There are many ways in which Ed, the best new show of the season, could have been perfectly awful. The premise is hokey: Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh, a string bean with lots of teeth) is a big-city lawyer who gets fired from his job just as he discovers that his wife is being unfaithful to him. With the mailman. So a hangdog Ed slinks back to his teensy, fictitious hometown of Stuckeyville because he’s decided that the woman he’s really in love with is a high school crush who’d never given him the time of day, Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen), now a Stuckeyville schoolteacher.
On a whim, in a show that might have drowned in whimsy, Ed buys the local bowling alley, which is staffed by a gaggle of oddballs, and sets up a law office on the site: how cute. He runs the alley, takes the occasional court case, and pursues Carol, who’s intrigued by him but constrained by the fact that she’s been dating a novelist pretty seriously for the past seven years. (Gregory Harrison uses his pretty-boy looks to play a self-absorbed jerk.)
As I say: Man, oh man, this could have stunk as badly as an old pair of bowling shoes. At best, we might have ended up with a piece of popular piffle like Providence, which shares both Ed’s basic idea — thirtysomething achiever goes back to his/her hometown — and its star. Cavanagh, in a multi-episode Providence arc, played a guy referred to as ”dog boy,” who thought he could talk to animals. But rather than settle for this sort of shaggy whimsicality, Ed possesses all the bright romantic magic and tart humor of a first-rate screwball film comedy. This series is a perfect example of why you should never judge a TV show by its premise.
Ed is overseen by three executive producers: Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman (both of whom worked on David Letterman’s talk show for many years) and Letterman himself. Like other productions by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Bonnie Hunt’s two superlative, low-rated ’90s sitcoms, Ed is meticulously unsentimental about subjects most prone to sentimentality: love and friendship (Ed has a hometown buddy in the person of Mike, a jock-ish doctor played with low-key charm by Josh Randall). An hour-long comedy with no laugh track and plenty of lovey-doveyness, Ed benefits immensely from its air of understatement, and from its fondness for the bowling-alley supporting characters, like the lumbering, garrulous Kenny (Mike Starr, from Dumb & Dumber) and the flamboyantly goofy Phil (Michael Ian Black, from the comedy troupe The State).
The show’s writing — much of it by Burnett himself in the early episodes — makes the potentially awkward bowling alley-law office combo seem like an example of clever American enterprise. If Ed is a somewhat tentative boss, unsure of his role in this tenpins-‘n’-beer atmosphere, he is a delightfully confident lawyer, coming up with clever strategies for clients such as an old local magician who’s suing a competitor for revealing the secrets of his act. (The elderly prestidigitator is played by Eddie Bracken, once the young star of great Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero — dazzling, moonstruck comedies similar in spirit to Ed.)