Once and Again: No Buts About It
The premises of most television shows contain “buts”: plot devices that place the main characters in a situation that seems extraordinary or contradictory to his or her character. These buts are used as hooks to gain an audience: he works for the police, but he is a serial killer; she is a loving mother, but she sells drugs. Once and Again is a show without buts; there is no hook. It shows how everyday situations are extraordinary for those living through them. Instead of focusing on plot it focuses on the characters: their identities, their relationships, their triumphs and tribulations. With Once and Again there are no monsters to slay except the ones that the characters carry with them, inside themselves. They have no means or ability to save the world, though some do try to sort out their own lives, which may be more difficult.
Before we can talk about the show, we need to discuss the genesis of the show. To do this, we need to talk about the background of the creators as well as the genesis of a different show. Fresh out of film school and having worked on the drama Family, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick were offered a chance to create a television show. These two film grads agreed, but secretly hoped for the failure of their show, as they wanted to concentrate on making movies.
Their show was called thirtysomething. It followed the lives of several thirtysomethings in the 1980s. thirtysomething was character based; it focused on the personal and professional lives of its baby boomer characters. The show helped revolutionize television by being one of the first primetime shows to include multiple storylines going on within a single episode. It was also one of the first primetime shows utilizing the episodic serial format. This means that while individual problems may be resolved at the end of an episode, there are plot points and references that extend throughout several episodes or seasons. Both of those aspects of the show were almost unheard of at the time.
While Herskovitz and Zwick did become eventually make it big in the film industry, for the sake of this paper we will only talk about their television series. After the success of thirtysomething they were involved with My So-Called Life (1994), which chronicles the life of fifteen-year-old Angela Chase. My So-Called Life was critically acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of teenage life. According to Samantha Bornemann, Angela brought about the first wave of teen girl drama (the second and third waves belong to Buffy Summers and Veronica Mars, respectively). In 1996 they worked on a series called Relativity (1996), which was about a twentysomething couple that meet in Italy and then continue dating back in the States.
Both Herskovitz and Zwick held several different positions on all the shows they worked on: producing, writing, directing. The background of these two is important here because it is important to understand that the aesthetics used in Once and Again did not start there. Most of the analysis of Once and Again can be applied in a more diluted way to their other series, most notably thirtysomething (Once and Again has often been affectionately referred to by fans as fortysomething). With thirtysomething, Herskovitz and Zwick were trying out a new television aesthetic. By the time they did Once and Again they had perfected it.