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Browse the Store, Try the Show

NBC's self-consciously quaint "Ed" is the Restoration Hardware of comedies. Both peddle nostalgia that's pleasant but manipulative.

April 08, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

When is a television show like a Utica coat rack? Or a Mission-style plant stand? Answer: When that show is NBC's "Ed," a modestly successful new drama and, more important, the first television series based on a boutique chain of home furnishings. Call it Restoration Hardware TV.

On paper, "Ed" is about a New York lawyer who moves back to his Ohio hometown (it's called Stuckeyville) and takes over the local bowling alley, converting it into a bowling alley/law office (it's called Stuckey Bowl). Ed is played by Tom Cavanagh, a leaner, less hostile (OK, gentile) version of the character Rob Morrow played on "Northern Exposure." Dr. Joel Fleischman was the proverbial fish out of water, a driven, fast-rising young doctor forced to do his internship in a kooky Alaskan town where time stood still. Ed, on the other hand, is a fish back in the water-he's moved home to kooky Stuckeyville in a fit of nostalgia after losing his job and catching his wife in bed with the mailman.

That's a quaint way to destroy a marriage (the "breakup cute" is evidently the opposite of that romantic comedy staple the "meet cute"). But, then again, everything about "Ed" is quaint-quaint to the point of retro doctrinaire, an appealing attitude at first but ultimately as rigid as Martha Stewart. Watching the show is like browsing through a home bedecked in Restoration Hardware to within an inch of its life.

Calculated to be received as whimsical, "Ed" is television at its most cloying. It's endearing and clever, but endearing and clever in a way that urges you to realize, constantly: "This show is endearing and clever." In the ethos of "Ed," no gesture is too small to be made instantly symbolic or inspired. See Ed throw frozen waffles at the window of his heartsick friend to cheer her up. She's blond, pert Carol Vessey, the high school crush with whom Ed may get a second chance (but they're waffling about things). See Ed bring beef jerky to the local district attorney for enduring a date with him. See Ed wear a parka. See Ed and his best friend make $10 dares, as in, "I'll give you 10 bucks if you go touch that bald guy's head."

NBC premiered "Ed" in October. It aired on Sunday nights at 8, where it seemed shy and lonely and vulnerable, a hungry puppy left in the rain (though lying on a smart L.L. Bean doggy bed). Then "Ed" caught a break; on Wednesday nights, NBC was losing face with another new drama, an Aaron Spelling self-sendup called "Titans." Not only was "Titans" a ratings loser, it seemed a coarse cousin of a lead-in to the network's most self-important hit, "The West Wing," Aaron Sorkin's showy masterwork that re-imagines the White House as a place where staffers toil feverishly at their desks to come up with even better hallway banter than the day before. As on "The West Wing," no character on "Ed" is too minor to be a mouthpiece for the writer's look-at-me wit. "I mean, after all, isn't Tom Green just Lenny Bruce with a video camera?" a side character says in a recent "Ed" episode.

Scheduling "Ed" on Wednesday nights at 8 before "The West Wing" made a tremendous amount of sense, like installing a cappuccino machine at the entrance to a Mommy and Me class in Brentwood.

NBC has built its brand doing this, wrapping escapist yuppie fiction in a look and tone that compel viewers to keep watching. They call it "Must-See TV." They don't call it Restoration Hardware TV, because that would imply something, well, too culturally narrow.

But ask Restoration Hardware founder Stephen Gordon to identify the prototypical customer and, not surprisingly, he describes the kind of viewer, the XFL notwithstanding, that approximates the NBC brand: 35 to 55; disposable, dual income; college-educated; well-traveled.

The "Ed'-ness of Restoration Hardware, in fact, can be found right there in the mission statement on the company's Web site: "Around every corner at Restoration Hardware, you discover something unexpected yet pleasantly familiar," it says. "Your mind wanders back to your childhood, to the distant past, a history you wish you had and now may create."

At Restoration Hardware, no object is too incidental to be converted into a slick bit of business, a too-perfect complement to the home. Take shower-curtain rings. "We don't know who the clever individual was who mounted roller bearings on a shower curtain ring in the 1930s, but it's still the finest shower ring yet conceived," says the Restoration Hardware Web site about its $12 beauties.

Ed himself is Restoration Hardware, an attractive piece of distressed furniture with his vintage bowling shirts, V-shaped grin and hair that makes him appear as though he's just awakened from a nap. You want to buy him and put him in your living room-over there by the framed Kandinsky print or the wrought-iron CD tower.

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