Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick made their bones on
thirtysomething, the love-it-or-hate-it late '80s phenomenon that
proffered self-obsession as a virtue. Chronicling the messy entanglements of
love, marriage, and work among a bunch of upwardly mobile Philadelphians, some
argued that thirtysomething made narcissism desirable, a commodity, like
an SUV or a sofa from Restoration Hardware.
thirtysomething afforded Herskovitz and Zwick opportunities in
feature films (Legends of the
Fall, The Siege), but they kept
coming back to the small screen, first with the short-lived Relativity,
and later, the fondly remembered My So-Called Life. In 1999, TV beckoned
once more and the result was Once and Again.
The series followed two newly single parents struggling to maintain their
relationship while dealing with children, jobs, and exes. Once and Again
manifested the wont Herskozwick established in thirtysomething and
revisited in Relativity, of problems depicted against glossy backgrounds
by pretty people. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The first season of Once and Again focused on the budding romance
between architect Rick (Billy Campbell, Enough) and Lily (Sela Ward, 54), returning to the workforce as assistant to
a young magazine editor (Jennifer Crystal, 61*). With two children each, keeping them
tethered uncomfortably to their exes, Rick and Lily spent a lot of Season One
explaining rather than enjoying themselves.
As the second season begins, their relationship forces them to confront the
realities of blending families and all the complications, resentments, and
discoveries inherent in the process. Along the way, Rick and Lily each strive to
preserve what they have built with their kids, while they tentatively pursue a
Facts of the Case
When it first aired, Once and Again was dismissed by many as
"fortysomething": the old narcissism you love, now with added angst
and double the divorce! Such a comparison would be facile, as Once and
Again was more textured, with a maturity that thirtysomething never
Herskovitz and Zwick took a novelistic approach to Once and Again,
allowing stories to unfold over a number of episodes and contriving
relationships among unexpected combinations of characters. In doing so, they
created an environment that felt honest and real, even if they sometimes got a
tad hamfisted with symbolism and metaphor.
Once and Again was peopled with impossibly attractive actors, most of
whom more than measured up to the task. Sela Ward brought a vulnerability to
Lily that manifested itself in shifting shades of sweetness, anger, and utter
bemusement at the complexity of her life. In all her roles—mother,
girlfriend, ex-wife, employee—Lily was confident, but clearly, as she says
in episode 9, "making it up as (she) goes along."
Julia Whelan and Meredith Deane, as Lily's daughters, Grace and Zoe,
displayed a heartbreaking precision in their performances. Grace's high school
trials and her fractious relationship with her philandering father are even more
poignant viewed through Whelan's sadly perceptive eyes. And Deane offers a
startlingly self-aware performance as the younger daughter who feels ripped off
because her sister got five extra years before divorce shattered their
Jeffrey Nordling plays Lily's ex-husband Jake (Turbulence 2: Fear of
Flying) with savoir faire to spare. As the owner of a restaurant left to him
by Lily's father, Jake is a good-looking, glad-handing, two-timing charmer.
Nordling, who could be Greg Kinnear's even more handsome brother, makes Jake the
Rake likeable while never letting you forget the ramifications of his selfish
As Lily's sister, Judy, Marin Hinkle (Two and a Half Men) has a
thankless role, which she could have tossed off with just another
unlucky-in-love sidekick shtick. Instead, she makes Judy's singleness her
strength, powering through her life, as all of these characters are, in pursuit
Unfortunately, one of the weaker links in the Once and Again acting
chain is Billy Campbell, as Rick. Though he tries hard—and it
shows—Campbell lacks the gravitas his role sometimes calls for. There
simply doesn't seem to be much behind his eyes.
The same can be said for Shane West, as Rick's son, Eli. A conforming
non-conformist who plays for the school basketball team even while fancying
himself a rebellious rocker, West's performance as Eli rarely evokes anything
but adolescent petulance. He appears outmatched by the other actors,
particularly Evan Rachel Wood as his sister, Jessie.
Possibly the saddest character in the Once and Again universe, Jessie
is the daughter of Rick and his ex-wife Karen. As Season Two opens, she is new
to high school and alarms her parents by exhibiting evidence of an eating
disorder. Wood (Thirteen) conveys the pain
of dealing with a fractured family with a delicacy that is almost too painful to
watch. Her tribulations, from not knowing where she fits in at school to
enduring family therapy for her anorexia, are made that much more poignant
through the exactitude of Wood's acting.
Susanna Thompson (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) brings similar colors
to Karen, a public-interest lawyer. Guiding her kids through life, while still
stinging from the failure of her marriage, Karen is tightly-wound and
controlled, but aware that that isn't the easiest way to go through life, for
herself or her children.
The episodes included in Once and Again, Season Two:
• "Wake Up, Little Susie"
Season One closed with
Grace and Zoe, the Manning kids, meeting the Sammlers, Eli and Jessie. This
season opens with a second shot at unity, as the Rick and Lily once again gather
their families gather for dinner. Meanwhile, Jessie is nervously starting high
school and Grace is resentful of the demands placed on her by Rick and Lily's
relationship. The performances by Evan Rachel Wood and Julia Whelan make their
situations that much more affecting.
Judy reopens My Sister's Bookstore
as Booklovers, adding a component of community by making the store a haven for
singles seeking mates. When Judy seeks Lily's help in promoting the venture,
long-simmering tensions arise between them. Jennifer Crystal, as Lily's boss,
Christie, stands out in this episode. As the founder of a local magazine and
website, Christie's drive and ambition mask an insecurity that Lily recognizes,
but doesn't exploit.
• "I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)"
the set's weaker chapters, this episode focuses on Eli in all his rocking glory
and scholastic ignominy. As he sweats out the SAT and withstands pressure from
his parents, Eli tries to further the fortunes of his "emo-tinged, pop
chaos" band, Anti-Inflammatory (featuring Adam Brody of The O.C.).
The father-son conflict in this one is tired and it lacks the buoyancy of many
other episodes. It's notable, though, for the appearance of Mark Feuerstein,
introduced in Season One as Karen's younger lover, Leo. One of the few
caricatures in a show populated by actual humans, the music-loving Leo does
nothing to stem the conflict between rocker Eli and his father.
• "Feast Or Famine"
Ladies and gentlemen, feast
your eyes on the first substantial season two appearance of the one and only
Miles Drentell! The Machiavellian schemer who made things so stressful for
Michael and Elliot back in Philly on thirtysomething is in Chicago,
enlisting Rick's firm to erect a building, or, as Miles puts it, "make a
last stand in this edifice against the ravages of mortality." David
Clennon's portrayal of Miles is pitch-perfect, a juicy brand of villainy wrapped
up in an airtight, erudite package. Miles is a supporting character in this
episode, which focuses on a stressful Thanksgiving with both Lily's mother
(Bonnie Bartlett, St. Elsewhere) and Rick's (Barbara Barrie, Breaking
Miles returns with a vengeance in
this episode, in which he compels Rick to stage a dog-and-pony show for
Atlantor, the investors backing Miles' dream building. Miles' testy relationship
with Rick's partner, David (Todd Field, In
the Bedroom), imbues their scenes with a palpable frisson that the actors
really chew on. Miles' cunning versus David's no-bullshit style gives both
actors a lot to work with and it makes for good drama. Their relationship harks
back to the turbulent one that Miles shared with Elliot on
• "Food For Thought"
Adolescent girl + high
school x family crisis=eating disorder, or so Rick and Karen think about Jessie.
Evan Rachel Wood shines in this episode with Jessie experiencing psychotherapy
with an understanding doctor played by series co-creator Ed Zwick. As Karen
prepares to represent the opposition to Rick's project for Miles, Jessie gets
swept up in the conflict. Wood plays Jessie's pain with such perception, it's
shocking that she didn't receive an Emmy nomination for this performance. The
episode did, however, win Herskovitz and Zwick a Humanitas award for their
• "Learner's Permit"
From the episode title to
Zoe's school-project volcano, this stanza is heavy on the symbolism. While
learning to drive, Grace also gets educated in the ways of relationships,
honesty, and manipulation. Julia Whelan, as Grace, is excellent as always and
Ever Carradine's Tiffany, Jake's on-and-off girlfriend, has some lovely moments
of perceptivity that belie her flibbertigibbet demeanor.
• "Life Out Of Balance"
A pregnancy scare makes
Lily reexamine her relationship with Rick. If you thought that sentence was
dull, just wait 'til you watch this episode. Eli's school troubles continue as
he is kicked off the basketball team, much to Rick's chagrin. A rare
shrug-inducing episode of a usually-compelling series.
• "Scribbling Rivalry"
Lily's workplace, Pages
Alive, is the focus of this episode that finds Christie scrambling to maintain
her vision with the money men breathing down her neck. When management
consultant Graham (D.B. Sweeney, Eight Men
Out) sends Lily mixed signals about his intentions, she finds herself in a
bind with her boss and her sister. Friction between Grace and Zoe parallels that
of Lily and Judy and the episode is noteworthy for Sela Ward's performance as a
befuddled, overwhelmed, and self-deluding Lily. Also standing out is Meredith
Deane, who gets her moment to display an amazing instinct and ability for such a
• "Love's Laborers Lost"
Judy's love life takes
center stage in this effort, as she struggles, single at 35, to determine
whether what she's looking for is actually out there. Marin Hinkle sensitively
conveys Judy's uncertainty about the man she's with, the man she wants, and
whether either of them is right for her. This episode also accents the subtle,
yet noticeable elements of Lily's ambivalence toward her sister. As a mother,
ex-wife, and girlfriend, Lily's responsibilities weigh mightily on her and Judy
often bears the brunt of Lily's bitterness. Paradoxically, the upside of Lily's
situation is depicted beautifully through Judy's eyes in the closing moments of
• "Thieves Like Us"
Secrets and lies figure
heavily in this episode that is one of the strongest as far as employing
virtually every character in the series. The loss—or possible
theft—of Jessie's jar of glitter makeup reveals the level of duplicity
exercised by Rick, Karen, Jessie, and Grace in their efforts to make their
voices heard. While the script is more contrived than "O&A"
usually is—glitter, glitter, who's got the glitter?—the myriad
revelations and surprising behavior by the characters make this a particularly
Two relationships come to a head as
Karen confronts her future with Leo and Lily finally deciphers Graham's signals.
This episode is another example of how the female characters almost always
outshone the men on Once and Again. Leo and Graham are painted with broad
strokes of wishy-washy sensitivity and underwritten loneliness while the
respective women in their lives approach their crises with clearer motivation
• "Edifice Wrecked"
The issue is partnership,
both professional and personal, as Valentine's Day looms. Rick and David deal
with the legal fallout from the Atlantor project, Eli addresses his growing
relationship with Carla, and Lily questions Rick's intentions. Todd Field stands
out in this episode, beautifully depicting David's conflict between conscience
• "The Other End Of The Telescope"
One of the
strangest, most atonal episodes of this series is set almost completely at
Jake's restaurant, Phil's, where a disgruntled busboy takes a brunch crowd
hostage at gunpoint, with Jake, Grace, and Tiffany among those being held. Full
of the usual revelations and discoveries typical to Once and Again, the
hostage situation feels more like it belongs in a cop show. Coincidentally, the
presiding police officer is played by Bruce Weitz, remembered as Belker on
Hill Street Blues.
• "Standing Room Only"
Rick and Lily ponder
"buyer's remorse" in advance of their nuptials, and Jake confronts his
future with Tiffany. This episode emphasizes one of the strongest elements of
Once and Again, its ability to bring together characters into each
other's orbits. From Judy's relationship with Karen to David's flirtation with
Christie, the show was at its best when it showed just how intimate its world
was. Here, a lovely interaction between Rick and Jake depicts their connection,
and shows just what Lily would see in both of them.
• "Aaron's Getting Better"
Patrick Dempsey is
powerful as Lily and Judy's schizophrenic brother, Aaron. His presence at Lily's
brings out simmering resentments between his sisters, even as Aaron lends Grace
some much-needed understanding. Dempsey was nominated for an Emmy award for his
moving portrayal of Aaron.
• "Forgive Us Our Trespasses"
The delicacy of
Once and Again periodically slipped into contrivance, as in this episode
where Judy has a stalker, Graham has a new office relationship, and Jake
is…being Jake. Accusations and revelations combine for an episode that's
long on talk but doesn't measure up to the best of this series.
• "Best Of Enemies"
Jessie's therapy is at the
forefront of this episode that boasts another subtle, moving performance from
Evan Rachel Wood. Struggling to regain her parents' trust and maintain her
independence, Jessie finds an unlikely ally in Judy, who finds herself also
dealing with her ambivalence toward her sister's fiancé.
• "Armageddon" / "Won't Someone Please Help George
This two-episode story sees the Atlantor project come
to a head, with Rick facing indictment for the backroom deals that put the
project in motion. These two stories also represent Miles' swan song and even in
the throes of life-threatening illness, he maintains his Machiavellian mask,
leaving Rick to twist in the wind.
• "Moving On"
A strangely unfocused episode that
focuses primarily on…well, it doesn't focus "primarily" on
anything. Rick and the kids are moving to Lily's. Lily is making wedding
preparations. And in the middle of it all, Eli's girlfriend, Carla, is whirling
through the lives of the Mannings and the Sammlers, adding an element of chaos
to an already overstuffed episode.
• "The Second Time Around"
The moment we've all
been waiting for: the wedding. Is it on? Is it off? Will there be hot hors
d'oeuvres? Money woes and uncertainty cause Rick and Lily to reevaluate their
relationship and question their motivation for matrimony.