Ed Begley Jr. had an image problem. Hollywood is lousy with so-called activists, but he's a genuine back-to-the-land environmentalist and something of a rigorist. That fact has led to some mockery over the years. On one episode of The Simpsons, the writers had him refusing to board a protest bus to help save a grove of redwoods. Begley preferred to drive a vehicle that "doesn't hurt Mother Earth," a go-cart powered entirely by his "own sense of self-satisfaction."
Thus the new reality series Living with Ed, airing Sunday nights on the HGTV network. It's billed as one of those shows where opposites attract and then drive each other nuts. The title comes from his wife Rachelle's exasperated challenge: "You try living with Ed." If the first two episodes are a reliable guide, the show is really an effort to sell viewers on a vision of the world through Begley's green-tinted glasses.
The "set" is Begley's home in Studio City, in the San Fernando Valley. It's a 1930s era house on a large lot. It's also the subject of constant bickering between Begley and the Missus. He admits that the place is a shack "by Hollywood standards." However, most of the world would consider the place "a palace." His wife tells us she'd rather just "tear the whole place down and start over."
Rachelle's thumbs-down judgment isn't limited to the size of the house. After grousing about the large organic garden that takes up most of the front yard, she tells the cameraman, "Let's go inside. It's too depressing." Inside, we learn she "cannot stand" the compact fluorescent light bulbs or the track lighting. She also hates that the shop takes up a large chunk of the garage, because that means she has to park her car "on the street."
Then there's the electrical system. The roofs of the house and garage are covered with solar panels that supply enough energy to run the place. Excess juice is banked in a custom-built energy grid in the garage that is drawn on at night. Begley has also rigged his exercise bike to feed electricity into the system as he peddles. Ten minutes every morning equals enough voltage to toast his bread.
It's not that Begley needs the extra power to make toast. He simply likes the idea of getting something else out of his morning exercise. So of course Rachelle objects. "How long did it take you to make that -- like four hours?" she asks. He replies, between bites, "It tastes all the sweeter, knowing that I worked for it." Unspoken addition: "...and knowing that it would drive you crazy, Dear."
The couple's squabbling has made for fun viewing -- so far -- but it also serves a propagandistic purpose. Just as Republicans are often said to have a woman problem, environmentalists definitely have a man problem. For a feature story in the green magazine Plenty last year, Political Editor Richard Bradley acknowledged the problem and suggested the green movement recast its message to appeal to the testosterone-based community.
"What could be more classically masculine than wanting to protect your family from external threats?" Bradley asked. Why, if the environmental movement could sell the notion that "being pro-environment is manly," he detected "enormous potential for political bridge building."
Living with Ed presents Begley's environmentalism as very much a guy thing, though not in the way Bradley envisioned. His politics are conventionally green but the focus of the show isn't politics. It's all about the struggle between a husband who wants to putt around in his shop and garden and try out new environmentally conscious toys; and his wife, "the commandant," who objects to everything he does ("The man needs to be monitored at all times!") and often gets quite dramatic about it ("I would have thrown my body up against it!").
The effect is to make Begley seem reasonable, or at least no more eccentric than most middle-aged guys who like to tinker. "I can still give you a cool beverage and a warm shower, but I'm gonna do it more efficiently," he explains. If that were all that his environmentalism entailed then nobody, other than Rachelle, would object.
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