Josh Wolk
October 30, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Charming newcomer ”Ed” may lose its ratings fight with ”The Simpsons”

There is a singular joy in discovering a delightful new television show, knowing that you now have a weekly respite from the multichanneled crapalanche that tumbles out of your tube every night. So you can understand the warm feeling that washed over me four Sundays ago after first watching NBC’s ”Ed,” the genial romantic comedy that against all odds manages to constantly avoid stepping into a big steaming mass of treacle.

And yet, like so much spilled cocoa in your lap, this was a warm feeling that slowly transformed into a damp chill dotted with marshmallows of discomfort (need I mention the dissolving whipped cream of broken dreams?): Last night after the closing credits I realized with a futile sadness that after a month of getting hooked I would have to abandon the Stuckeyville gang. Because next week ”The Simpsons” and ”Malcolm in the Middle” return in the same time slot on Fox and dammit, I must maintain my allegiances.

I blame NBC for this conundrum; even King Solomon would have trouble with this scheduling dilemma once his whole ”tear the TV in half” suggestion had been turned down. (And yes, I realize that VCRs can tape one show while watching another, but my cable system won’t allow it.) It’s not like the network couldn’t have seen that the same audience would go for “Ed” that appreciates the cleverness and adult sensibilities of ”The Simpsons” as well as the surreal yet oddly realistic humor of “Malcolm,” which shares the same kind of quirky supporting cast as NBC’s show.

”Ed”’s standouts are Mike Starr as Kenny, the burly, softspoken bowling alley employee who quietly holds a degree in pediatric nursing; and Josh Randall as Ed’s best friend Mike, who throws out nonsequitorial dares such as betting Ed he can’t meow loud enough to make an old man turn around, and later trying to distract his angry wife by putting two pancakes up to his head and matter of factly explaining he’s being a ”pancake mouse.” Where else can you see random humor like that? Certainly not on other dismal new shows like ”Cursed,” which have all the unpredictability of low tide.

Because of its longtime animation fan base, Fox is likely to win the ”Simpsons”/ ”Hill” versus ”Ed” battle, which means that ”Ed” may end up canceled, and we will have lost another rare TV gem. The same thing happened last spring when ABC put the darkly engrossing psychiatric hospital drama ”Wonderland” opposite ”ER,” and — adieu, fair quality! — it was gone after two weeks.

But broadcast networks seem incapable of realizing the dangers of this internecine programming. (And they’re in enough trouble as it is, rapidly losing their audiences and prestige to cable, with its creative new series like ”The Sopranos” and ”Iron Chef.”) Instead of understanding their days are numbered if they don’t change, the broadcast networks continue to shortsightedly churn out derivative vanilla crap like ”Yes, Dear” and ”Tucker” — and then take the only creative programming they can muster and pit it against the other networks’ hits. You would think there would be more cooperation in the face of network obsolescence; why wouldn’t NBC put something like ”Titans” on Sundays at 8, which would appeal to an entirely different crowd from ”Simpsons,” thus creating the potential for two hits?

Granted, I can be stubborn in standing by my old favorites. For example, I’ve heard wonderful things about the WB’s ”Gilmore Girls,” but I’ve been driving down the ”Friends” road on Thursdays at 8 for six years and I’m not about to turn the steering wheel now. This kind of narrow mindedness has caused me to miss out over the years: In 1990 I refused to watch ”Twin Peaks” because it was up against ”Cheers,” and it would take more than a dancing dwarf to turn me away from the bar. But those are choices I shouldn’t have to make, if the networks had any sort of survival instinct. After all, there’s enough good time slots to go around: There just aren’t enough good shows.

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