Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Family Drama At Its Best: Once And Again Season One Succeeds!

The Good: Amazing character work, Great acting, Nice plots
The Bad: Imbalance in the use of cast and characters, No DVD bonus features!
The Basics: Once And Again tells the story of two families that are coming together when their single parents fall in love, and all of the repercussions of that!

Every now and again, a television show comes along that is just plain fabulous and it deserves the acclaim it receives. They are few and far between and at the end of the 1990s, the only one that actually achieved its acclaim and deserved it was arguably NYPD Blue. My favorite, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, never received the praise it deserved and so until Once And Again came along, there was not a show that was both purely great and recognized by the critics that lasted long enough to find its audience (Sports Night, for example dying a horrible death right around the same time Once And Again was on). Once And Again deserved the praise it received and it never deserved the lack of audience it suffered.

Once And Again tells the story of the Sammlers and the Mannings, two families that are marred by divorce and have resulted in two children a piece being raised by two parents separately. Rick Sammler is father to Jessie and Eli, ex-husband to Karen. Lily is in the process of divorcing her cheating husband Jake and takes pride in being the mother of Grace and Zoe. In the pilot episode, Rick and Lily meet and fall in love.

Their love, it seems, is continually complicated by the various factors in their lives. Rick's son Eli has a learning disability and his ex-wife Karen is almost as demanding with Rick as she is with Eli. Jessie faces self-confidence issues and the youthful fantasy of having the whole family she was born into together. But the bulk of the complications come on Lily's side. Lily and Jake are not yet divorced and as the season goes on, Lily has to face that and she does, with an indiscretion with Jake. Their one night fling sickens Lily and taints her relationship with Rick. As the two slowly work back to one another, the divorce with Jake gets ugly over the restaurant Jake and Lily are part owners in. To complicate things more, family crisis after family crisis arises to strain their relationship.

But through it all, there is this love.

At the end of the day, this is a drama about love, how people love and how it works in complicated, modern-day family situations. The coming together of two different families is something that has not been explored well in the film media and Once And Again is pretty much the best exploration of it out there. Why? Such blended families, those where there are children from prior marriages in both adults' life, are complicated and therefore need more than simply ninety minutes to tell the story with all of the variables well. Therefore, to do a story about a blended family, one needs a television series, not just a film.

Once And Again is an adult television show. The adults are dealing with adult problems like love, children, divorce, infidelity, and death. There's nothing childish about the series, though some of the episodes do focus on the problems and perils encountered by the children in their schools and life outside. The episodes are written with a keen insight for the way people interact and live their lives. The dialog in Once And Again is tight and realistic. The people speak more as real people we might know or as people in the situations they find themselves in than individuals in a drama series. And Once And Again is serialized, requiring an adult commitment to the show week after week to build the characters up and progress them forward.

That is not to say that the series is not entertaining. The realism only makes it more entertaining. It fills a void in television that existed before the series came on and has existed since it was canceled. The characters are interesting and they find themselves in difficult situations and how they get themselves out of them are worthy of attention. Part of this is entertainment is created by what I call the "honesty rooms." The characters speak directly to the viewer at different points, articulating their deepest, most honest thoughts. Some of them are desperately painful, like admissions of deep wounds, some are hilarious, such as when Grace notes that "boys are so dumb. It's amazing they survive."

The only real problem with the first season of Once And Again is the imbalance in the show toward Lily's character. As the season goes on, she dominates in a way that almost buries the Rick character. Still, all of the characters are intriguing. The main stories involve:

Lily, who opens the series with an inner strength that causes her to separate from her cheating husband, Jake. Lily falls in love and experiences a rebirth, which empowers her to take charge of her own life, live without fear and strike out against Jake and pursue a new profession all while exploring a relationship with Rick.

Rick Sammler is a somewhat depressed divorcee who comes alive when he meets Lily. He is plagued by his ex-wife Karen and as his personal life gets better and better, he falls into a destructive work relationship with a crazy advertising mogul named Miles Drentell to the detriment of his partnership with fellow architect David, who is perpetually single.

Karen Sammler is a perpetual worrier who wants what's best for Jessie and Eli, but finds her position in their lives threatened by Lily. As a result, she opens up to love again, first to a kind, but dull man, then to a much younger man who challenges her in every way.

Jake Manning is the owner of Phil's, the restaurant founded by Lily's father and now managed by Jake. Stressed by his extramarital affairs and complications with the restaurant, Jake works hard to be a decent father, but usually comes across as a jerk.

Eli Sammler, a basically good young man who comes to sexual maturity in the first season and is forced to prioritize his life when his learning disability makes him choose between doing what he wants and being knocked off the basketball team where he thrives.

Grace Manning, a young woman mired deeply in fear of everything that surrounds her. In the first season, she faces the dissolving of her family and in the process opens up to the consequences of truth and her first love. She's perhaps the most realistic and intriguing character in the series and her process of coming out of her isolation is compelling and wonderful to watch.

While Jessie, Zoe and Lily's sister Judy all have character arcs and growth throughout the season, they are primarily supporting players in the first season of Once And Again. They tend to live in the orbits of the primary characters listed above. At least in the first season.

The acting in Once And Again is magnificent. While Sela Ward won awards for playing Lily, Billy Campbell, who plays Rick is just as good. Both have subtle, emotive performances that traverse the whole range of human emotion. As the series progresses, we see them loving, whimsical, angry, hurt, and impassioned. Add to that, Ward and Campbell have wonderful screen chemistry that makes their relationship believable.

But the real acting winners come in the supporting performances of Susanna Thompson and Julia Whelan. Thompson plays Karen with so much longing and hurt that it is sometimes difficult to watch her. Yet, she is compelling and strong as an actress consistently delivering empathetic performances that are worthy of awards. As her character must face the loss of the potential with her ex-husband, Thompson continues to deepen her performance with subtlety and nuance.

Julia Whelan plays Grace and the actress has a presence to her that is impressive for such a young person. She dominates her scenes as a character that begins as a scared brat and quickly deepens into an individual that has layers of fear that are being pulled back to reveal a confused, vulnerable, intelligent and loving young woman. Whelan is an expert at using her face and body language to portray the changes in confidence Grace undergoes in the first season.

Over three DVDs, the 22 stories of the first year of the Sammlers and Mannings is told wonderfully with realism and compassion and a clear understanding of how humans work. The only real disappointment in the DVD collection is that there are no extras. And this is certainly a show that deserves as much commentary as it has critical acclaim and loyal fans.

While not a perfect show, this is possibly the strongest first season of any television show I've ever seen (right up there with Sports Night), making it a great value in DVD form.

For other family dramas, please check out my reviews of:
Parenthood - Season 1
Gilmore Girls
Six Feet Under


For other television or film reviews, please check out my index pages on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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