Sunday, January 7, 2007

Portrait of an Actor as a Middle-Aged Environmentalist

A new reality series relegated to HGTV (I would have never known of its existence if my dad, an avid HGTV watcher, hadn't alerted me), Living with Ed (Sundays, 10 PM) follows the daily superenvironmentalist lives of Hollywood B-listers Ed Begley, Jr. and his wife Rachelle Carson Begley. It's a fairly entertaining show, but after two episodes the formula is pretty clearcut: Ed loves doing things environmentally soundly while his wife struggles to put up with what she perceives to be merely environmentally conscious eccentricities. And that's just it. Whether intentionally or not, Living with Ed reduces environmentalism to just another eccentricity. The title of the series is evidence enough of this mentality; having to live with Ed is like living with a goiter or living with a dog that pisses on the carpet--it's just something you have to put up with.

Like any standard reality show, Living with Ed revolves around conflict (a comparable sitcom that immediately comes to mind is Everybody Loves Raymond). Ed buys a second solar oven that his wife wants to get rid of. Ed buys a rainwater collection barrel that his wife won't let him use. Ed cleans the solar panels which power the house and his wife is embarrassed that her husband's up on the roof. Of course, Ed is an environmentalist in the extreme--he rides a stationary bike to generate enough power for him to make toast, for instance. He times his wife in the shower and updates her on how much water she's wasting.

The comedic opposition the show relies on may make it enjoyable to the average viewer, but it also neglects to acknowledge any middle ground a more moderate environmentalist might conceivably find. Anything environmentally conscious Ed does, no matter how logically or ethically sound it may be (installing solar panels or driving an electric car, for instance), is taken as evidence of his eccentric extremism and fodder for his wife's ridicule. While the net effect of the show is to paint a caricature of an environmentalist gone slightly awry, it isn't meant to make light of environmentalism, I don't think--the website, in fact, offers 10 legitimate tips to becoming more environmentally friendly. Leave it to reality TV to pervert environmentalism, I guess.

7 comments:

Tommbert said...

Another one of those almost good enough reasons to get cable--sigh...

The point on environmentalism as eccentricity is a great one, especially as it relates to the sit-com. As usual with anything billed as reality television, I wonder how much of it is played up for the omnipresent camera crews to develop the character types. As a pretty handy do-it-yourselfer, I would see Rochelle's annoyance at Ed's being on the roof just as out there as his own bike-toast-making tendency--both are pretty far to their extreme. Of course that seems like where they put a little twist on the sit-com schtick: who would be mad at housekeeping, especially given the stereotype of the shiftless husband who can't even fix a leaky faucet, much less get up on the roof? Obviously, it's just his own eccentric behavior, but she still stands to benefit. Besides, I'm pretty sure she can't be that upset or embarrassed as they're still together (though the tally of Hollywood couples splitting after reality TV grows daily, I see).

In any event, whatever the entertainment value, there is, as you pointed out, a kind of unfriendly poking going on. Though I would agree that Ed's environmentalism is sincere (no doubt the show is buoyed in small part by his being featured in Who Killed the Electric Car? recently), viewers are just as likely to see the message of environmentalism as quirky as they are to take away useful information. As you said, the tips are on the website, not the show. At the same time, there is something to be said for the venue choice--HGTV ain't Bravo or even regular broadcast, even on a bad day. I would imagine that there is much larger segment of that audience that can take into account the possibilities shown on the program there as most of HGTV's shows direct viewers to their website for the details of certain projects. At least the premise is legitimate (i.e. he really does this stuff), as opposed to the swill I have to put up with on my one channel (CBS, bless them, is starting tomorrow night their newest reality offering, Armed and Famous, sure to be a thrill.

Like I said--getting closer to cable everyday... Great post.

trout said...

The catch with Ed's wife benefiting from his environmentalism is that she essentially has a grudge against it from the outset because it has kept them in a tiny 2 bedroom house (I'm speaking in relative terms here, of course) in Studio City instead of allowing them to move into an energy-inefficient house in the Hollywood Hills. I think if Ed sucked it up and allowed her to move to a larger house... and then undertook all his projects there, a lot of the conflict would be alleviated. Ed sticks to his guns, though, that smaller is better.

Did you notice that Armed and Famous is filmed with the Muncie, IN, police department? Personally, I think that calls for a road trip to Muncie...

Tommbert said...

Another thing I thought of whilst slipping off to sleep was that the show also doesn't do much for image of environmentalism as a white, upper-class passtime (a la Taylor's "American Environmentalism", Race, Gender and Class, 5:1, 1997) if only because they're white and upper-class. On the other hand, at least as you mention, Ed's keeping them down (so to speak), so there is some slippage there. If he were doing this all from the comfort of, say, MC Hammer's house, his motives would be sillier than they now seem. Again, it's that crossing of his ethos of conservation with the pathos of the reality show.

And no Muncie for me, thank you. It's a dangerous place.

Planet Killer said...

While Ed's quirkiness might hurt environmentalism - turning it into a sideshow undertaken by a crazy person - I think it can do some good, too. While there isn't going to be a mass run on stationary bike/toasters, the accumulation of Begley's apparently unending means to save every little bit of energy might inspire people to make changes here and there.

Of course, what could hurt environmentalism's cause with this show is that the world is not in crisis mode because people are making toast, which is what they'll say on FOX if this show gets big enough to come into their radar. Or they'll call him out for all the energy it takes to produce the show. I bet more energy is spent in making the show than Begley is saving (unless he demands the production of the show is environmentally friendly, as well, which would really be something cool).

As a rule, I think it's better to have a show like this on the air than not on the air, and if Begley gets too crazy maybe they can have Gary Busey move in next door to normalize Ed a bit. I'd be willing to bet if the show does become a hit, that HGTV will introduce a spin-off telling people how to green their homes.

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