Judge Chris Claro was impressed by this TV drama at least once, and possibly will be again.
Our review of Once And Again: The Complete First Season, published August 10th, 2005, is also available.
Love, the second time around.
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 new life.
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 achieved.
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 family.
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 behavior.
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 of happiness.
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"
• "I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)"
• "Feast Or Famine"
• "Food For Thought"
• "Learner's Permit"
• "Life Out Of Balance"
• "Scribbling Rivalry"
• "Love's Laborers Lost"
• "Thieves Like Us"
• "Edifice Wrecked"
• "The Other End Of The Telescope"
• "Standing Room Only"
• "Aaron's Getting Better"
• "Forgive Us Our Trespasses"
• "Best Of Enemies"
• "Armageddon" / "Won't Someone Please Help George
• "Moving On"
• "The Second Time Around"
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The recurring device of characters addressing an unseen interviewer in black-and-white cutaways was one of the most notable elements of Once and Again. It was an obvious and heavy-handed method of conveying the thoughts of the characters. Its lack of subtlety was surprising, considering the generally measured and understated tone of the series. Though the scripting of the black and white segments was as thoughtful as the rest of the writing in the series, the cutaways often had the effect of an elbow to the ribs, making sure that audiences picked up on what the characters were thinking.
Endowed with sensitive acting and truly literate scripts, Once and Again: The Complete Second Season represents an entertaining and thoughtful series hitting its stride.
Once and Again is found not guilty by reason of being one of television's most well-produced dramas of the early 21st century. However, Messrs. Campbell and West are sentenced to probation for second-rate characterization.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Audio Commentary by Series Creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick on Episode 6, "Food For Thought"
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