Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Partnerships In Transition: Once And Again Season Two

The Good: Excellent acting, nice character development, good balance, Good writing
The Bad: Awkward soap-opera moments, Dramas outside the family
The Basics: While Rick and Lily evolve their relationship, they run into many problems with their children, ex-spouses, and occupations in this realistic drama.

The original concept for Once And Again was a good one; two divorced parents meet, fall in love, and navigate the struggles of blending their families. In the first season of the television drama, Once And Again (first season DVD set is reviewed here!) fell out of balance, in the mid-season shifting abruptly from the new partnership of Lily Manning and Rick Sammler to the end of the partnership between Lily and her husband Jake. Rick falls out of play for much of the latter-half of the first season.

The producers of Once And Again apparently realized this and the second season of the show returns with the partnership of Lily and Rick front and center, evolving naturally through the second season. In fact, the show's best moments focus on Rick and Lily, though Rick's daughter Jessie gets some awesome developments and scenes. Conversely, the season's disappointing aspects come in the form of the larger than life issues that the show suddenly takes on. Allow me to explain.

The second season of Once And Again begins a few months after season one's finale, with Rick and Lily reconnecting following a summer mostly-apart. They take hesitant steps to move as a couple into the lives of their various children and those efforts are balanced with them taking time to be together. As Rick and Lily get closer, Eli becomes more rebellious and he starts a band, Grace finds herself hanging out with social misfits and outcasts, Jessie develops an eating disorder (cleverly alluded to in the first season), and Zoe goes through the usual struggles of a preteen. Lily finds new strength in her new job, though she must deal with sexual harassment and her sister Judy who revamps the bookstore she previously owned.

On the other end, Rick and Miles Drintell begin work on a mammoth development known as Atlantor. Atlantor makes Rick a public figure and the scope of the development puts him under attack by Karen, his ex-wife, who represents many community organizations that object to the Atlantor project.

Unfortunately, as much of the plot becomes consumed with Rick duking it out with Karen and Grace over the Atlantor project, the show gets away from the meat of the concept. Not the Lily/Rick relationship, which becomes deeply intertwined with the Atlantor issues, but rather the concept of a family drama that focuses on the realism of attempting to blend two families. The show takes on an overly dramatic quality at times with Rick and Karen ending up in court a few times, adding something of a fantastic quality to the show.

In stark contrast, the Jessie storyline, wherein her anorexia is exposed and treated, is brilliant for its realism. Once Jessie gets into counseling, the show has numerous scenes that are unlike anything else on television. Jessie talks, the therapist listens, we see a young woman working through problems. Nothing huge or earth-moving, but certainly leaps and bounds for the character.

And this is, ultimately, a show about characters, individuals who do things and grow in different directions. Here is how the second season finds them:

Lily Manning - Reconciled to divorcing Jake and getting on her life with Rick, Lily juggles her love for Rick, her children and her job. Her story is one of standing by her new man through troubles while she confronts difficulties of her own at work,

Rick Sammler - Unwittingly finds himself in the crosshairs of public debate when his project with Miles Drintell becomes a huge development that outrages local advocacy groups. He must deal with reaching out for his potential success and taking it, while dealing with his rebellious son, his adversarial ex-wife and his anorexic daughter. All this while maintaining and growing a relationship with Lily,

Jake Manning - Devoted to the restaurant, he works to be a better father to Grace and Zoe while moving on with his life. That is, until a Giant Plot Moment, which will shatter his life forever,

Karen Sammler - Now befriended to Judy, Karen must wrestle with issues of letting go of both Eli and Jessie. She develops the strength to make decisions completely independent of Rick, with results that radically change the family,

Eli - Suddenly starts a band, falls in with a troubled girl named Carla and rebels against everything as his academic and sports life suffers,

Grace - Befriends a social misfit named Carla, learns to drive, and starts to date a social outcast named Spence. As she spends time with Carla and Eli, she finds herself troubled to realize that her feelings are a lot more confused than she originally suspected,

Jessie - In denial about her parents' never reconciling, she develops an eating disorder. Her story is one of finding herself and growing up,

Zoe - Provides comic relief,

and Judy - No longer with Sam Blue, she befriends Karen and puts her struggle to find love into her bookstore, with brilliant results.

This is, at its best, a family drama with character at its center. The advantage of Once And Again is that its characters are brought to life by an immensely talented cast. One of the ironies of the casting for Once And Again is that it is an adult show that gave rise to Shane West, a teenage heartthrob. Those who moon over West are far too young to "get" this show. Shane West is, however, remarkably talented as Eli and he plays off Billy Campbell brilliantly.

The real winners in the second season of Once And Again are the women. Susanna Thompson evolves her character of Karen from a somewhat monolithic antagonist to Rick in season one into a fully developed, complex, emotive character. Thompson's brilliance is that she manages to make the transformation through her body language, her expressions a softening of her tone, a movement of her eyes. She is brilliant and it is clear the actress is contributing a lot to the character's intricacies.

Julia Whelan, who plays Grace Manning is similarly brilliant. Clearly classically trained, Whelan is a rising star whose talent will take her very far. She plays the average and disaffected young woman perfectly, portraying Grace with something more than what is in the lines and words she delivers. Whelan is brilliant at exploding the potential of Grace with her soulful eyes and passionate deliveries.

The hands-down best performances in the second season of Once And Again are delivered by young actress Evan Rachel Wood. She is brilliant in her character struggles as she - in the course of the season - transforms Jessie from a girl into a young woman. Wood is charismatic, never pushing Jessie from angsty realism into melodrama. She is a pro and her scenes, especially the counseling scenes which have the potential to be gruesomely awkward, radiate with intrigue and nuance that is far beyond anything any other young actor or actress is doing on screen today. She is, frankly, awesome and her performances are worth the price of the boxed set DVD alone!

As for the DVD set, it's nice (a lot thinner than the originally-released Season 1 boxed set). Unfortunately, fans of the series are likely to remain disappointed with the way Buena Vista fails to support this title. One episode has commentary. That's it. No deleted scenes, no behind-the-scenes, nothing. One episode with commentary. Is the commentary good? Yes. Could fans of the show hope for more? Yes.

On the plus side, there is still one more season that could be packed with extras. This is a show that deserves them. A wonderful show for anyone who has been divorced, struggles with relationship issues or anyone who wants to watch talented people act like individuals going through (mostly) realistic struggles in life, love, parenting and/or growing up.

For other dramas focused on families, please check out my reviews of:
Veronica Mars
Freaks And Geeks
Parenthood Season One


For other television program reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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