One more chance for endangered 'Once and Again'

Sunday, March 3, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Saddle up the donkey, Sancho, and sharpen the pencils. We're going tilting at TV windmills.

ABC's "Once and Again," one of television's best and most distinctive series, is in mortal danger and we are compelled to try to rescue it.

We've got company in the quest to keep the drama from cancellation but -- let's face it -- the numbers look bleak: a drop from a first-year average audience of 10.9 million to 6.3 million for this season, its third.

What does that add up to? Faint hope that the delicately etched, achingly intimate drama about families coping with contemporary pressures will survive for a fourth season.

Time slot shuffle

The show's future, according to the producers and ABC, rests on more viewers tuning in when the show returns from a nearly two-month absence to a new night. Beginning Monday, the season's final seven episodes will air at 9 p.m.

Fans have worked hard to drum up support, running costly ads in Hollywood trade papers, sending flowers to ABC executives and keeping Web sites humming with thousands of messages of support.

"I totally fell in love with it" from the start, said Marc Levenson, a Fort Worth, Texas, business owner who orchestrated the fans' ad campaign. "We want viewers, as many as possible, to hear about the show."

What would a newcomer find in "Once and Again?" Not a lawyer show. Not a doctor show. Not an action-filled cop show. No formula at all, in fact, unless you count superb writing and consistently adroit acting.

Guiding the series are Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, class acts both in TV and film. They created the series "thirtysomething" and have produced Oscar-winning movies including "Traffic."

All of this talent is in service of a simple proposition: that the troubles and triumphs of daily life can make for great drama. How's that for classic?

The series revolves around Lily Manning (Sela Ward) and Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell), divorced parents who met, fell in love and married in the course of the series. Their relationship and its effect on their children, ex-spouses and others is the core of the story.

The angst of divorce is seen through the eyes of both adults and children with raw candor. In the first season, Rick tells how ending his first marriage felt as if he were taking a baseball bat to his children.

One viewer, a divorced dad, commented that he found the scene almost unbearably painful. With "Once and Again," there are no immunity challenges for either characters or the audience.

"In this show, we didn't set out to be groundbreaking so much as we set out to be truth-tellers," said Herskovitz, comparing "Once and Again" to his 1987-91 yuppie family drama "thirtysomething."

"There is a way in which, on television, just telling the truth tends to be startling," he said. "Our willingness to have these flawed characters and explore their lives so minutely, without car chases, is still the exception on television."

Real emotions, characters

Campbell compares "Once and Again" to "a series of short stories. Short stories are about small things, about quiet moments ... It's not a big, catchy, flashy show. We're just the tiny little moments that make up family life. It's kind of a developed taste, I guess."

Is it possible viewers in divorce-riddled America avoid the show because it represents too direct a hit on their lives and emotions? Its intensely loyal fans don't think so.

"I've been divorced twice and the idea of finding someone out there can give a person hope," said Levenson.

"My parents divorced when I was 9," said Canadian viewer Christi Nolan, 21, of Hamilton, Ontario. For Nolan, the series is "so realistic ... it pulls you in. It's like real life to me."

The fault, "Once and Again" boosters insist, lies not in the series but in its network.

"Once and Again" has been bumped six times to five different time slots, with Friday the last outpost. With its return Monday, it will be back to the night on which it earned its highest ratings.

Campbell said it would be sad to see "Once and Again" end prematurely. All he and others connected with the show do now, the actor said, is "just wait and see."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: