In a television season that seems devoted to exploiting the baser instincts of teen-age boys, the subject matter alone of "Once and Again" makes it worthy of celebration: the emotional lives of two single parents in their 40s trying to re-invent themselves as a couple after the breakup of their respective marriages.
Previewing new series with titles such as "Shasta McNasty" and "The Mike O'Malley Show," I feared I might never again be able to type the phrase "quality, adult television."
And then came ABC's "Once and Again," from creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick ("thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life," "Shakespeare in Love"). Thank you, thank you, thank you, guys.
Yes, it's talky and a little pretentious in presenting interior monologue. True, this is the same kind of suburban yuppie angst that made some viewers want to scream when the characters of "thirtysomething" opened their mouths. Go ahead and mockingly call it "Love Among the Soccer Moms and Dads," if it makes you feel better.
But this is one of the few new series that attempts to intelligently explore our lives rather than shamelessly exploit our children. "Once and Again" is wise and winning television for grown-ups.
The couple at the center of the drama is Lily Manning (Sela Ward) and Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell). Lily has two daughters -- Grace (Julia Whelan), 14, and Zoe (Meredith Deane), who's 9. Rick has a son and a daughter -- 16-year-old Eli (Shane West) and 12-year-old Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood).
The hour opens with both parents waking up in their spouseless beds and getting the kids off to school. As they go about their morning tasks, Herskovitz, who wrote and directed the pilot, cuts back and forth from color to black-and-white to take us inside their heads.
"I guess I always had a map for my life -- where I was supposed to be headed. And now it's like I've walked off it entirely. It's weird," Rick says, talking to the camera, which is photographing him in a black-and-white, documentary-style close-up.
"By the time you get divorced, there's almost some relief in accepting that you've failed," he continues. "You're worthless. You've destroyed your kids' lives. Yet, there they are. You know, they still need you. You have to move on."
And, then, we go inside Lily's head as she says, "So, here I am -- only I don't know where here is. I was supposed to be a happy homemaker. I was supposed to be angry that I was a happy homemaker. I saw the whole picture. I wasn't doing enough with my life.
"But secretly I was happy that I wasn't doing enough, because I was safe. Look at me. Other people seem safe. I look at their faces, and I know that was once my face."
There is nothing safe about the relationship between the two that begins when their eyes meet across a crowded school parking lot as they're dropping off kids. The magic of the hour is the way Herskovitz manages to remind us how dangerous and wonderful life seems when you go with your heart even as your head argues against it.
As you watch, you remember what it felt like to be 16 and madly in love. The filmmakers' gift to us is the promise that as long as you're alive, you might still be able to experience it again.
This is a series with many gifts. One of the nicest is the sensitive depiction of teen life. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised given what the producers did with "My So-Called Life," but what a wonderful job they do of suggesting how scary and hard it can be to be a teen-ager.
Eli is a stud jock, but he has a learning disability. You can't help but share his pain as he talks about his fear of being called "stupid." Grace, meanwhile, breaks your heart when she talks about her weight, what she thinks of as her plain looks and her near-invisibility at school. Whelan might just be the next Claire Danes, which is reason enough for me to become a weekly viewer.
"Once and Again" treats both parents and teens with respect. It has great writing and real chemistry among the lead characters. That makes it twice a blessing in this near-bankrupt season of new network shows.
Other new series opening tonight:
'The Mike O'Malley Show'
When: 9: 30 to 10 tonight
Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)
"The Mike O'Malley Show" is a sitcom in search of a reason for being. NBC signed O'Malley and then clearly had no idea what to do with the guy. The result is a sitcom about a 30-year-old guy living with a male roommate called Weasel, talking about sports and women all day, when he isn't hitting golf balls.
OK, in fairness, producer Les Firestein says, "This is a show about a 'guy's guy' trying to become a better man."
OK, enough fairness; now let me say again, this show is awful.
Tonight, Mike starts to re-evaluate his life after his best friend gets married. The problem: There's nothing to re-evaluate. He has no life. The only way they could make this show almost interesting is if Mike marries Weasel.
When: 9 to 9: 30 tonight
Where: WB (WNUV, Channel 54)
Does prime time need another animated series? The WB network thinks so and gives us "Mission Hill," which it describes as a "satire of youth culture."
The premise: The hip world of Andy French, a wannabe cartoonist in his 20s, is disrupted when his geeky teen-age brother comes to live with him and his roommates.
It is hard to judge the series, since WB sent critics two scripts instead of a finished pilot. The network blames "the time constraints involved in producing an animated series" for the lack of a pilot. I say give it the benefit of the doubt, though no pilot usually means a troubled project.
The voices are by Vicki Lewis ("NewsRadio") and Wallace Langham ("The Larry Sanders Show"). The producers are Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who have won Emmy and Peabody Awards for their work on "The Simpsons."
What: "Once and Again"
When: 10 to 11 tonight
Where: ABC (WMAR, Channel 2)
Pub Date: 9/21/99