Ed (Matthew McConaughey) soon tires of the 24-hour-a-day camera.
FIFTY-SEVEN channels and nothing on” sang Bruce Springsteen earlier this decade anticipating TV’s cable and satellite revolution. Television has so infiltrated life at the end of the 20th century that there’s a channel for everything – from gardening to auto-racing – and the black boxes in the corners of our homes show life in many aspects. But do they show Life?
In the past season, Hollywood movies have grappled with the pervasiveness of television and the strange symbiosis between real life and TV.
In The Truman Show, Jim Carey played a man born on TV whose whole life was lived on a TV set, his every waking moment televised. When Truman finally figured out what was going on, he sought to escape from his phony life.
Pleasantville took a couple of 1990s teenagers into the television world of 1950s black and white situation comedies: the kids bring colour to the lives of small-town, stereo-typical America, all the while seeking to escape from the TV lives they are forced to live.
Now comes Ron Howard’s EDtv, based on a 1994 Quebecois film, Louis 19. Mr. Howard, the director of Apollo 13 and many other films, is uniquely qualified to make a movie about TV: millions watched him grow up as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. EDtv takes the relationship between TV and real life in a different direction.
A young group of cable-TV programmers led by a creative producer (Ellen DeGeneres) comes up with the idea of televising someone’s life 24 hours-per-day on a cable channel. Their idea gets the go-ahead from the owner (Rob Reiner) and off they go to find their real life star.
They choose Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), a 31-year-old video store clerk in San Fransisco. Ed’s a photogenic guy, in a TV kind of way, but his life is pretty aimless. At first, he kids around with the camera, enjoying the novelty; then his life becomes soap opera or talk-show material: he falls in love with his brother’s (Woody Harrelson) girlfriend (Jenna Elfman). Their developing romance becomes the most watched program on TV.
Dysfunction within Ed’s family of origin is revealed and the show’s popularity soars. Soon, Ed’s a celebrity, his girlfriend moves away, he’s set up with a sexy model (Elizabeth Hurley) and the audience is spellbound. But, as in The Truman Show and Pleasant-ville, it all becomes too much for Ed and he seeks a way out.
The first half of EDtv is lots of fun: the set-up is much more engaging than either The Truman Show or Pleasantville. Ed’s the perfect choice – engaging, attractive, even pleasantly goofy. But once the set-up is complete, Mr. Howard seems unsure of how to get out of it. The humour becomes strained and unnecessarily crude, and the ending sells out to the TV scripts the film seeks to satirize.
In all three films, EDtv, Pleasantville and The Truman Show, the plots turn on the characters escaping from their situations. In their own way, they all seek to be saved from the TV world that has enveloped them.
The question for us is: can the church’s mission find and welcome those who are lost in a TV world and offer a different, and longer lasting message of salvation?
Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.