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April 12, 2002

Once and never again

One of the great things about the TV show Once and Again is that there isn't much to say about it. The Once and Again message forums at Television Without Pity (the source for everything TV) are full of fans, but they don't do much but talk about the cancellation of the show, a topic that has come up at the end of each of its three seasons, and speculate about what will happen on the next episode. The great ancestor of Once and Again is not to be found in its own medium, but in the monumental works of Anthony Trollope and the great serialized writers of the nineteenth century. For the past three years, Once and Again has provided TV viewers with a sort of drama of manners, a TV show that was not a novel of ideas, but a reflection of your life. It glowed with cozy, warm tones; starred generally—but not always—better looking versions of your own family, friends, pets; even the background music was soothing. Somehow, almost magically, the show managed to make the audience identify with it on a very basic level, while still being addictively watchable.

Once and Again is one of the only network TV dramas centered on the family unit. Unlike the other few television dramas that center around families—The Sopranos and Six Feet Under (which are both, not surprisingly, only available on premium cable stations)—the dysfunctionality of the two families on Once and Again was never portrayed as a postmodern metaphor for some larger void that breeds in suburban air. Rather the show started out as a simple, romantic story of two recently-divorced parents meeting in the after-school pick-up line in an Evanston area school. Early episodes focused on such modern difficulties as having sex in a house full of curious children or SAT-taking. In this way Once and Again was reminiscent of that other great show that left us far too soon, Freaks and Geeks. While the creators of the two shows seem to be coming from opposite sides of a very wide spectrum, there is surprising overlap between the two audiences.

Yes, there is a good chance that if you were a genuine Freaks and Geeks fan, you would have liked Once and Again, but thought you were too cool to try it (of course, if you were a bona fide "I want to make love to Freaks and Geeks, especially the geeks" sort of fan, you already knew that you were hopelessly uncool and there was nothing in the world you could do about it; that, like dear Bill Haverchuck, there was no need to cover up your obsessive love for prime time drama). As in Once and Again, the backbone of Freaks and Geeks was always family; the episodes centered around the brother-sister relationship of Lindsay and Sam Weir, even when it didn't. Unlike other TV shows in which the role of parents is either: a) to die a quick death thereby adding depth to the characters' lives or b) to pop in on their kids having sex, the parent-child scenes in Once and Again and Freaks and Geeks were some of the best moments on the shows, and some of the best moments in TV history. Who can forget the scenes with the incomparable Joe Flaherty as Sam's eager father, Nick's army dad, Neil's sneaky dentist pop, or Bill's sexy mama? These moments find their dramatic rival in some of this past season's encounters between the Once and Again teenagers and their overly hip-looking, but completely oblivious, and in some cases mentally ill, parents. While Freaks and Geeks' biggest tool for communicating with its audience was a humor so familiar you swore you must have thought of it before (but, with great sadness, knew that it took brilliant writers like Judd Aptow and his crew to elucidate those fuzzy thoughts), Once and Again made you cringe with its often devastatingly honest tone. Episodes tried to explain neither the meaning of life nor the meaninglessness of life, but instead left you walking away feeling pleasantly empty—in one case your stomach hollow from laughing so hard, and in the other, feeling emotionally drained, but in a mildly refreshing way.

What makes the cancellation of Once and Again particularly heartbreaking is that it was with this third season that the show really began to shine and suggest its full potential. The performances by the cast members and the guest stars, which have included the amazing Paul Mazursky, Todd Field (writer and director of "In The Bedroom"), Patrick Dempsey ("Can't Buy Me Love"), Ally Sheedy (in a semi-reprise of her Breakfast Club character!), and, this season, Eric Stoltz in an interesting turn, bore absolutely no trace of the hokeyness that may have plagued the show at earlier points. The creators also wised up and cut down on the Real World-style moments of reflection, which would frequently interrupt the narrative.

Noticing that the demographic was beginning to widen, especially during the second season, from just adults to younger folk, the writers began to focus on the Sammler and Manning children themselves, and there were a lot of issues to explore. Maybe I'm just a sucker for young-adult novels, maybe American High is my favorite reality show ever, but I really think the writing got better and the acting tighter than ever. Julia Whelan, as Grace, Sela Ward's daughter, turned in the finest portrayal of female adolescence I have ever seen in a good twelve years of conscious television drama-watching, beating out Kellie Martin's character on Life Goes On and even Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks (whose portrayal is a close second, for what it matters). You better bet that at this year's Emmys, I'll be sitting there with my box of kleenex bawling my eyes out about the cruelty and unfairness of life, just like at this past Academy Awards where I was forced to watch the Oscar for best director be stolen from someone who wasn't even nominated. Whalen's character did things on the show that were so damn authentic. I was cringing so hard that my shoulders actually hurt the next day.

This season ushered in another first for network TV, a homosexual relationship that didn't involve an HIV-positive character or intend to prove anything, and, most importantly, was not about pure sensationalism. If anything, the relationship is about each of them using the other to fill their own insecurities. But what relationship isn't at least partially about that? The relationship between Jesse, Rick's daughter, and Katie, a very pretty girl, was so adorable, so romantic, so high-school-romance (in the way you wish high school romances were, and sometimes are), that the highlight of the past few shows has been their relationship. Like the show itself, the relationship was just that, a relationship between two people and absolutely, positively, nothing else—not a lesson in tolerance, indeed completely devoid of that "after-school special on the nature of acceptance" tone.

The most recent episode focuses on Grace and Jessie, who have definitely had their own awkward relationship (I'm thinking about the episode second season where Jessie stole Grace's lip gloss. I mean, the whole episode was about this tin of lip-gloss. It was absolutely fantastic). The newest moment is as follows: Jessie puts her hand on Grace's shoulder to comfort her because Grace is in love with someone she cannot, and probably should not, have. It's just a moment, but of course the camera spends a few moments lingering on the gesture. The gesture means nothing more than what was there. The camera gazes on the moment, not to suggest what was not there, but to show that what was there was all that there was. In a recent episode the stories of Chekhov played an important role. Sure, it was a boasting reference on the part of the writers, trying to draw a direct connection between Chekhov's work and their own, but it was not without a certain validity. Chekhov's quality of writing, the genius of his sentences, his dialogue, is far beyond the Once and Again script, but the show did inherit the writer's concern for these delicate, daily moments of grace. It's that kind of grace that doesn't touch you in your heart, doesn't change anything at all, but taps you on your right shoulder and says, for that moment, that it's all right, it's real; the pain will probably pass.