My husband watches Home and Garden Television every minute that he's not actually soldering copper or sawing wood. (The Potato Non Grata does occasionally break to do a photo shoot or to watch "Law and Order," the latter over my heavy sighs.) So there was no way I could have missed the promos for "Living with Ed," the new HGTV reality show about the so-green-it-hurts-environmentalist and actor Ed Begley.
Still, as of last week when someone from HGTV alerted us to the upcoming episode about Ed's birthday, using the enticing e-mail header "Watch Ed Begley Demonstrate Earth Friendly Cooking," we had not yet watched any of the episodes we'd recorded. So, in preparation for the supposedly Ethicurean-related one last Sunday, we did.
Disclaimer: I was predisposed to like this show. I enjoyed Begley mightily as Ruth's hairdresser fling on HBO's "Six Feet Under." I've known about his green cleaning products line for a while — which he delivers personally by bike around L.A. — thanks to Daryl Hannah's video on her website and a Grist interview. I think he's totally cool, in a goofy way (kind of like Daryl Hannah, come to think of it). We're pretty environmentally conscious homeowners who use compact fluorescents, avidly recycle, are seriously discussing getting solar power, and of course buy mostly SOLE food.
But … we hated it. The Potato bailed halfway through the first episode. I stuck it out through the rest from a misplaced feeling of duty, and because I felt sorry for Ed.
This is hard. We don't usually say critical things on this blog except about big meatpackers and processed-food companies. Generally, if we don't like someone or something that's basically playing for "our" team, we just wouldn't mention it. But in this case I feel like I must, because the idea is a good one. It’s the execution that's a disaster.
The biggest problem is Ed's wife, Rachelle Carson Begley. An aspiring actress and Pilates instructor, she is visibly, painfully scornful of her husband's lifestyle: his choice to live in Studio City rather than Beverly Hills, the white picket fence made of recycled milk bottles, the solar panels covering their whole roof. (And that's just from the opening sequence.) They have a tiny house by L.A. standards, and the kitchen is too small for her vitamin collection. She wants all the Hollywood trappings; he's a bicycle-riding vegan who wants as small a carbon footprint as possible. A surefire recipe for comedy, right?
Maybe, if you felt like they actually loved each other and were merely irritated, instead of enraged, by their differences. In Malcom Gladwell's best-seller "Blink," he writes about John Gottman, a psychologist who operates a "love lab"; the man can tell within 90 seconds whether a couple is destined for divorce. How? According to this guy Gottman, contempt is the biggest marital red flag there is, and I'd have to agree. But it's pretty much the only emotion visible on "Living with Ed": Rachelle seethes with it, from every carefully waved lock of blonde hair down to her pedicure. And even Ed, who for the most part seems reasonably patient with his shallow wife, still often resorts to a chilly sarcasm when talking to Rachelle, or to the camera about her.
Begley said in a Treehugger interview yesterday that he hopes having the show on HGTV will give him a whole new audience to convert, outside his typical "base." It would help if the show's producers were on board with this goal. Unfortunately they seem to think the "odd couple" drama is the show's main selling point, followed by making Ed look like a loon for wanting to store rainwater. Yet whenever Rachelle is away, Ed relaxes and you can sense what fun the show could be. The episode where he visits Jay Leno, for example, and Leno caps off a tour of his vast car collection by driving Ed around in a turn-of-the-century electric vehicle that ladies used for shopping, was a delight to watch.
"This is so cherry!" Ed exclaims, adorably pink with enthusiasm.
But last Sunday's episode, when Rachelle "lets" Ed have his birthday just as he wants it — taking a hike that she whines throughout, cooking his own tofu brownies in his solar oven (she makes a big show about choking them down), her present of an electric bike that she ends up riding herself — was enough for me. No more.
It's clear from previous interviews and even HGTV's website for the show, which offers Ed's tips for organic eating and gardening, that he's the real deal. I am sure I'm not alone in being truly interested in how he walks his talk among Hollywood's fair-weather environmentalists, and how he got to be a bike-riding, composting, recycled-cotton-wearing activist. So even if his wife won't treat him with more affection, his own TV show should. Even the eccentrics who live in train cars or giant tree houses on "Extreme Homes" get more respect.