While watching the Oscars last Sunday, one relic of late 90s pop culture kept popping into my mind. Matthew McConaughey? Ellen DeGeneres? Still haven’t got it? I’m talking about flop 1999 comedy EdTV, the Ron Howard-directed reality TV satire that probably came out ten years too early. The internet has already giggled a little about this film being McConaughey’s original pairing with his True Detective partner Woody Harrelson (here, they play brothers) but there hasn’t been nearly enough said about how it basically predicted the trends and formula of reality TV and the illusory breed of celebrity the genre spawns.
All of that happens in a film that just brutally reeks, head to toe, of the '90s. Scripted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (A League Of Their Own, City Slickers), it features McConaughey just starting to figure out his laid-back rom-com mode, Ellen and Rob Reiner as quippy execs, a squinty Jenna Elfman in the middle of her Dharma & Greg career high as the love interest (she plays a UPS delivery lady, for crying out loud), Elizabeth Hurley as a busty temptress, Adam Goldberg as as a whiny buddy, I could go on and on.
EdTV had a mind-boggling production budget of $80 million, absolutely none of which is visible onscreen, and it bombed hard at the box office, opening less than a year after the much more artful The Truman Show and scraping together $35 million in receipts before being banished to daytime HBO. Searching for clips of this movie on YouTube is a thankless errand; it’s almost like Howard (who would win an Oscar just two years later for A Beautiful Mind) and McConaughey have worked to scour the internet of its existence.
The Truman Show is the better movie, for sure. But it’s pure science fiction, with absolutely nothing to say about what reality television (still a very new concept in the late '90s) would do for the television landscape. Truman is a sheltered lab rat of a person grown in an artificial environment, living a mercilessly bland life basically planned out for him from birth. As commentary on the idealization of '50s American exceptionalism, it’s great, but no one would actually watch such a boring show.
Meanwhile, EdTV is exactlythe kind of messy, barely-produced crap that just clogs the airways these days. Scouring the country for a relatable protagonist, Cynthia (Ellen) hits on Ed, a dopily charming Houston video store clerk who’s happy shooting pool and kicking back and doing nothing in particular. McConaughey is perfectly cast. Sporting a few days of beard growth and the most raggedy flannel shirts available, he’s juuust believable enough as a loveable bum despite that movie-star face. He drawls a bunch of cute Ganz/Mandel one-liners and somehow manages to make them seem not forced. At one point, his mom (Sally Kirkland) tells Ed she thought his dad left her for a nurse because the new woman wore white shoes. “So does Grandma! So does Shaquille O’Neal!” Ed replies. It’s just the kind of scripted quip they’d feed an actor on any catty Bravo show.
Harrelson, much like on True Detective, is McConaughey’s dopier counterpart who gets cuckolded by him. The thinly-sketched girlfriend played by Elfman leaves one brother for another after Harrelson gets caught sleeping around. The supporting cast of oldies—Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Rob Reiner—is deep, but even more prescient-feeling are the background celebs they gathered up to play talking heads on television, spoofing the echo chamber of commentary that inevitably follows a reality hit. There’s RuPaul, calling Elfman a “skanky ho!” There’s Ariana Huffington and Michael Moore debating Ed’s “boobery” with George Plimpton! One imagines this was simply the best Howard could find in 1999, but there’s no better example of how celebrity can come back around. Well, except for maybe McConaughey collecting an Oscar trophy 15 years later at a ceremony hosted by DeGeneres, no longer a difficult-to-cast comedian and now the queen of daytime talk TV.
Ed’s arc is devastatingly familiar to anyone who watches reality TV now. He starts out in over his head, but a couple of early thrilling twists (the love triangle with Elfman, a tryst with Hurley) is enough to get him a huge following. The snowballing media fascination has him on top for a little while—he orders Pepsi at a restaurant, and the next day a Pepsi vending machine is brought to his house. But the wheels quickly come off the bus, and as Ed seeks to escape the cameras, they only tighten in further, trying to keep things interesting by spinning off members of his family.
The ending is Ganz/Mandel nonsense—after four months, McConaughey blackmails his way out of his contract by reading embarrassing secrets about his TV overlords on the air. But the final montage, with audiences briefly in mourning (“what do they expect us to do now?”) and panelists saying Ed will be soon forgotten (“he’s the Macarena!”) again feels accidentally prescient. Those are the villains of the piece: the idiots who get sucked into a program so intentionally stupid you can’t look away, and the puffed-up pundits (hi, everyone!) who encourage that crazy behavior by dissecting the show even further. Ed is just a prototype for every poor sap who claws to hold on to his five minutes of fame. The only truly implausible part of the movie? The notion that Ed ends his life happy and free from scrutiny. Trust me, that guy ends up on Dancing With The Stars in his best-case scenario. Worst-case, he’s slumming it on Bulgarian Celebrity Big Brother or eating tree grubs on some tropical island for our sick pleasure.