ONCE AND AGAINComplications Ensue
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Thursday, April 20, 2006

On my friend Shelley's recommendation, we rented Once and Again, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick's 1999 series. Very charming pilot. Adorable characters, cleverly written. We get the characters' thoughts through black and white interviews that intercut with and counterpoint the scenes. We wondered instantly where the writers could possibly take the series since the pilot is essentially your basic romantic comedy, and by the end of it, the two adorable people are dating.

Shelley says the series broadens out into the lives of the secondary characters. Not surprised there, because how far can you go with "will they or won't they" if the show is actually about "will they or won't they"? (You can go for a long time if the show is about "will they solve the mystery" or "kooky characters populate a sports bar". That is, incidentally, why you don't want any of your episodes to directly be about the central question of the series, since if you resolve it, the series is done, and if you don't, the episode is unresolved.)

Well, we're certainly going to keep checking this series out...

TWO DAYS LATER: We found it hard to sit through the second episode, which seemed to be about how hard it is for two divorced 40-year-olds with kids to manage dating. Maybe it's because I haven't dated in 15 years, but I had trouble believing it could be that hard. I mean, just tell your kids that mommy's dating and if they don't want mommy to interfere in their dating life when they finally have one, they better be cool about mommy getting some.

But hey, that's me. I've had relationships, I've been married twice, but I never did much dating. If you were going to make a series about me, it wouldn't be about dating.

I guess if you're doing a romantic comedy series, you have to create obstacles, and that means you have to make the characters not that good at getting together. Which, considering they each have their kids only half the time, ought not to be all that hard. You're forced to make the characters a little extra neurotic just so they won't become a happy couple right away and end your series. (In a movie, the end of the pilot would be the end of the movie. You'd just assume they live happily ever after.) So when the guy calls the woman's house, he's actually dumb enough to leave a message with her 11 year old daughter, even though any parent would know the reliability of that message getting through is poor. And they can't find a place to have sex, though they both drive large SUV's. And the guy takes the woman to his favorite dinner place so of course they run into the other woman he's been dating, who he hasn't cut it off with yet. And so on. The stories are cute but they feel like stories that should star twenty-year-olds; 40-year-olds ought to know better.

That's one of the perils of TV being a young writer's game. So many shows about grown-ups feel like they're written about teenagers with adult jobs. Gray's Anatomy is, as someone cleverly pointed out, a high school show set at a hospital. On The O.C., the high school stories are far more convincing than the parent stories.

But on the other other hand, if your characters don't do dumb things, it's hard to come up with stories that can be resolved within the hour. So maybe it's a function of the form.



"You're forced to make the characters a little extra neurotic just so they won't become a happy couple right away and end your series."

I don't know if you've watched the New Adventures of the Old Christine? Staring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It has a great premise - a divorced woman in her 30s shares custody with her ex and they have a pretty good parenting relationship until he starts dating a younger woman with the same name. It's pretty clear that in 4 or 5 years, the lead character could end up back with her ex. However, it can take that long because the creators have put up such enormous obstacles - one divorce behind them and a young girlfriend. So the writers don't have to resort to making the characters extra neurotic to stretch the storyline. (Though the characters are definitely neurotic.)

By Blogger Christina, at 11:01 AM  

I'm telling you, if you give up at the second episode, you'll be missing out on some of the most wonderfully subtle drama on tv. That first season really hits its stride a little before the halfway mark (around the Thanksgiving episode). By that point, you'll realize that the show is most definitely not about "will they or won't they". It's more about "how will they".

Also, the show becomes less cute and far more melancholy as it goes on.

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:01 PM  

I have to agree with the host - ONCE AND AGAIN is about "How are we going to make this work?" more than anything else.

By Blogger Cunningham, at 12:08 PM  

Once and Again is on my all time top-five/ten series ever. Although the first few episodes are about the "dance" between Lily and Rick it quickly expands to deal with the dynamics of both families at all levels. If you don't at least let yourself get to Lily and her father, you're really cheating yourself of some incredible television. Too bad only the first season is available on DVD.

By Blogger Chris, at 2:28 PM  

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