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STRONG, SENSITIVE WRITING IS THE KEY TO 'ONCE AND AGAIN'S' SUCCESS

In a television year largely controlled by teen-agers with sex on their minds, ABC's "Once and Again" (10 tonight, Channel 7) stands out like a mature adult at a Backstreet Boys concert.

"Once" is a series about bright adults who can feel as awkward as teen-agers when they re-enter the dating scene. And the advice they get from their perpetually single friends isn't much help, either.

It also is filled with smart teen-age children trying to fit in. They want parental advice -- and may even follow it occasionally.

Once and again, the creators of "thirtysomething" have created an intelligent show in which feelings are explored and dissected.

In other words, there is a lot more talk than action in this romantic series.

It focuses on the awkwardness and excitement in an adult romance between a couple loaded with baggage from their first marriages.

Sela Ward is Lily, the beautiful mother of two girls who is feeling scared and just a bit insecure because her rakish husband, Jake (Jeffrey Nordling), left her eight months ago for other young women. Plural.

Her teen-age daughter, Grace (Julia Whelan), is afraid to be alone when Mom goes out and even more afraid that she doesn't have the looks of a skinny WB starlet. She has a 9-year-old sister, Zoe (Meredith Deane), who wants to grow up fast and can't wait to go shopping for bras.

Billy Campbell is Rick, a handsome architect with designs on Lily as soon as their eyes meet across their SUVs when dropping their kids off at school.

Rick has been divorced for three years and has two children, 16-year-old hunk Eli (Shane West) and 12-year-old Jesse (Evan Rachel Wood). Eli, affectionally known as "E," is worried about getting F's in school. Rick's ex-wife feels Rick is a great father, but she also believes E's school problems might be partly due to her ex's lax parental habits.

The pilot is beautifully constructed and stylish.

Each scene is almost equally painful and poignant as the series explores the anger and guilt that often follow divorce and the awkwardness and fears that ensue in subsequent romances. A word isn't even exchanged in the beautiful last scene, when Lily and Rick realize that they have to play out the possibilities.

Lily and Rick talk to the camera in black-and-white sessions to describe their feelings about the mistakes of the past and hope for the future. The plot device isn't an attempt at "Ally McBeal"-ish silly humor, and thankfully it is sparingly used because it could easily become annoying.

The pilot does such a strong job capturing small details that one had to ask co-creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick if it was drawn from either of their lives. Because Herskovitz is credited with writing the teleplay and directing the pilot, the series would appear to have more of his stamp on it than Zwick's.

"I think that's a really good question," said Herskovitz. "What we do is definitely personal. It always has been. But personal doesn't necessarily mean autobiographical. There's a very important distinction for us. The issues of divorce and of relationships have so many different vicissitudes that you don't have to draw upon the particular details of your life.

"Also, I respect very much the privacy of my children, my ex-wife and my friends. I wouldn't in any way portray the details of my life in a way that was recognizable to anyone. I don't think it's necessary. I take the deeper issues of what goes on between people and I cast it in ways that are equivalent."

Zwick hasn't been divorced, but he has a personal perspective as well.

"I am the child of divorce, and that brings a very different parallax view to the experience," he said. "As a writer, I've always discovered the things that are the most important and the most profound never turn out to be personal. They always become universal. It's not about the facts of the thing, it's about the truth of the thing."

The truth is that "Once" is more than just an adult romance.

"It's also subjectively about the experience of love at this moment," said Zwick. "But it's also going to be about parenting teen-age children. And I think that's maybe the fulcrum that draws those two things together. I think that will allow us to do a show that's actually about both. Because in my experience, they can't exist exclusive of one another."

The second episode finds Rick and Lily preparing to sleep together for the first time at practically the same time E is preparing to lose his virginity.

The episode has some back-seat and telephone humor, some heartache, some romance, some hypocrisy and some poignancy. Along the way, it illustrates some of the differences -- and similarities -- between teen-age and adult romance.

As in "thirtysomething," a small moment or situation becomes the focus of the hour. In the end, the audience probably will end up rooting for this pairing to work.

If it fails -- the show, not the romance -- it won't be because of the writing.

Herskovitz and Zwick plan on writing about four episodes and for the rest have put together an A-list writing team of "My So-Called Life" creator Winnie Holzman, "thirtysomething" and "Nothing Sacred" writer Richard Kramer, playwright Michael Weller ("Moonchildren," "Loose Ends"), playwright Donald Margulies ("Collected Stories") and Pamela Grey, who wrote the movie "A Walk on the Moon."

In television -- as in marriage -- nothing is guaranteed. The failure of the superb Herskovitz and Zwick series "My So-Called Life" and "Relativity" illustrate that.

But ABC is trying to nurture the show, placing it in the old "thirtysomething" time slot for several weeks until "NYPD Blue" is ready to reclaim it. After that, "Once and Again" will need a new home. ABC did something similar with "The Practice," which is now a Sunday hit. And the producers seem unconcerned about the scheduling.

"I have a really good feeling about the show's position at the network," said Herskovitz. "I think they're incredibly supportive. If you know our history with ABC, we're always quite vocal when we don't think it's going great. And we think they're being enormously supportive."

May the romance -- and the series -- flourish for years.

Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

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