My third spotlight here at Rewind Recaps goes to ABC’s Once & Again, the critically acclaimed blended-family drama that aired from 1999 to 2002. I’ll admit that I didn’t watch O&A when it aired, but between the critical acclaim and a cast that boasts a number of faces familiar to me, I couldn’t help but take a look.
You’ve seen most of these people before, and probably not given them their due. The show is fronted by Sela Ward (CSI: NY) and Billy Campbell (The 4400), but there’s also a much younger Shane West (Nikita) and Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), plus veteran actors Jeffrey Nordling (24), Susanna Thompson (NCIS) and Marin Hinkle (Two and a Half Men). Put them all together in one show, and you have a recipe for something good.
When Ward’s Lily falls for Campbell’s Rick, meshing their two families and dealing with their former spouses presents a whole host of challenges – in addition to the ones already caused by their respective divorces. As we meet both of them, there’s a sense of “Now what?” that anyone who’s ever gotten out of college can identify with (how many of us thought we’d have everything handed to us and then found out differently?). There’s a line where Lily says, “I was supposed to be a happy homemaker; I was supposed to be angry that I was a happy homemaker,” perhaps taking a subtle swipe at the frustrated characters in creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz’ previous series Thirtysomething. Nothing in her life or Rick’s life has turned out the way that they expected.
Everything starts when they catch each other’s eyes in the school parking lot, and then end up meeting cute after Lily’s daughter Grace (Wood) injures herself at her soccer game. Rick just so happens to be there with son Eli (West), who’s in academic trouble. Both these situations also allow us to meet the respective exes: Jake (Nordling) and Karen (Thompson), both of whom aren’t so horrible that they become stereotypical former spouses, but are just off enough that you, too, grow to mildly dislike them within minutes. After all that disentangles itself, Rick fumbles his way through calling Lily and asks her to dinner. While Eli thinks this is a great move on his dad’s behalf, Grace is horrified that her mother is dating before she is.
Although Rick makes the boneheaded move to bring up the moment he told his children about their parents’ decision to separate (why?!), the date goes reasonably well, because they have their first kiss in the parking lot. This leads to a second date and a much heavier make-out session afterward. If this were any other TV show, they’d end up in bed – but because this is not, their flirtation is interrupted by Jake and the kids, all of whom are not thrilled to see Lily in the company of another man they know nothing about.
Jake and Lily have a huge fight that ends up being about his infidelities. Grace, who’s run into Eli at school, realizes he probably doesn’t like her the way her friends think he does; like her, he’s just trying to figure out who’s about to become involved in his life. Lily insists none of it matters because she doubts Rick will ever want to see her again. As it turns out, he does, but she questions whether or not she can continue. She makes the decision to end the relationship over his attempt to reassure her.
As if Rick’s day wasn’t bad enough, Eli fails another test, which puts Rick and Karen at odds over whether or not he can admit that Eli has a learning disability – a rarity for characters on TV, let alone ones that are also attractive and popular. That night, the two finally sit down and talk. At the same time, Lily has to reassure Grace about her body image and self-worth, two things that every young woman has worried about in her lifetime. That crisis is enough to motivate her to call Rick and take a second chance on their fledgling relationship, and as they meet again, that’s where we leave them.
Once & Again endeared itself to me for all the things it could have so easily been, but isn’t. I found myself naming cliches as the episode went on, and content when the show bypassed almost all of them (with the exception of the classic TV “meet cute”). It was refreshing to see Rick be absolutely horrible at asking out Lily, and for the handsome, athletic son to be also afflicted with a learning disability (not to mention seeing Shane West eleven years younger), and for the ex-spouses to not be complete personifications of pure evil. Certainly, I’m not going to argue that Jake Manning is a saint, but it’s nice to be reminded that Lily married him for a reason; likewise, Karen Sammler shows herself to be a concerned mother who appreciates her ex-husband’s love for their kids, if nothing else. It helps when the two are played by actors that are likeable. I’ve found it impossible to hate Jeffrey Nordling in anything not named D3: The Mighty Ducks.
Speaking of disliking, I’ve completely disliked both Sela Ward and Billy Campbell in other roles. Her performance on House and his on The 4400 were both instances where I was cheering when they left. Yet here, I found myself liking both of them. Sure, they’re both neurotic screwups on some level (as are most characters on TV, and most people anyway), but we come to feel that these are either people we know or people we’d like to get to know. That’s another thing: in this day and age of plenty of “single people with horrible personal lives” shows, Lily and Rick aren’t just neurotic for the sake of being neurotic, or afflicted with problems that are cute and TV-friendly. Their concerns are understandable (especially as we listen to their black-and-white interviews) and their problems are real. They are real people, not just a TV depiction of what we think they should be.
That’s where the charm in Once & Again lies. These are people I want to get to know. They’re people I’d hang out with if I could. I forgot sometimes that I was watching a TV show, and felt as if I was listening to real people. That is the definition of outstanding television.