Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick spent the tail end of the '80s chronicling the lives and loves of "thirtysomething"s. In the mid-90s, they delved into teen angst better than just about anyone before or since with "My So-Called Life." With "Once and Again," the creators once again returned to middle age, and now the second season of their fortysomething drama hits DVD, maintaining the high standard set by the show's freshman year. Too bad nobody watched it when it was actually on TV.
Here's a story of lovely lady, who was bringing of two very lovely girls. Neither of them had hair of gold, neither did their mother. Umm, nobody had curls, either. Here’s a story of a guy named Rick, who was busy with two kids of his own. They were four men, living…no, wait, they were two men and a girl…alright never mind, it's around here that the metaphor breaks down.
Lyric mangling aside, it's at least somewhat apt to describe "Once and Again" as the "Brady Bunch" concept done dramatically rather than comedically, except I can watch a full season of "Once and Again" without swallowing a gun barrel halfway through. The show follows two divorcees, Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell) and Lily Manning (Sela Ward), as they try and balance their maturing romance against the challenges of blending their families, juggling their exes, and managing their careers. Rick is an architect with a rebellious son, Eli (Shane West), and troubled daughter, Jesse (Thirteen's Evan Rachel Wood in a role that garnered her plenty of acclaim), while Lily has her hands full with daughters Grace (Julia Whelan) and Zoe (Meredith Deane). Further complicating matters are the exes: Jake (Jeffrey Nordling) and Karen (Susanna Thompson).
"Once and Again" is one of the best portraits of the complications of modern family life to hit the small screen in years. The first season focused primarily on the difficulties of finding new love, and the challenges of fitting that new relationship into family dynamics still shaken by divorce. By season two, Rick and Lily's relationship has lasted long enough to gain the acceptance, if not the approval, of their children. Now the trick is figuring out how to go about rebuilding the wreckage of their two families into something new. And it's not just the kids they have to worry about, but themselves as well, as Rick and Lily must ask themselves the hard questions: Are we ready for this? Is it too soon? Am I making the same mistakes this time that I did before? Mike and Carol Brady never had to work through the lingering feelings of bitterness, jealousy, and even affection for their exes (feelings that come to forefront in one of the season's finest episodes, "Food for Thought," in which Zwick steps to the other side of the fourth wall for a guest stint as a psychiatrist).
Character is key in a series such as this, and the show's writers continually add nuance and depth to these fractured, flawed characters. Which isn't to say that the writers don't also lob some soap-worthy plot twists our way as things progress. Rick's architectural firm lands the biggest gig of their careers designing a massive multi-building commercial and office complex for an eccentric tycoon, and the project attracts ire and protests from locals who aren't too keen on rich men in suits bulldozing their beloved neighborhood in the name of capitalism. Lily continues working for a woman nearly young enough to be her daughter, with all the marginalization and humiliation that implies. Grace struggles to survive the social war zone of high school, Eli test drives every teen vice from hair dye to illicit rendezvous with his girlfriend, and Jesse dabbles in eating disorders. The season even features a hostage crisis, and it's a credit to the show's honest and skillful writing that what could easily have been a shark-jumping moment is instead wrenching and intense. That honesty carries throughout every moment of the show. The adults don't always have all the answers, they don't always learn from their mistakes, and they don't always find happy endings. All they do, all they can do, is their best. Just like the rest of us.
The explosion of DVD popularity has done wonders for fans of the small screen, allowing collectors to keep full runs of their favorite shows close at hand. Even better, it's given new life to shows that failed to find sufficient audience to survive the harsh realm of network airwaves. Shows that once would have slipped, at best, into the wilds of syndication, or more likely simply never been heard from again, now find new life as lovely shiny disks. "Once and Again" lasted three seasons on ABC and entered the DVD world with a bare-bones 2002 release. Unfortunately, sales didn't meet expectations and it looked like the show's fans would be stuck in the same boat as those of us who've been gazing wistfully at our first-season "Larry Sanders Show" discs with little hope of further releases. It's entirely fitting that a show about a second chance at love would now be given a second chance at success with both this release and the concurrent re-release of the first season set.
Unfortunately, the only extra feature of note is a commentary with Zwick and Herskovitz on the aforementioned episode "Food for Thought." It's a natural fit for a commentary, as the episode is a crucial tipping point for the season, launches a continuing guest stint for Zwick as Dr. Daniel Rosenfeld, and features a complicated structure that ricochets back and forth between the psychiatrist's office and day-to-day activities that echo the conversations on the shrink's couch. It's an insightful and fun listen, with the pair discussing everything from Zwick's acting turn to the fact that the portions of the episode were rewritten when Wood didn't play her scenes with the psychiatrist as antagonistic as the writers initially intended. Zwick and Herskovitz have been working together for years, and it shows in the casual, conversational nature of their commentary, more like a friendly discussion over dinner than the dry, technical screeds that still litter DVDs all too frequently. It's a shame that the pair weren't able or willing to tackle other episodes with further commentaries.
One small gripe is the packaging. The box itself is very sharp-looking, but the disc storage suffers from the same asinine design as the Canadian releases of "Due South." Once removed from the slipcover, the packaging folds out, similar to early Fox releases such as "X-Files," but unlike those sets, discs are placed two to a "page," one atop the other. Consequently you must remove disc two to get to disc one, and so forth. I realize this was done to save space, and I do prefer the single-sided discs this set sports over the dual-sided ones that seem to be coming into vogue now, but I think I'd be willing to sacrifice a little shelf space if I didn't have to yank out extra discs just to get to the one I want.
Still, that's a small frustration, and it's easily overshadowed by the engaging family drama that should be a hit with fans of shows such as "My So-Called Life" or "Gilmore Girls."