Buena Vista // 1999 // 990 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // August 10th, 2005
"Other people seem safe. I look at their faces and know that was my face. I want to go back there."
As far as network television is concerned, the subject of broken families is the proverbial elephant that plants itself in the middle of a person's living room. The subject is so personal, so painful, so delicate, and so very close to home that nobody seems to have the courage to address it in a mature fashion. Pretend it doesn't exist and -- presto! -- it doesn't exist. That all changed in 1999, when veteran producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwickand created Once and Again, a thoughtful and poignant drama about two families struggling to blend.
Lily Manning (Sela Ward) and Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell) catch each other's attention in a school parking one morning and, in that brief moment, there's a spark. Or, at the very least, a hint of a spark. Problem is, Rick is divorced, Lily is separated, and they both have lives that are complicated enough without getting tangled up in another romance. Lily runs a bookstore with her well-meaning but prickly sister, Judy (Marin Hinkle), and she is busy raising two daughters, the oldest of which is suffering through the usual insecurities that plague most high schoolers. Rick, meanwhile, is an architect who has two kids of his own. The oldest, Eli (Shane West), is struggling in school and dealing with burgeoning sexuality. The youngest, Jesse (Evan Rachel Wood), is on the verge of becoming a teenager and, more importantly, a young woman. Complicating matters even more are Lily's ex, Jake (Jeffrey Nordling), a boyish cad who harbors hopes of reconciliation, and Rick's sensible ex, Karen (Susanna Thompson), who, three years after the divorce, is blindsided by the thought of Rick continuing with his life.
While nobody is exactly keen with the idea of Rick and Lily acting on their mutual attraction, the biggest obstacle the couple faces is their own inability to accept the notion that everyone deserves a second shot at happiness. After all, if it almost happened once, then why not again?
A pox on the naysayers who think network television is incapable of producing original, intelligent, adult drama. Such assertions are a slap in the face to Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, two creative minds who have seemingly devoted their careers to upping the ante on what television can offer. Sure, their thirtysomething was, at times, a tedious, frustrating test of one's patience and emotional endurance, but it was also the first series to slide the most ordinary and mundane aspects of day-to-day suburban life underneath a microscope and -- sans irony -- find humor, hurt, hope (not to mention Hope), betrayal and cleansing redemption. My So-Called Life (aka My Short-Lived Series, thank youABC) remains perhaps television's most touching portrayal of high school angst (pardon my using a cliché to describe a program that was anything but).
So what to make of Once and Again, H&Z's fractured-family offering from 1999? Quite simply, this is easily their most mature and affecting work, which is saying a lot. Armed with the same humanity and sharp eye for life's details that they displayed in their previous efforts, H&Z are in complete control of their material, and they've been blessed with yet another phenomenal cast.
In chronicling the romance of two fortysomethings wounded by love, the writers neatly sidestep pitfalls that would have plagued a lesser show. Their scripts are not punctuated with going-for-the-Emmy epiphany scenes, nor do they conclude with sudden moments of clarity and understanding. No, Once and Again is as messy and emotionally raw as divorce itself, and that is its most refreshing quality. Lily and Rick seldom have easy answers to their children's many questions, and with good reason: Easy answers seldom exist. How can Rick advise Eli to save sex for marriage when he himself is about to meet Lily for an afternoon rendezvous? How can Lily expect her girls to embrace her newfound happiness when she's doing everything in her power to keep it under wraps? Still, the writers allow their characters occasional moments to get it right, and those moments are beautiful (Lily to self-loathing Grace: "You're afraid because you want more, not because you deserve less.") They also inject startling moments of wisdom, such as when a character observes, "People can stay married even if they're miserable. They just have to accept consequences." That's a bitter pill to swallow, but Once and Again doesn't flinch.
Another nice departure from other shows is how Once and Again paints its characters in gray hues, refusing to let us take sides. None of the adults are entirely victims of their sour marriages. Once we get past the fact that Karen, Rick's ex, isn't the hurtful vindictive shrew she could so easily be, we recognize that she has very legitimate issues with Rick (as well-meaning as he is, Rick is incapable of making the tough choices his kids-particularly his 17-year-old son, Eli-need him to make). Lily is an intelligent, perceptive mother, but even she can't see why her sensitive 15-year-old daughter, Grace (Julia Whelan), is constantly at war with her own self-esteem. Frustrating? Absolutely. But as played by Ward (ever more luminous after escaping the maudlin estrogen-fest Sisters) and Campbell (who knew he had this performance in him?), they are sympathetic and achingly real (Lily's combination of pain, uncertainty and guilt-riddled pleasure during their first lovemaking session is especially heartbreaking). Ward and Campbell are a natural fit for each other, and they could almost support the show entirely on their own.
Fortunately, they don't have to, because Once and Again features a long roster of memorable supporting characters. The show understands that the effects of separation extend far beyond husband, wife and child to create a ripple effect that touches-and, in many ways, cripples-an entire network of extended family, friends, coworkers and sometimes even casual acquaintances. Lily and her younger, single sister, Judy, find themselves awkwardly back on equal footing, and, in the series' one contrivance, Lily's best friend, Naomi, also happens to be good friends with Karen. But the show nicely fleshes out each one of them, right down to Eli's girlfriend, Jennifer (Kimberly McCullough). In fact, one of the nicest surprises is the unexpected friendship that blossoms between Jennifer and Grace.
The writers frequently employ black-and-white "interview" segments during which characters strip away layers of themselves. What should have been a risky theatrical conceit is turned into an effective device for commenting on or counter pointing the action. The entire first season is laced with such moments, and they add immeasurable depth to the story.
Unjustly cancelled after only a few seasons, Once and Again is an elegantly written and beautifully mounted piece of television. It offers intelligent drama that is alive with honesty and humor, and characters that will engage your hearts and open your mind.
Once and Again: The Complete First Season is presented in its original full-frame format with Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. It's a handsome presentation that preserves the show well. I would have welcomed a commentary by H&Z on at least the pilot episode, but no such luck. The package includes no extras.
Don't let the show's frou-frou, Oxygen Network-worthy opening credits, with its soft-focus images and easy-listening vocals, fool you. Once and Again is a thoughtful show that women and men can both enjoy. Even without extras, this set is worth every penny.
Review content copyright © 2005 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 990 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated