next week he goes to bat for an elderly magician whose tricks are being revealed by an unsuccessful rival. Just don't call Ed "the bowling alley lawyer."
"I own a bowling alley, and I am a lawyer," Ed says. "Two separate things."
With out-of-nowhere dialogue and kooky characters, it should come as no surprise that David Letterman is one of "Ed's" executive producers. Two of his former writers, Rob Burnett and Squirrel Hill native Jon Beckerman, created "Ed" and with it the town of Stuckeyville. Over the first two episodes, Burnett and Beckerman begin to develop the character of the town and its residents in a way reminiscent of "Northern Exposure" or "Picket Fences." It has a definite sense of community.
Lest you think "Ed" is overly quirky, there are two relatively grounded characters. Ed moves in with married high school friends Mike (Josh Randall) and Nancy (Jana Maria Hupp). They have an infant daughter and enough oddities of their own to keep them from being boring.
Last season I begged viewers to watch "Freaks and Geeks." This year, my plea is that you give "Ed" a shot. Some of the characters are a little strange, but they're all fun to watch. It's not a show that's likely to provoke raucous guffaws, but "Ed's" subtle humor will make you laugh.
If you're not going to watch because I advise you to, do it for Dave Letterman. Give the show a try. "Ed" is the best new series of the season.
You can reach Rob Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.