McConaughey's Ed Pekurny is an average Joe who becomes the star of a 24/7, real-life soap. Right from waking on Day One with a rather untimely, televised "morning chubbie", to exchanging longing glances with his brother (Harrelson)'s girlfriend, Shari (Elfman), it's clear that life in Pekurny homestead will ne'er be smooth as long as telly's in town.
Shelved for a while after under-performing against The Truman Show and a distinctly lukewarm US reception, the fact that EdTV is as funny, poignant and telling a movie as the Jim-Carrey-can-act bombshell suggests either that Hank Public didn't get it or, more probably, that it strayed a little too close for comfort.
In a last-ditch effort to raise True TV above a swamping multitude of channels, program director Cynthia Topping (DeGeneres) pitches the ultimate reality show: broadcast one life, 24-7, live. Ambition-free, good ol' boy Ed Pekurny (McConaughey) is plucked from obscurity, and though Day One is uninspiring to say the least (save Ed's 'early morning chubbie' manipulation), an illicit glance between Ed and brother Ray (Harrelson)'s girlfriend Shari (Elfman) fuels a fast-spreading viewer addiction: this soap opera is real. Really real. Ed knows it. The audience knows it. And the ratings sky-rocket.
Among the spirited, pitch-perfect performances from McConaughey, Harrelson, Elfman, Sally Kirkland as Mom, Martin Landau as stepdad and Dennis Hopper as real dad, Howard focuses his camera as much on the power of television - the tube's ability to galvanise a vast, cosmopolitan country of obsessive viewers - as on America's fierce fascination with celebrity.
As noted by Ed's best friend John (Adam Goldberg), milking the limelight of association by guesting on a review show: 'It used to be that people were famous for being special; now, they're just special for being famous.' Indeed, Howard's notable achievement here has been to find in his cast the everyman quality: McConaughey convinces as a shambling but decent thirtysomething; Harrelson is brash, scummy, a little pathetic; the whole family has flaws and problems which, when magnified through a lens, seem the pinnacle of dysfunction.
The film is consistently amusing, balanced and well-timed (a solid soundtrack usefully bent to pacing purposes), and the credit belongs to a collaboration which clicks - Howard's keen vision co-ordinating the studied charm of McConaughey, Harrelson et al, delivering the crafted lines of regular Howard-movie screenwriters, Ganz and Mandel.
Even if it does start somewhat in the wrong gear (seemingly unsure of its intended tone), some blistering one-liners, magnetic chemistry and Howard's typically deft touches soon elevate it to not far off the sublime.