Amidst the backdrop of ugly, offensive, stupid noise that network television has taken up as its standard in recent years, Once and Again plays out with the brilliance and sophistication of a great jazz ensemble. If it is a normal function of abject mediocrity that produces the average situation comedy or tired, unremarkable drama, then what might result if the most gifted creative forces from the various disciplines of television writing, production, directing, and acting were to converge on a single project? How good could TV be if the right people were involved from the outset and, maybe, got a little bit lucky on top of it? Once and Again suggests an answer.
This was an hour-long drama that lasted three seasons and aired on ABC from fall 1999 to spring 2002. Its careful, measured pace follows a similar timespan in the lives of two Chicago-area families splintered by divorce. Sela Ward stars as Elizabeth "Lily" Brooks Manning, who is separated from her husband Jake (Jeffrey Nordling) and now lives in the family house with their daughters, Grace (Julia Whelan) and Zoey (Meredith Deane). Billy Campbell co-stars as Rick Sammler, an moderately successful architect with his own firm (more or less) and a three-year-old divorce from Karen (Susanna Thompson), mother of Eli (Shane West) and Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood). The essential development of the series is that Rick and Lily meet, begin dating and somehow, over the course of two and a half years, manage to hammer out what they have into a hybridized, modern American family, a kind of Brady Bunch for the new millennium. Spinning around them are numerous peripheral characters, among whom notables include Lily's perpetually single sister Judy Brooks (Marin Hinkle), Rick's long-time fried Sam Blue (Steven Weber), Jake's on-again off-again girlfriend Tiffany Porter(Ever Carradine), and Lily's mother Barbara (Bonnie Bartlett).
To read a description such as the one above is to be supplied with most of the essential facts but to miss out on everything that's really worth knowing about the series. For example, it's probably more useful to mention that, of the actors listed, each and every one delivers a stellar, pitch-perfect performance that humiliates most of the actors who usually snap up the Emmys. No other television show I've seen has been populated with characters so solidly embodied by the actors who portrayed them, that at the end of a season, I felt as if I'd spent a year living with them instead of watching them on TV. It's amazing to observe how vivid and multidimensional they are, as if they have mass, heat up the air around them, and will continue to go on living their lives every day, whether the cameras are rolling or not. When you wake up in the morning and realize that you're worrying about Judy or Eli, you know it's not TV as usual.
Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz may not have built a ratings giant that would go on for too many seasons and make them billionaires, but they did something that, in my estimation, is far more noteworthy; they created a polished, masterful production where the soundtrack, color palettes, and careful, patient camera work consistently generate a viable space for their characters to live and breathe, a space that doubles as a stage with a great view from the bleachers. For example, much has been made of the black-and-white scenes, in just about every episode, which typically feature one character speaking frankly, at the camera, as if to an unseen psychotherapist. These scenes work not despite the artistic pretention of the black and white, but because of it. Executed with a suprising blend of restraint, humor, sensivity and wit, they give us these well-timed, cogent, honest glimpses at characters expressing -- at times struggling to express -- their private thoughts to another, one who sees and will judge but cannot act out. Sometimes the lines separating these realms would break down, as in the episode "Food for Thought," in which Zwick began a guest stint as Dr. Daniel Rosenfeld, a therapist counselling Jessie, first about her eating disorder then, later, about other things. I like to imagine how Zwick must have felt, sitting in that chair, facing Jessie Sammler, talking with her, because after Season Two, you feel like you know Jessie and her world, and the people who inhabit it.