Nowadays they throw things at you so fast you have to make up your mind before you know if it’s an opportunity or a trap. Y’know, brass rings and hand grenades coming at you 100 miles an hour. A fella has to choose.
—Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell), “Ozymandias 2.0”
People who like the television of Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz really really like it. Ratings-wise, their first three shows—thirtysomething (1987-1991), 1995’s My So-Called Life, and Relativity (1996), a Saturday night nonstarter about two twentysomethings in love—charted a downward spiral, yet each attracted a fervent, money-where-its-mouth-is fan base willing to buy trade ads, grovel and lambaste ABC execs in the cause of renewal.
On the flip side, viewers who dislike the Bedford Falls (as Zwick and Herskovitz named their company) approach can get pretty passionate, too. The exec-producers make their DVD commentary debut on Once and Again: The Complete Second Season, and, listening to their discussion of “Food For Thought,” the sixth episode, I was reminded of Richard Linklater’s “warning” about his follow-up to the polarizing Before Sunrise. If you liked the characters in Sunrise, you’ll really like them in Before Sunset, Linklater said, and if you didn’t like them, you’re gonna hate them nine years on.
Similarly, anyone put off by Once and Again‘s uber-analytical brand of storytelling should steer clear of this set’s lone bonus track, home to the following informative, if arcane, exchange:
Herskovitz: This was perhaps one of the most fractured, in terms of a time signature, of any of the episodes we’ve ever done for a television show.
Zwick: But I think actually what ended up emerging turns out to be a lot like an analytical paradigm, which is to say that it’s a mosaic. And you know, you have little fragments of behavior, little fragments of memory, and what I realized is that, in an attempt to dramatize the family dynamic… the fragmentation actually helped us, because you were able to say, Here is present-time result and behavior, and here is past, more, sort of, causal paradigm.
Memory, emotion, and instinct inform character, and character is everything. Through four ABC series, Zwick and Herskovitz have maintained a laser-like concentration on the little things that grow into huge issues for sensitive folks. In their hands, TV drama—that catch-all descriptor for everything from Lost to Law & Order—becomes personal again.
Miraculously, despite all this “individuality,” the series survived for three seasons. Popular wisdom attributed its relative longevity to high-wattage casting (industry favorite Sela Ward won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Lily Manning), but viewers knew otherwise. The series’ appeal lay in its multi-generational cast. With Once, Zwick and Herskovitz delivered a potent remix of their entire back catalog.
In Season One, divorced Rick (Billy Campbell) met newly separated Lily (Ward) in the carpool lane at school, and they gradually got to know each other’s kids, exes, and extended families. During the second season, Rick and Lily move from awkward dinners with their respective kids to cohabitation and a season-ending wedding. It sounds like soap opera, but Once doesn’t traffic in broad emotions and cliffhangers. Rather, each hour plays as a short story, with focuses shifting from one episode to the next, leaving viewers both satisfied and frustrated.
Lily’s younger sister Judy (Marin Hinkle) and Rick’s ex-wife Karen (the sublime Susanna Thompson) each carries the lead story only a few times. In Episode Two (“BookLovers”), we follow Judy’s attempts to recover from an affair with a married man (“That’s what you do all day long. You don’t call him back”) by re-launching her bookstore as a singles’ meet market. It’s engrossing stuff, but we don’t return to her romantic saga until Episode 10, when she finds herself torn between two men, neither of whom seems “right.” A creative, lonely singleton, Judy is an obvious update on the Melissa character from thirtysomething, but Once‘s technique of breaking the action with black-and-white interview segments grants us more access. “I was always a big believer in romantic fate,” she explains.
At 35, though, fate has a different meaning. I made choices, you know, and one of those choices was time. I used it, and I may run out of it. And I may be alone for the rest of my life because of that choice, my own choice, to believe that what I wanted and what I needed was out there to be found.
Open, wrapped up in her own desires—this is the kind of Bedford Falls character who splits audiences down the middle. Either you see yourself or your best friend in her and feel grateful, or you half-listen and then shut down. You get enough of that needy crap in real life. Whose bright idea was it to sell this as entertainment?
Viewers of the latter persuasion will find affinity with Karen. Equally lonely, but exceedingly uptight, she’s a very hot, very smart control freak. And she’s starting to worry that her rigidity has led to daughter Jessie’s (Evan Rachel Wood) eating disorder. Discussing “Food For Thought,” Herskovitz praises Thompson’s “willingness to show the ways in which [her character] has screwed up her daughter. She has this bravery about revealing those tentacles that have gone from herself into the soul of her daughter and twisted her daughter up.”
Karen and Rick haven’t seen eye-to-eye in years, yet she’s still heartbroken by his marriage to Lily. Both cling to particular vestiges of their relationship. Attending a “couple’s” counseling session with the doctor (Zwick) treating Jessie, they’re told they fight like they’re still married. “People who’ve started new lives don’t have that kind of investment,” he tells them.
Their investment is complicated. They square off in court when Karen (a public interest lawyer) seeks to stop the construction of a huge complex that Rick designed. He thinks she should drop the case in the name of the kids, but Karen stays on, for the same reason. She tells him the huge mall and business campus—a last monument for slippery, obtuse Miles Drentell (David Clennon, bringing his thirtysomething character back for one last gasp)—is wrong for the community, so she has to stick to her guns. Jessie needs to see her mother taking a stand.
For Rick, it ends spectacularly badly. Lured into Miles’ clutches by ambition and age, he single-mindedly pursues an opportunity that “comes along once every 50 years, maybe.” In the process, he ruins his partnership and loses all his clients and his office. “I drive a 14-year-old car,” he says via interview in “Won’t Someone Please Help George Bailey Tonight?” “I rent my apartment. I have $23,000 in the bank, out of which I’m supposed to somehow send two kids to college. I pay alimony and child support and half the mortgage on the house my ex-wife lives in.” And he’s going to finance a second wedding how?
Such real-life problems might not be sexy, or edgy, but they do have heft. For some TV fans, escapism only works when it’s truly the stuff of fantasy fiction, à la Sydney Bristow or Spike the vampire. But for Bedford Falls true believers, recognition is key. Some of us want to see messy, contradictory lives on screen. We find escape enough in knowing that, for this moment, as much as the problems feel familiar, they are not precisely our own.