Sunday, March 18, 2001

TV you can relate to

Struggling 'Once and Again' takes on issues that really mean something to families

        We felt a bit like perverts, peeping through the bathroom window at Sela Ward and her TV daughter in their pajamas.

        But that was the best vantage point for four TV critics who spent a day in January at ABC's Once and Again, the best TV show you're not watching.

        “Go to bed, baby. We'll talk in the morning,” says Lily Manning (Ms. Ward), a divorced single mother, after they share some Victoria's Secret hand lotion.

[photo] Sela Ward (left) plays Lily Manning, and Meredith Deane (center) and Julia Whelan her daughters Zoe and Grace.
(ABC photo)
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        “One more thing,” says 15-year-old Grace (Julia Whelan). “You're a good sister, Mom. I just think you should know that before you go to sleep.”

        Again this week, Once and Again (10 p.m. Wednesday, Channels 9, 2) tackles tough family issues with sensitivity, wit and insight. These divorced families — Lily and her two kids; boyfriend Rick and his two kids; her ex-husband; his ex-wife — are the most realistic families on TV today.

        But Once and Again, filmed in the Century City area of Los Angeles, isn't just for families fractured by divorce. Every parent can relate to Lily and Rick constantly juggling their careers, their kids and their romance.

        Any mother with a teen can relate to the contempt that the brooding Grace shows Mom by rolling her eyes. Any mother will love the bathroom bonding over hand cream in Wednesday's episode about Aaron (Patrick Dempsey), Lily's schizophrenic brother.

        “Lily gets so caught up in her own life, and she completely misses the point that her daughter isn't mad at her. Her daughter just has a lot of stuff going on because she's older,” Ms. Whelan, 15, says about her character.

        It's Grace who first sees that Uncle Aaron isn't doing well.

        “That's one of the things I noticed last year, this odd role-reversal when the parents are misbehaving and how the kids are the responsible ones,” she says. “That's something that's so brilliant with these writers.”
    Fans of Once and Again have started a “save our show” letter campaign for the ABC drama.
    Letters may be sent to Stu Bloomberg, ABC Entertainment co-chairman, 500 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521.
    Two Internets sites also encourage fans to participate in the campaign: and

Focus on parenting

        These writers, of course, are Emmy-winners Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, some of the best in show business. Their Once and Again fits about half-way between the whining young parents of their thirtysomething drama (1987-91) and the rebellious teen-agers on their My So-Called Life (1994-95).

        “When we set out to make this show, we wanted to talk about parenting, and the relationship between parents and children,” says Mr. Herskovitz, 49, who has been divorced. “We couldn't really do that on thirtysomething because the children were too young.”

        On Once and Again, they present a slice of our life each week. Sometimes it's so real that it's uncomfortable to watch. That's why the drama languishes at No. 79 (of 145 series), tied in its second season with canceled Bette.

        Unlike prime-time soap operas, with a crisis before every commercial, Once and Again tells smaller, personal stories.

        Explains Mr. Zwick: “We're trying to give some imitation of life, and there is a great dilemma, which I could describe by saying: "If you make too much ado about little, you appear to be whining. If you make too many things happen, you are reduced to melodrama.' We exist on that razor's edge between those two things.”

Taken from life

        The heart of the show is Ms. Ward, 44, from Sisters and Sprint commercials.She balked at getting involved because she has two young children (6, 2), having waited until 35 to marry.

        “I so understand this woman,” says Ms. Ward, who didn't start acting until 27, on CBS' 1983 Emerald Point N.A.S. soap.

        “I've been through enough relationships — I got married late in life — where I felt like I had been married two or three times. I have lived enough life to really understand all of these circumstances,” says Ms. Ward, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for best drama actress as Lily.

        Hiring Mr. Campbell, 41, best known as The Rocketeer (1991), forced the creators to change their vision for the show.

        “Billy Campbell's emotional availability far exceeds our original intention. We imagined the character being someone emotionally bottled up,” Mr. Herskovitz says.

        The actor's “little boy quality ... brings out the playful side of me,” Ms. Ward says. “I'm a very serious person. I'm very focused about things. And the two of us end up laughing most of the time we're working together.”

Flawed people

        The first season explored Lily's dependency on men through the death of her father and romance with Rick. This year has focused on Rick building the huge Atlantor model city.

        “What's emerged this year has been this colder, more driven, more judgmental side of Rick that Lily didn't see in the beginning, because we rarely see all sides of someone when we fall in love,” Mr. Herskovitzsays.

        “That was an important part from the beginning: That these are flawed people, and being in a relationship means confronting your own flaws, and trying to accept the flaws of another human being. That was very much what we wanted to talk about.”

        As the show pursues the eventual marriage of Lily and Rick, more prickly issues about melding two families could be addressed.

        “I'm hoping the show is a catalyst that gets families talking about things that they hadn't talked about, or had been putting off talking about,” Mr. Campbell says.

Network chief a fan

        If only more people were talking about the show. And watching it.

        “It just drives us crazy that a broader audience hasn't come to this gem. We will not rest until we grow this beyond a "critical darling,' ” ABC Entertainment Co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg told TV critics in January.

        “I do not watch an episode that I just don't sit, and love and can't wait for the next episode,” he says.

        Having a fan like Mr. Bloomberg in charge of renewing ABC series in May should be of some comfort. So should the fact that Once and Again has more viewers this year than The Fugitive, which ranks No. 84 of 145, Gideon's Crossing (No. 85), 3rd Rock from the Sun (No. 89), Two Guys and a Girl (No. 101) and Norm (No. 106).

        Then again, Mr. Bloomberg was a high-ranking executive when ABC canceled thirtysomething and My So-Called Life.

        You never know. As Lily says rubbing Grace's hands: “I worry about everything.”

        Once and Again shouldn't be on the Nielsen's razor edge. There should be a place on TV for a mother and daughter to entwine hands during a midnight heart-to-heart.

        Too bad more people aren't Peeping Toms on their own lives by watching Once and Again. If they tried it once, they'd be back again. And again.

       Contact John Kiesewetter at 768-8519; fax: 768-8330; E-mail:; Cincinnati.Com keyword: Kiesewetter


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