Life: The Cliff Notes

Each fall at least one prime-time television show premieres to the much-hyped anticipation of critics and viewers that it will stand apart from the rest of the lineup and fit into--or, better yet, raise the standards for--that elusive category called "quality television." This season, the burden of those expectations was reserved for ABC's new drama Once and Again, the latest from Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the team best known for redefining television angst with thirtysomething (1987-1991) and My So-Called Life (1994-1995). Once and Again focuses on a pair of forty-something lovers, recently separated Lily Manning (Sela Ward) and recently divorced Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell), who first meet at their children's school. When it premiered in September, the show seemed poised to satisfy both viewers and advertisers by accomplishing the unlikely--combining intelligent writing with a plot that doesn't focus on teenagers or young singles, and still managing to attract a wide audience.

Living up to the hype (and at least in part because of the hype), the series premiere of Once and Again finished ninth in that week's Nielsen ratings and garnered high praise from critics. The show was called "smart and affecting" (The Seattle Times), "sharply written, with a bite" (The New York Times), and, mostintriguingly, "a small story told well," in which "each episode takes a few moments and turns them over and over, the way you might study a gem in your hand." That last description, written by Robert Bianco in USA TODAY, called to mind literary writers such as Jane Austen and John Cheever and Alice Munro, who have studied the small moments of everyday life and made them sparkle, or terrify, or otherwise illuminate our own reality. For television to give that same attention to thedomestic sphere seemed to me a worthy and rare undertaking. After all, much of what television offers us in the way of stories about adults these days focuses on lives lived in a universe of public morality, in which matters of life and death are literally about life and death. Of the hour-longseries that have regularly made the Nielsen top 20 this season, all concern doctors (ER and Providence) or lawyers and police officers (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Judging Amy, Law & Order, JAG), with only one exception, Touched by an Angel, which concerns an even higher power.

In contrast, Once and Again, which has maintained a solid following although it hasn't cracked the top 20 since its first episode, examines life as it is lived at home, where tension and high drama come from emotional interaction, and social significance is harder to recognize. So far, episodes have focused on Lily and Rick's blossoming romance as it bumps up against the complications of children, mortgage payments, career pressures, in-laws, broken washing machines, and, of course, fears of intimacy. The show takes its subject matter seriously and is mercifully free of the violence, gratuitous sex, and one-note sarcasm that pervade so much of today's television. On the surface, there's a lot to like about Once and Again. But so far the show hasn't lived up to what the early reviews made me hope for.

The post-divorce family is a defining element of American life and a familiar feature of the "family values" debate that rages among us. What Once and Again seemed poised to do was add real depth to our understanding of the phenomenon. It is, after all, through the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, and our interpretations of these stories, that we can begin, as individuals, to make sense of the statistics and the theories. And series television presents a unique story-telling opportunity--the chance to show us lives lived over time, to let us see the slow unfolding of emotional layers, the oblique impacts of the surrounding society. But Once and Again goes instead for the tidy emotional summary. We are told that divorce is hard on everyone, that relationships go sour unexpectedly; we are not allowed to do our own grappling with the experiences.

We are, in fact, told things repeatedly. In one episode, when Rick is preoccupied at work and Lily tries to figure out why this upsets her, we are dragged through lengthy psychological explanations of her concerns--the parallels between Rick's dedication to his work and the way her husband put his work first. We also learn from Rick that his work habits stem from his ex-wife's doubts about his ability to be successful (which, of course, killed their marriage). Black-and-white flashbacks of the final days of each marriage complete the picture. When Lily starts to cry at Rick's office, we know it's supposed to be moving, but instead it feels forced. The relentless stream of conclusions already drawn for us has not expanded our understanding of these lives; it has somehow reduced them to a blandly distilled version of themselves.

Instead of asking what's so interesting about these particular people--Lily and Rick and their children and their exes--the writers seem to have asked themselves, What is the meaning of divorce at the end of the twentieth century? The result is oddly generic for a show that's supposed to be so personal. At times the actors do manage to overcome that. When Rick catches a glimpse of his ex-wife through the doorway of their adjoining hotel rooms, or when Lily's daughter realizes her mother is having sex, the looks on their faces speak volumes more than the words they are given to speak. But too many of the show's key moments--particularly the scenes between Lily and Rick--are delivered in a kind of emotional shorthand: woman-eating-ice-cream-out-of-the-pint-container stands for anxiousness.

The show's weaknesses are most apparent in the faux documentary segments, interruptions in which the key characters speak to the camera as if they are being privately interviewed. Herskovitz and Zwick seem to be trying to take the use of the narrative voice-over to a new level. And, indeed, with access to the inner thoughts of so many characters, we could be getting a good feel for the subjectivity in everybody's interpretations of the family dynamics and also for the turns of perception that lead to and escalate family conflict. But that rarely happens here. The show's writers more often proceed as if our opportunity to be inside these people's heads should be enough and thus the visit doesn't have to reveal anything interesting. The triteness of much of what the characters express really started to grate on me in the show's fifth episode, in which Rick's 12-year-old daughter Jessie realized, over a period of days, that her father was never going back to her mother and that his relationship with Lily was in fact pushing him further away. What might have been a moment of quiet significance in the life of this family was instead beaten to death. By the time Jessie spoke directly to the camera, we'd already seen her walking mournfully through the mall, fighting with her parents, standing alone in darkened rooms. So when she began spinning an analogy between growing up and learning to ride a bike without training wheels, I felt my heart sink. We had long ago gotten the point, and the fact that we all utter clich├ęs regularly does not mean we are moved by watching others do so.

The show has been praised by both critics and viewers as being more true to experiences of divorce and parenthood than what is usually on television, and it is. But a show that reflects psychological realities does not necessarily illuminate them. And when Once and Again fails to live up to its own standards--of being insightful, moving, and perceptive--it doesn't become simply entertainment, which might be enough for a smartly written hour of television; it becomes boring, like a Taster's Choice commercial, as The Washington Post aptly put it in a rare negative review.

In the December 7 episode, though, I caught several glimpses of what this show could be, if it weren't so compulsively tidy, and this gave me hope that it still might get there. After an electrical wiring problem filled Lily's house with smoke, her estranged husband Jake spent several days in the house fixing it. As the episode unfolded, we got to watch Lily and Jake watch each other, and a tension developed that made room for us to wonder about the ways in which a shared history both unites and separates people. When the two fell into each other's arms at the end of the episode, it was a culmination of understated moments: their daughter crying quietly after seeing them laugh together, Lily and Jake talking about the children, Lily trying to find out what was wrong with Jake. Alas, the strengths of this episode were undermined by the other subplots with their familiarly heavy-handed messages (kids don't like to see their mother with men who aren't their father; kids grow up and need their mothers less). Which are true, but so what? That's what we all already know. I want to see things I haven't seen before. I want to emerge, as I do from reading a good book, with a slightly changed way of looking at the world. And there's no reason good television can't rise to that challenge.

It is hard to convey moments of significance to an audience in the absence of gunshots or "code blues," and Once and Again, like Zwick and Herskovitz's earlier endeavors, gets closer than most shows. It falls short because it has forgotten (pace Tolstoy) that while happy families are all alike, unhappy families are not. The important truths of the emotional world are located in the infinite varieties of unhappiness that distinguish them.