Pitched last September with the fanfare that characterizes “quality television” and debuting in NYPD Blue‘s hallowed Tuesday night spot, Once and Again is a huge critical hit but may be on the network skids. And even though its Nielsens have faltered in the last few months (ABC pulled the show for part of the crucial February sweeps), the show ranked highly in year-end best-of lists and commands McCain-like adoration by the mainstream media. The platitudes abound: Sela Ward represents a triumph of older non-waif actresses; the show investigates “mature” relationships in a “mature” way; Once and Again is a sanctuary for 40somethings. Some gestalt media gurus even suggest that the reason the show is so popular is that the generation weaned on the smiley-face marriage of the Bradys is now divorced and flocks to the show to remind themselves that they can love again in the barren tundra of American romance at the end of the 20th century.
What’s all the hype about?
Once and Again centers around the romantic ups and downs of pair of 40somethings the man divorced, the woman about to be and the interrelationships between them as they fall in love, break up, and learn to trust each other once again (“once and again,” geddit?). Gorgeous (I mean, really) Lily Manning (Sela Ward), until recently the co-owner of a small bookstore, has begun formal divorce proceedings against her husband Jake (Jeffrey Nordling), the manager of a restaurant owned by Lily’s father (Paul Mazursky). Lily has two kids, Grace (Julia Whelan) an awkward high schooler who until her recent first kiss with a black schoolmate had a huge crush on Lily’s boyfriend Rick’s son and Zok (Meredith Deane) a spunky primary schooler who asks the questions the parents are supposed to ask and has the answers too. Such is the role of the children on the show; they are infinitely wiser and more poised than their bumbling parents. Hunky Rick Sammler (played by Bill Campbell, chiseled and Rocketeer-ing in all the right places) is a three-years-divorced architect with two children: Eli (Shane West) a high school athlete with dyslexia who has trouble keeping it in his pants and Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood), the hands-down delight of the show who is so in love with her daddy that it would give Electra pause.
Rick’s ex-wife, Karen (Susanna Thompson) is a professional woman who dates dorks (one is named Lloyd Lloyd) who convince her that she is perfect and deserving of their adoration. Even though she thinks that’s nice, Karen’s a bit bored and would rather sleep with a young medical consultant. Unfortunately, the show has recently dropped both nudity and sex, which were, let’s face it, one of the main reasons I tuned in. After treating us to semi-nudity during the first few episodes, as Lily aaaaaagonized over displaying her perfect body to her new lover, the closest we’ve got to booty lately is Paul Mazursky in his hospital robe. This from the network that routinely gives us precious glimpses of Ricky Schroeder’s silver spooning-worthy derriere on NYPD Blue.
There’s no shortage of narrative doppelgangers, though. The doubling between children and adults abound. Lily and Rick begin dating, but the gossip mill in high school has their children hooking up. Rick tells his son to wait before having sex, but is impatient to get it on with Lily. Lily’s father admits his dalliances, but suggests that she try and keep her marriage together. Eli is tempted to cheat on his girlfriend while his mother is attracted to someone whose not her boyfriend. I’m hoping against hope that the show will take a Todd Solondz turn. After all, Karen and Eli would make the best looking couple on the show so what if they’re mother and son? Hell, the big mouse who runs ABC would never allow it.
As its name implies, Once and Again is about the difference and repetition that characterizes both visual popular culture as well as its pleasures. As media audiences, we thrill in novelty while welcoming the warmth of the familiar. Certainly, the narrative play of coincidence and tradition is a well worn formula that’s lingua franca with genre film professionals. However, television serials represent the pinnacle in media invocations of difference and repetition. From week to week, familiarity characterizes our identification with the characters and structures our engagement with them, while novelty signals our pleasure in the unexpected.
Part of the show’s novelty has to do with its format, which is your basic prime-time drama narrative punctuated by “unedited” verite-style black and white “interviews” with the characters. The characters are positioned on the side of the screen (rarely are the characters presented head on), and the empty space left in the frame allows viewers to position themselves as therapist. The pedagogic mode of address and its therapeutic imperative is clear: it situates us in relation to the characters’ trauma and their frustrating inability to talk coherently about it. Not surprisingly, aphorism is the preferred speech genre here. But the empty space is crucial, as it invites us to sit in as confidants, it also flattens out our potentially divergent responses. Television is full of such astounding forms of back and forth difference and repetition, again (!) that address us as both individuated viewers and constitute the logic of our homogeneity as an “audience.”
The producers of the show know a thing or two about building audiences. Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick also collaborated on the hideously popular yuppie melodrama, Thirtysomething and have formed a production unit called “The Bedford Falls Company” (named for Jimmy Stewart’s hometown in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, as if that doesn’t give it all away). Bedford Falls has also recently put out My So-Called Life and Relativity and the two producers share production credit on Shakespeare in Love. Zwick has also directed a number of other films, including About Last Night, Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire and 1998’s The Siege, which is one of the most interesting and troubling films of the last few years, Arab anti-defamation notwithstanding. Herskovitz, who claims that his divorce from Thirtysomething writer Susan Shiliday inflects the show (their children are about the same age as Grace and Jessie), will be visiting Israel for the first time as Bedford Falls develops a mini-series for ABC about post-War Jewish refugees who suffered British repatriation and internment in German camps. The producers’ combined efforts makes for an extended elaboration of forms of belonging (adolescence, race, ethnicity, community and religion). Indeed, Herskovitz and Zwick seem compelled to repeat the structuring parables of assimilation that constitute the intertext which links their disparate film and television projects together.
It’s much more about subtext in the show, however. Although a significant part of the fabric of Thirtysomething, Jewishness on Once and Again has been slow in its development (the last episode took us through the Jewish period of mourning after Lily’s dad died). Lily herself is the product of a Jewish/Gentile marriage, and Herskovitz claims in an interview that the Mannings “are so assimilated that they have almost forgotten they are Jewish.” Indeed, the show’s rhetoric is indicative of a multicultural 1990s’ network landscape, especially where white/black romance is concerned. The networks likely spurred by the NAACP’s campaigning for more industry “diversity” seem to have taken a cue from Will Smith’s best punchline from Enemy of the State. When Smith, whose stardom is the paragon of assimilationism, is asked how he uses his favorite kitchen implement to relax, Smith replies, “I blend.” And blend he does. Everywhere and through everything. Just as blend-worthy is the recent interracial kiss on Once and Again, when Grace kisses a fair-skinned black schoolmate after an agonizing prelude. Now, if the show’s interested in reconciling blackness and Jewishness, we’d have a network TV version of Independence Day on our hands. The apocalyptic tenor hits the mark: as the Atlanta Journal put it a few days ago, “You don’t just watch an episode of Once and Again, you survive it.” And if it takes the end of the world to bring together blacks and Jews, which UC Berkeley’s Michael Rogin suggests is at the narrative heart of Independence Day (Will Smith, again), we’ve got yet another doozy of an assimilationist intertext with the producers’ other projects. Hey, ain’t blending fun?
What’s less fun is Lily’s perpetual angst. Cast as a woman emerging from her husband’s shadow, Ward has the melodramatic vocabulary of gestures down pat (rolling her eyes, shrugging her shoulders, mouth hanging open in incredulity etc.). And she gets to use it. A lot. Lily is one of those ubiquitous female TV characters who tries to get ahead only to have the winds of narrative fate punish her for it (she hauls ass to get a job, she finds out it’s a paper-pusher position; she stands up to her dad, he has a stroke the next day). As an actor, Sela Ward has suffered through her own professional hardships, but she’s not letting that stop her. After her six-year run on Sisters (which earned her an Emmy in 1994), she’s now the darling of magazines like In Style and Entertainment Weekly. Newsweek recently called her “the Ava Gardner of the nineties.” She’s replaced Candace Bergen as Sprint’s pitch-woman and “model mom” (literally), just as her commercials for Sprint’s “Nickel Nights” supplant the old “dime a minute” ads (hey, the economy is good!). While company marketing executives claim that “Sprint has always had more of a female voice,” acquiring just the right “female voice” has little to do with gender. Ward lives in her native Mississippi, on an idyllic farm where she rejoices in the fact that can safely (and secretly) engage the drawl that modeling companies once gave her voice lessons to get rid of. She has a Lifetime documentary project The Changing Face of Beauty which is airing later this year (Lifetime also has a repurposing deal with ABC that allows it to run Once and Again reruns shortly after original air dates). The discourse of graceful aging has become a significant part of her marketing moxy. She loves telling the story of how she was turned down as a Bond girl in 1996, after the film director reportedly said, “What we want is Sela Ward 10 years ago.” Once and Again is her retribution and revenge.
Billy Campbell was on Dynasty for a while and dated Jennifer Connelly. Rock-a-who?
Last year, audiences ruled in favor of CBS’ Judging Amy, which routinely sent Once and Again packing to a ratings netherworld. After Monday Night Football ended after the season, ABC rescheduled Once and Again, only to have it severely challenged by CBS’ Family Law. That doesn’t mean the network has given up. The ABC website (www.abc.com) has a number of resources that reflect its commitment to the new requirements of Internet/TV convergence: a bustling message board; a place to enter “your stories” (either to share with others, or to help ABC in locating burgeoning divorcees for possible scriptwriting jobs?); and episode guides and actor bios. In addition, the network is committed to reaching out to “older” Americans (hence its fight-to-the-death with Angela Landsbury’s flagship network, CBS) via a familial imperative. ABC’s Once and Again website also have a number of advice articles, including “Dating After Divorce” and “Bringing Up Kids Alone.” Seems as if we’ve got forms of ideological convergence going on here as well: Once and Again‘s therapeutic pedagogy, the websites self-help hyperlinks, the producers’ mantras that engage forms of community belonging, Sela’s omnipresent phone ads that remind us of the centrality of family. What’s happening in the networks’ clamor for familial strategies of brand differentiation (which is also about the play of sameness and novelty) is nothing less than an assimilationist revolution. And the revolution is being televised.
We’ll close by cueing up the verite-aphorism-cam: “Don’t get me wrong. I love the show, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I have to like it. Being able to embrace that contradiction is what TV viewing (and family, come to think of it) is all about, right? Exceptionalism and banality, difference and repetition.” Fade to Sela’s Sprint commercial.