Ken Tucker
September 24, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Once and Again

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
run date
Billy Campbell, Sela Ward, David Clennon, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Meredith Deane, Todd Field, Marin Hinkle, Jeffrey Nordling, Susanna Thompson, Steven Weber, Shane West, Julia Whelan, Evan Rachel Wood
guest performer
Eric Stoltz
Todd Field
Bedford Falls Productions

We gave it an A

Any adult who’s had to scribble a hasty permission slip for a forgetful son or daughter just as the school bus is pulling up to the corner, or any young person who’s had to endure the humiliation of watching a newly single parent reenter the hell of dating that the teen knows all too well, will find something to identify with while watching Once and Again, the new TV season’s most instantly engrossing show. A sort of television cross-pollination of John Updike and Judy Blume, with a smile on its face and an ache in its heart, the series is from the creators of thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. The guys have transcended their occasional tendency toward both pretension and sentimentality to come up with a brave, bracing show — one that is, like their previous work, unafraid to make white, middle-class, suburban people look like the infuriating, interesting wrecks they so often can be.

In the case of Once and Again, we get Sisters’ Sela Ward as Lily Manning, a 40ish mother of two who’s been separated from her arrogant lout of a husband (a bravely smirky Jeffrey Nordling) for a mere eight months. She meets Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell), who also has two children but has been divorced for a small eternity: three years. In the opening episode they meet cute — in a school car-pool line, tossing coy glances at each other. With gratifying quickness, they’re soon busy smooching and rearranging each other’s underwear in a succession of charmingly clumsy, what-if-the-kids-catch-us make-out scenes.

Already I’ve heard complaints regarding realism — that they just don’t make ’em as gorgeous as Ward and Campbell in the ‘burbs, and if they did, neither of these two would be single for long. Oh, bushwah: Divorce, Oprah diets, the gym workout as Zen meditation, and the fear of AIDS have combined to populate every nook and cranny of this great land with magnificent specimens of singlehood, terrified equally of hooking up and of being alone. Besides, when wasn’t television about idealized versions of ourselves? Do you think anyone has ever hired a private detective as handsome as James Garner’s Jim Rockford? You think the FBI is crawling with Dana Scullys?

The first two episodes I’ve seen hook you on Lily and Rick’s lurches at romance and the difficulties of planning dates around custody schedules. The show’s writers are particularly adept at quietly rueful exchanges (she: ”You can’t stay married if you’re miserable”; he: ”Oh yeah you can”). The show’s stylistic flourish is to film black-and-white ”interviews”: Ward’s and Campbell’s characters deliver separate monologues that comment on what they were really thinking when they said whatever silly thing they said in the immediately preceding scene. There’s a lot of talking at the camera going on this season, but that’s where Once and Again’s hushed, thoughtful quality distinguishes itself from the rabble — you feel as if you’re inside their heads rather than outside listening to blather.

It is also clear that with this series, Herskovitz and Zwick — H-Z hereafter — are mindful of avoiding the short runs of their previous two series, My So-Called Life and 1996’s Relativity. To this end, they’ve stocked their cast not only with a grown-up capable of entrancing men as well as the nationwide Sisters sisterhood (particularly in her black-and-white close-ups, Ward has never looked more lustrously beguiling) but also with a couple of young actors custom-built to pull in the teen demo.

Shane West, who plays Rick’s son, Eli, was recently profiled in The New York Times as part of a new wave of ripped, mouth-breathing male hussies (the Slack-Jawed Pack?) who are apparently destined to dominate both television and feature films for the foreseeable future. (West will costar in the forthcoming umpteenth classics update, a Cyrano de Bergerac job titled I’ll Be You.) In Once and Again, West’s Eli, or E, as his dad calls him, is struggling to avoid becoming an F — student, that is. A clunkily sincere lug, E has a learning disability about which I’m confident we’ll learn a lot in the coming weeks. (This subplot is another shrewd move by H-Z, tapping into the anxieties of millions of parents who’ve had to turn themselves into instant M.D.’s to understand the quasi-science of their kids’ diagnosed attention deficit disorders.) And Lily’s 14-year-old daughter, Grace, is played by Julia Whelan, who fully conveys the insecure brattiness of adolescence in a way that breaks your heart rather than making you want to strangle her with her book-bag straps.

I’m searching for flaws here, lest I seem too gaga. Rick, who’s an architect, has a leering workplace best friend played by Todd Field, who’s been sporting the same distractingly wussy mustache from at least as far back as the 1993 Ashley Judd movie, Ruby in Paradise, and is well-advised to get out the shaving cream if he wants to be considered likable here.

But really, that’s my only complaint. Once and Again occupies NYPD Blue‘s spot for seven weeks — watch now, I’m beggin’ ya, so maybe ABC will drop one of those damn 20/20s and for once and again we can watch a grown-up drama at a grown-up hour. A

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