Tuesday, September 06, 2005

And Again, and Again, If Only

To celebrate the long-awaited release of the second season of Once & Again on DVD a few weeks back, I thought I'd offer up my thoughts on the first season, which has been out for three some-odd years now, but has been re-released along with the second season (not sure if it was out of print or what).

For the uninitiated, O&A was an ABC series that debuted to very strong critical response but only managed tepid ratings, in part because ABC had an annoying habit of moving it around as if it were the ball in a shell game--the intent perversely seeming to be to make audiences unable to find it (one imagines devilish ABC executives laughing maniacally as devoted fans keep picking up the wrong shell). The series started out as the simple story of a divorced man with two children and a divorced woman with two children meeting and falling in love, but very quickly became really about the two families and how the relationship between the two protagonists (Rick and Lily) affected everyone, from themselves to their children, to their parents, to their siblings, to their friends, to their co-workers, to their exes.

Sela Ward (now playing House's ex-wife on his eponymous FOX show) won an Emmy that first season for her portrayal of Lily, and it was richly deserved. Lily was beautiful (uncommonly, being played by Sela Ward) and smart, but very needy and insecure and emotionally a little broken. Ward caught all of that, often only via the subtlest glares. Billy Campbell (now doing something on The O.C., a show I've never seen), played Rick. During the first episode, we see Rick and Lily meet at the local high school--Rick is at the school for his son Eli (played by current E.R.-regular Shane West), a junior, and Lily is attending her daughter Grace's soccer game (Grace was played, wonderfully, by Buried Beauty nominee Julia Whelan) and the two meet briefly in the principal's office. That first episode brought the characters together and set them off as a, tentative at first, couple, and from there on the series slowly charted the trajectory of their relationship and the effect it had on their families.

The show also featured an interesting fourth-wall breaking device. The characters didn't speak to the camera, per se, (not in the Ferris Bueller sense) but within the show we would periodically break away from the main story for brief, black and white "confessionals" with the characters sitting and talking to an unseen and unheard-from interviewer about events relating to the story at hand. So, for example, in an episode focusing on the effect of the divorce on Rick's youngest daughter Jessie (played by Evan Rachel Wood, who went on to much acclaim in the film Thirteen and is in about a dozen upcoming movies), we would periodically break to "confessionals" featuring Jessie talking about finding out about the divorce. These were artfully woven into the main narrative and served as a unique and very unobstrusive way to allow the characters to reveal additional truths and complications about their lives and their reactions to one another.

What was wonderful about the show was how honestly and elegantly it handled such standard issues as new loves, the effect of divorce on kids, the pull of ex-spouses, all of it. By refusing to pull punches, or soften the edges of the world they were talking about, series creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz were able to tell a deeply complicated emotional story in true-long term time; in this case over three seasons. There's a moment in one of the early episodes that stands out as a stellar example of what I'm talking about: Rick is telling Lily about his divorce, and he refers to the moment when he told his two children that their mother and father were going to get a divorce as a physical act of violence, as akin to taking a baseball bat and hitting them over the head with it. It was so nice to see a series treat divorce honestly, and not to elide over the emotional damage it so often causes. And this from a series that is at its heart about two divorcees finding hope and happiness in each other; even with that ultimately happy message at its core, the series never tried to sugarcoat or oversimplify things by insisting that "divorce is OK or not OK."

This element is perhaps what impressed me about the show the most. For a show that took as its central conceit the beauty of newfound love for divorced 40-somethings, it never soft-pedaled the real damages that divorce causes. I haven't looked, but I'm fairly certain that if I did I could find some right-wing "family-first" Christian group that criticized the show when it was on the air for espousing a "pro-divorce" point of view. Which is, of course, to entirely miss the point. What the show did, and wonderfully, was to show all sides of divorce. The damage it does to families, the real lasting damage, but also the happiness that it can allow for. The show was never about "divorce is good" but about taking a strikingly honest look at the realities of divorce.

The show also did a remarkable job of treating the emotional conflicts between characters that were its bread and butter honestly. Issues were brought up and discussed, dramatized, certainly, but rarely resolved. Just like in real life. The issues you have with your spouse or siblings or parents are rarely issues that you fix; rather, they are periodic problems that are messily, if at all, dealt with for the moment until they surface again days or weeks or months down the line. And so it was with the show. One example: that Rick's brother and father were alcoholic were discussed, and that Rick himself may have had a drinking problem was hinted at heavily throughout the season's run, but the issue was never resolved. It was always, through three seasons, just there, hovering in the background, just like it very realistically might be in real life.

All of flowed from the writing, to be sure, but the cast uniformly was excellent as well, from the kids to the adults. Open, sensitive, wonderfully naturalistic (but not fetishizingly so), emotional performances were the norm, and it's impossible to find a weak link. One of the most cohesive and uniform ensembles to ever assemble for a TV series. I look at some of these performers in more detail below, as I, as a prelude to the second season, provide my (relatively) brief thoughts on the first season's 22 episodes. Spoilers abound, so those who have not yet seen this first season, I bid you adieu:

1. Boy Meets Girl
A perfect pilot, and remarkable for how much happens. Rick and Lily meet, have a few dates, get caught undressed by her kids, agree that it's too soon to start a relationship, and then come back together, all in one episode. Right off the bat we see amazing chemistry between Ward, Whelan, and Meredith Deane (as Lily's younger daughter Zoe). Whelan gets the angsty teen stuff, and does it well, but Deane gets the funnier little-girl material, and she's hilarious. Amazing that in 43 minutes or so we care so much--already--about this couple; we're rooting for them almost before they begin to really root for themselves.

2. Let's Spend the Night
The second episode centers around sex, as Lily and Rick wrestle with the decision to sleep together or not and Eli struggles with the same questions concerning his girlfriend, Jen. What's great about the episode is how naturally and honestly they portray the climactic (pun intended)sex scene between Rick and Lily--look to Ward's performance for some amazing emotional work as she struggles with the reality of sex with a man who is not her husband. I don't think I've ever seen as emotionally honest a sex scene, certainly not on TV. There's a very funny, affecting, and real-feeling subplot about a rumor at the high school about Eli and Grace having been caught by their parents (instead of Eli's dad and Grace's mom being caught by Grace, as happened last episode) that nicely foreshadows the crush Grace will have on Eli.

3. The Scarlet Letter Jacket
Lily and Karen (Rick's ex-wife, the ex-Borg Susannah Thompson) are forced into meeting and Grace is forced to work with Eli, at the school carnival. Great interactions between Ward and Thompson and Campbell and Jeffrey Nordling (as Lily's ex-husband Jake). The material with Grace being called out by a snotty cheerleader-type for liking Eli is handled wonderfully, with Whelan nailing the tremendous awkwardness of being a teen.

4. Liars and Other Strangers
One of the first heartbreakers, as Eli feels compelled to lie to protect his mother from finding about his father's new love. The last scene between Eli and Karen is just amazing stuff, as she realizes that her son sees himself as her protector--and more importantly that she sees him that way too. Thompson was great in this series; this was one of the first inklings we'd get of just how good she'd be.

5. There Be Dragons
One of the most amazing episodes of television I've ever seen, and out of nowhere Evan Rachel Wood shows what an amazing actress she already is at 14. Lily meets Rick's kids for the first time and at the same time Rick's and Jessie's annual hiking outing is ruined when he cuts his finger. The episode is really about Jessie's coming to terms with the divorce, and the scene with her and her father at the end just slays me every time I see it:

"Dad, will we ever be a family again?"
"No, sweetheart, no, we won't, not in the same way."

Pale on paper, but up on its feet being delivered by two amazing actors, simply and honestly--wow.

6. A Dream Deferred
The combative relationship between Rick and Lily's sister Judy (and Judy and Lily) intensifies, as Judy asks a handsome young artist/carpenter to discuss building a coffee bar for the bookshop she and Lily own and Lily brings in Rick for a second opinion, with Rick eventually taking the whole project over. An episode that gets us deep into the relationship between Lily and her sister, and starts to look at Lily's often needy, dependent relationships with the men in her life.

7. The Ex-Files
Rick and Karen go away together when Eli has a big out-of-town basketball game and Grace and Zoey meet their father's young girlfriend. I like that this early in the season, they weren't afraid to complicate things, by taking the time to explore the romantic lives of the exes as well as our central characters. Tiffany, in particular, would come to be a valuable addition to the series.

8. The Past Is Prologue
Rick gets consumed by a project at work and Lily is jealous. This could have been a very typical, surface episode, but the way they honestly explore Lily's feelings of jealousy--and the way the episode-ending discussion, if you listen closely, doesn't really resolve anything, shows how the writers could take the most banal of plots and use them to illuminate things about the characters.

9. Outside Hearts
The team takes on that most cliched family-drama plot, the "teen goes to party with drinking" chestnut, and makes it very, very real and fresh. Grace's shy attempts to socialize and talk to a boy she likes are played out with squirm-inducing honesty, and Judy and Lily get some wonderful interactions on parenting philosophies. This episode stands as but one example of what I really love about this show. Many an episode, including this one, ends with a heart-to-heart between conflicting characters over twinkly music, like so many family dramas. But if you listen carefully, you realize that, as a rule, problems are never solved, just illuminated. So the conflict here, of Eli's being dishonest with his parents, and with his parents struggling to set limits, isn't at all resolved at the episode's end, but is left very open-ended. Lily's over-protective ways and her sister's need to chafe against them for her nieces' sakes are discussed, but not resolved. The show is very much like life in this regard, in the way problems are discussed and cried about and shouted about but rarely solved.

10. Thanksgiving
A remarkable episode, in which we meet Lily's parents and see that they have barely acknowledged her separation. An artfully captured tense Thanksgiving dinner scene (Lily's parents have shanghaied her into letting Jake attend) is wonderful. In a very low-key way, they perfectly capture the "divorced family holiday" dynamics through both families.

11. Where's There
One of the season's best episodes, with the subplots about Karen struggling to let Eli grow up and Lily taking her kids out to dinner with Rick worthy of their own eps. But the main thread, with Jake's business deals unraveling and his breakdown to Lily, and her tearful support of this man she once loved that leads to sex, just kills, as we see Lily do to Rick just what Jake did to her--betray her trust; and this this after we've spent 10 episodes learning just how irrevocably painful that betrayal was to her.

12. The Gingerbread House
The Christmas episode. Lily can't stand the guilt and confesses to Rick, and he can't forgive her. Tears flow. One of the show's central scenes is in this episode, as Lily realizes that she wants a divorce and tells both Jake and Grace so in no uncertain terms. I love how Whelan is able to realistically take Grace from hating her Mom for what she's done to her Dad and to her family to feeling real sympathy for her Mom once things are final.

13. Mediation
Lily and Jake enter mediation, looking to avoid divorce attorneys, and Rick struggles with losing Lily. I had remembered the breakup as lasting longer; Rick and Lily get back together by the end of the episode, in a scene that's wonderful for how underplayed it is and for how much goes unsaid. There is no big speech, no big moment of insight, just Rick realizing that he can't let her go. Again, so much goes unresolved, as in life.

14. Sneaky Feelings
Karen, who has been seeing a safe, boring man, falls for a young, impulsive doctor, while Eli feels constrained by his relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer. The Karen plotline is notable for how believable the relationship between her and Leo is. Mark Feuerstein, who would later star in the execrable NBC sitcom Good Morning, Miami, is great here. It's an object lesson in the importance of writing--he was, frankly, not very good in his big sitcom, because the writing was simply horrible. Here, where he's given real quality material to work with, he's excellent. There's a great directing moment in this episode that bears mentioning as well. When Karen breaks up with Lloyd in a crowded diner, as they eat at the counter, the awkwardness of the moment is highlighted by the wonderful acting by several extras, in particular a woman sitting to Karen's right. The extras don't ignore what their characters can't help but overhear, as they would in so many films or TV shows, but neither do thy intercede, or comically comment, as we've also seen countless times. Instead, they subtly but clearly react to what's going on--just like in real life. The subplot works very well too, not for the typical teen breakup stuff, which is done very well, but for the way they focus on how Eli's breaking up with his girlfriend affects Jessie. The pain of having her family broken up is being repeated on a smaller scale, especially since she and Jen have become friends, and Wood does an insightful job of portraying a pre-teen's almost inchoate anger at what her brother's done to her and to her new friend. A great episode.

15. The Mystery Dance
Judy gets her spotlight episode, as she falls for a man she then discovers is married. Steve Weber, of Wings fame, plays the man, Sam, a sculptor friend of Rick's, and he would turn up as a more regular character in, if memory served, season three. Hinkle is wonderful at getting at the conflicting feelings of finally having found someone who could be a "soulmate" only to find out that he's unavailable. The show in the first season had a masterful way of examining infidelity from a variety of angles, and made a heartbreaking case here for why Judy would let herself betray another woman as Jake betrayed her sister.

16. Daddy's Girl
An episode focusing on Lily and Jake's divorce proceedings, with Lily abandoning mediation and hiring a divorce attorney. Paul Masursky returns as Lily's father. The conflicts and tensions that have swirled around all season between Lily, Jake, and Phil (Lily's dad) come to a head here. At the same time, Grace begins a flirtation/relationship with a classmate, in a subplot that featured some of Whelan's most vulnerable acting in the season--she completely nails the hesitancy and awkwardness that goes with those first teenaged flirtations.

17. Unfinished Business
A complete heartbreaker of an episode. After a first-act feint involving Phil and Grace getting into a car accident that results in nothing worse than a broken ankle for Phil, Phil collapses and is rushed to the hospital, having suffered a massive stroke. Zwick and Hershowitz take another standard, near-cliche family drama plot--a family member dies--and treat it with sublime sensitivity. The way they capture the unreality of death, the guilt survivors feel, the terror that losing a parent can cause, is commendable, and all the actors are remarkable. There's a moment where Judy, who had lashed out at Jake for overstepping his bounds in discussing with the family whether or not to take Phil off of life support after a second stroke removes all hope of recovery, comes over to Jake to comfort him, realizing that he's hurting as much as she is, that's beautiful in the way it simply plays out.

18. Strangers and Brothers
As the family deals with the funeral and sitting shiva, we finally meet the oft-alluded to but never seen Aaron, Lily and Judy's schizophrenic brother. Patrick Dempsey plays Aaron, and he would return for an episode or two each year. His performance is remarkably touching, exhibiting none of the actorly tics that so often infect actors' performances when playing mentally ill people. Aaron's illness is treated with real care and sympathy, and not leveraged for easy sentiment or laughs. Instead, Dempsey gives us a real, complicated human being. The episode's central scene, featuring Grace bonding with her usually absent uncle, is a perfect little piece of theater, with the two actors doing a marvelous job of showing us two people getting to know each other. The way Grace's initial delicacy in interacting with her ill uncle gives way to infectious joy as she and her sister show him old family pictures, and how their rambunctious happiness and laughter ultimately prove to be too much for him, leading him to an "outbreak," just tears at the heart.

19. Cat-in-the-Hat
Another Karen-centric episode, as Leo insinuates himself more into her life. Priceless comedy featuring an exuberant Leo meeting Rick and Lily, and more stellar work from Thompson as she limns the competing pulls of propriety and happy lust that threaten to tear Karen apart.

20. My Brilliant Career
Lily starts her job as an assistant to Christy, the young editor of an on-line literary magazine. The office stuff is solid, with Lily feeling like she's playing den mother to a brood of young, goofy, Internet start-up twenty-somethings, but the real meat of the ep features Grace finally finding out that her father cheated on her mother, just as she's also experiencing her first date and kiss. Whelan is just brilliant here; we can feel the betrayal and hurt as she experiences it. For me there are two moments in this first season that stand out as completely and utterly killing me, just hard-hitting pure moments of real human emotion that take me aback with their truth. One was in episode five when Jessie and Rick discussed the divorce (see above). The dialogue is simple on the page, but the way the actors speak the lines, the way Wood is able to invest so much hope into that simple question, and the way that Campbell makes it clear how much it hurts Rick to say that two-letter word, and how much he knows he's causing real pain to his daughter by saying it, make the scene a wonder of human emotion.

The second takes place in this episode, when at the end Lily tries to comfort Grace and let her know that she can still love her father: (paraphrased)

Grace: Then why couldn't you forgive him?
Lily: I can, and I am, but I can no longer be in love with him.
Grace: (bursting into tears) What if I can't love him anymore?

Let me tell you, I tear up a bit just remembering the scene. Whelan and Ward are brilliant in it, and the absolute truth of it, the real pain and damage they acknowledge; again, anyone who claims the show soft-pedals divorce just isn't watching closely.

21. Letting Go
We revisit Judy's affair with Sam, all the better to highlight Grace's ongoing inability to forgive her father. The parallel stories here, while perhaps a bit obvious, pay off in spades, with the sheer pain Jake has inflicted upon Grace hitting Judy like the proverbial ton of bricks. Hinkle is great at portraying the conflicts within the besotted Judy's sheer need for Sam and her conscious' urging her to do the right thing. There's also a subplot here about Rick having to spend a day in the hospital after coming down with the flu that's effective both in how it moves the plot--Lily realizes just how much this man has come to mean to her--and in the way it acknowledges that the last third if the season almost dropped the Rick and Lily dynamic to focus elsewhere. Another moment worth mentioning involves both Karen and Lily bristling in the confessionals about "another woman" becoming involved with their kids; the irony and hypocrisy is wryly depicted in a moment of great humor as Lily, talking about Tiffany, echoes Karen's earlier indignant sentiments about her (Lily).

22. A Door, About to Open
A nicely ambiguous season finale. Lily and Rick decide to get the four kids together for dinner, Rick's illness having made them realize how much they really have come to love each other, and how some things just shouldn't be put off. Lily's overeagerness, a demanding client of Rick's, and drama involving Grace having to deliver bad news about Eli's new girlfriend cheating on him all conspire to stop the dinner from happening, but in the end the families do meet, the door to the Manning household opening to let Rick, Eli, and Jessie in and the season ending. So befitting for this show, which lets so many things go unresolved, to end on such an ambiguous note.

After re-watching this set, I'm more eager than ever to see the second season again, not having seen it since it's original air date. This was truly one of the great television dramas, and I only wish it hadn't been so prematurely ended. Still, the two and two-third seasons they did produce stand up as easily classic-worthy; as involving; as filled with real, compelling, interesting characters; and as insightful about family as the much-more-lauded (and successful) The Sopranos.

Until Whenever


Roger Owen Green said...

I LOVED Once and Again. I thought Ms. wood was extraordinary, especially in later seasons, and the chemistry between Campbell and ward, which had to be bottled up as they did the day-to-day with family, was incendiary.

Tosy And Cosh said...

Agreed on both counts. Blockbuster still has the second season DVDs listed as "Coming Soon" so I'm still chomping at the bit to start back up with Season 2