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.
Plot and Characters
The premise of Once and Again revolves around the relationships surrounding fortysomethings Rick Sammler and Lily Manning. Rick is a divorced father of two and Lilly is a soon-to-be-divorced mother of two. They meet in the carpool lane of their children’s school and quickly begin dating, causing ripples in the lives of their exes, children, family, friends, and co-workers. While Lily and Rick assume the title of main characters, the show features an ensemble cast where every character is fleshed out and given their own storyline.
Each character could easily merit their own twelve-page paper. While I do not want to make character descriptions too long, I also do not want them to be short and inaccurate. I will describe the main characters’ personal relationships to each other and describe some of the broader dynamics between the characters that take place throughout the series. Lily has two daughters: Grace and Zoe. She also has a sister, Judy, and a brother, Aaron . Rick has a daughter, Jessie, and a son, Eli. Grace and Eli attend the same high school; Jessie joins them in season two. Lily’s ex-husband is Jake, who sees Tiffany throughout the series. Rick’s ex-wife is Karen.
The first season revolves around Lily and Rick dating, while the second and third seasons deal with the coming-together of the two families when Rick and his kids move in with Lily. Let us talk a little bit about the general dynamics of the main characters. Both Rick and Lily have unhealthy relationships with their exes. They have relationship problems, including intimacy and fidelity issues. Grace and Eli are attracted to each other at different times through the series. Grace has Jessie both have self-esteem issues and Eli constantly tries to find his own identity. Zoe is often jealous of Grace. Judy not does care for Rick and being single, is often jealous of Lily’s life. She becomes friends with Karen, much to the dismay of Rick and Lily. Karen goes into a deep depression as she begins to feel that Lily is replacing her when her kids move into Lily’s. Jessie deals with anorexia and her lesbianism at different points in the series. Jake has an on-and-off relationship with Tiffany; Jake cannot commit and Tiffany wants more out of their relationship. Aaron has schizophrenia and lives in a group home; at one point he falls in with a girl who also has a mental illness and the show explores what it is Aaron needs from the family and what is it the family needs from Aaron. The show is obviously a family drama. What sets it apart from other family dramas would be its sense of realism. If one was looking for something similar, their best bet would be to check out the other Herskovitz and Zwick shows talked about earlier (as well as quarterlife, which is the show they did after Once and Again). Their other shows are very good, though I feel that Once and Again is their best work.
Form, Content, and Aesthetics
According to Marshall Herskovitz, Once and Again was “a show about discomfiture.” How do the aesthetics look for a show about awkward embarrassment and disappointment? First off, it is nearly impossible to find a brightly lit, happy scene in Once and Again; most of the scenes take place in dimly lit rooms, where there are always shadows looming. The show also kept a minimalist camera approach to the show; there are no flashy movements of the camera. The camera sets on the characters and stays there, letting the audience focus on and absorb them. This creates a usually dark and voyeuristic mood, which reflects the characters. Voyeurism is an important aspect of the show, both in form and content. With a show that focuses on character versus plot, it is imperative that the audience understands who the characters are and can relate to them. The creators took a very interesting approach to this idea.
The trademark look of the show is the interview segments. Television is a visual medium, making it harder to express a character’s thoughts or internal struggles than if it were a book, where it is much easier to show someone’s internal world. This is often done with voiceovers or narrations, though very few shows do this frequently because constant voiceover tends to be overbearing. While the show is shot in color, black and white interview segments are often sliced in with the real-time action, letting the audience know how a character thinks or feels about something. These interview segments let the audience see inside the characters. These segments are very personal and often confessional.
What these segments do for the audience is let them get inside a character’s head without having to read their dialogue or actions. The show does make the audience read characters’ dialogue and actions, but these interviews let us go even deeper than that. We get to know things that the character would never say or admit in the real-time world. We get to really get inside them. Lily’s sister, Judy, owns a bookstore in the series and there are literary references throughout the series Obviously, the creative team were fans of literature and I think the interview segments were a result of them figuring out how to express the internal world of books onto the television screen.
The other aesthetic element in the show that makes it so voyeuristic is that the show refuses to make judgments about its characters. There are no good guys or bad guys here. Once and Again has the most objective narrative I have ever seen. It does not judge characters or events, it just presents them as is. Some would argue that the show does in fact show both Lilly’s and Rick’s exes in a negative light, however, I do not believe that to be true. Karen does come off as controlling and Jake comes off as irresponsible. But Karen is controlling and Jake is irresponsible; that does not mean they are bad people.
It really is the interview segments and objective narration that make the show. Those aesthetic approaches to characterization work together to create the most realistic characters television has ever produced. It gets so real that characters sometimes admit they do not understand their own motivations or actions. In the episode Booklovers, Lily’s sister, Judy, asks Lily (who works at an on-line magazine) to talk to her boss about writing a story on her bookstore reopening. Lily neglects to do this after she said she would and Judy accuses her of wanting her to fail. Lily denies this, but in an interview segment reveals that she really must want her sister to fail. She does not understand why. Sometimes the audience can see things the characters cannot. In Thieves Like Us, several of the female characters steal a container of body glitter from each other, each admitting in an interview segment that they did not know why they wanted it in the first place. They steal it because it represents youth, beauty and sex appeal to characters that feel old and/or ugly. Without this attention to detail or insight into the characters, an episode about stealing a jar of glitter would not be compelling.
Identity and Ideology
The show looks at the aspects of the new, complicated family paradigm that had taken hold in the years previous to the show’s development: divorce, step-family members, and relationships with exes, Let us now talk a little about the identity of the characters. Every member of the ensemble cast is Caucasian. That being said, how is race handled on the show? In the first season, Grace dated an African American named Jared. His race was not important to her, though she broke up with him for other reasons; that aspect of the relationship was not explored. Other girls made fun of Grave for dating someone outside of her own race, at which point she calls them racists. After Karen’s car accident in season three, she develops feelings for her physical therapist who was African American; she was reluctant to act on them. Eli and Jessie asked her if it was because he was black and she said that it was not. The show ended before they could develop more of their relationship, and more than likely the race issue would have been explored. There are more non-white characters that appear in the series as friends or co-workers, though they are not major characters.
As far as socio-economic background, the majority of the characters are middle-class. Lilly works many different jobs throughout the series, though Jake pays her mortgage; he owns a restaurant. Karen is a public interest attorney and Rick is an architect. Judy owns My Sister’s Bookstore, which she eventually renames Booklovers. The issue of money mostly concerns The Mannings. Lily has a new job every season, either because she is not making enough or because she is let go. Fiscal problems arise when Jake cannot make the mortgage payment because the restaurant is not doing well or when Rick and Lily cancel their wedding because they realize they just cannot afford it. The show represents most of the characters as better-off-than-most, yet they do still have money problems and it is humiliating.
Male gender roles are not quite typical here. In the interview segments everyone, including the males, bare their souls. Being emotional is usually attributed to females. I think the men are viewed in a much more realistic and emotional way than in most television shows. Of course, in real-time scenes all of the men in the series are much more closed-off emotionally than the females.
While thirtysomething caused a stir in the 80’s because of a scene showing two gay men, shirtless, talking in bed, this did not stop them from dealing with gay issues in Once and Again. Once and Again is very gay friendly. In season one, Lily and Judy catch a boy stealing a book from their bookstore. The book he stole was How Do I know If I’m Gay? Lily let the kid keep the book after making him promise he would come back and pay for it. In season three Jessie develops a relationship with classmate Katie, making Once and Again one of the first shows to include a teenage lesbian couple.
I would like to talk about this a little. A quick YouTube search will reveal that the most popular clips of the show involve Jessie and Katie. While it is true that mainstream society has a fascination with lesbians (let alone pretty, young ones) I think that fact that so many people have uploaded, viewed, and made music videos with clips involving these two, shows that this relationship spoke to the audience; perhaps it spoke to other young women questioning their sexuality.
Every work of art is supposed to have a theme; what it is saying overall. I have talked about its darkly lit scenes, its confessional nature and its realistic look at our defeats in life. In these type of character study or slice-of-life works, many would argue that theme is non-existent, but it is the characters we are supposed to analyze. So, does Once and Again say nothing? Does it say that life is nothing more than a string of horrible and anxious moments? Due to its realism, I suppose you would go about finding a theme in Once and Again the same way you would go about finding a theme in life. It might be horrible and hard, but it is also often amazing and wonderful; there is beauty in the struggle. You exist; who are you to ask for more?
Demographics and Demise
Who did find Once and Again compelling? Who watched it? A more important question might be who was able to watch it. Once and Again aired on ABC from September 21, 1999 to April 15, 2002. During its three season run, it had its time slot changed seven times. This made it hard for anyone who wanted to watch the show to actually be able to. The majority of people who watched the show were females in the eighteen to forty-nine age group.
A cult following is usually defined as the small, but very dedicated fan base that an area of popular culture has. Some examples of shows that have cult followings would be Twin Peaks or Veronica Mars. Once and Again has a very small, but very dedicated fanbase. In fact, several fans chipped in and got a billboard begging ABC to keep the show on the air after it was announced the third season would be its last. They also started an on-line campaign asking fans to send in baby wipes to ABC executives in hopes ABC would pick the show up again. Both campaigns was unsuccessful, but illustrates the passion and drive of Once and Again fans
By the beginning of the third season, ABC announced that the show would be cancelled. ABC had told the series’ staff that all the remaining episodes probably would not be produced. They haggled with ABC, claiming they would need at least nineteen episodes to finish the storylines they had started. ABC finally gave in and let them have nineteen episodes in season three, which was three episodes shorter than prior seasons.
ABC was in the process of rebranding itself in 2002 and ended up firing several top executives, trying to steal David Letterman from CBS, as well as canceling many of its best critic-received shows: Once and Again, Thieves, and The Job. The reason for these shows being cancelled was low ratings, as Lisa Schmeiser explains:
ABC’s explanation for killing the cream of the crop is, inevitably, “low ratings” — this was the reason the Zwick-Herskovitz vehicle Once and Again got killed this year despite a near-fanatical following and universal kudos from the critics — which seems to suggest that the network is actually run by five-year-olds hopped up on Pixie Stix; there is no patience for cultivating a show and, by extension, a new demographic, nor is there any evidence of human reasoning beyond the capacity for faulty syllogism: the show isn’t getting ratings, ratings mean a show is good, therefore the show isn’t good.
Towards the end of its run, Once and Again was also shown on Lifetime, as well as its spin-off channel, Real Women. Aside from its US broadcast, it was also shown in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Season one came out ion DVD in 2002, with the second season following in 2005. The third season was scheduled to come out in January of 2006; box and disc art were posted on-line and everything. Season three was never actually released despite several on-line petitions and e-mails from fans sent to Buena Vista. Fans of the series are able to download the third season from a torrent site or purchase a fanamde set from iOffer.com, which is infamous for its selling of unreleased and obscure media. The original fanmade set from iOffer features printed labels and professional DVD menus, which illustrates the quality and dedication of its fandom.
I am drawn to Once and Again for many reasons. As a film student, I find some of the aesthetic approaches used on the show to be completely amazing. I have often wondered about the best way to express the internal world of books onto the big (or small) screen. The interview segments work wonderfully at expressing a character’s thoughts without using boring narrations or interrupting the action. As discussed previously, the way the show shows events without judging characters is something that you rarely see, especially on television. Some find the show boring, but I completely disagree. I think the creators found a way to show real life on screen without it being boring. Aesthetic theory aside, the show is fun to watch. It makes you identify with at least some of the characters and it is always entertaining to see part of yourself on screen. They really created something special here and it is a shame the show is so underappreciated.
Bornemann, Samantha. “Innocence Lost: The Third Wave of Teen Girl Drama.” Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars. Eds. Thomas, Rob and Wlson, Leah. Texas: BenBella Books, 2006. 185-193. Print.
Johnson, Steven. “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter.” NY. Riverhead Books. 2005. 65-72. Print.
Mittell, Jason. “Television and American Culture.” NY. Oxford University Press. 2010. 230. Print.
Schmeiser, Lisa. “ABC: The Law of Unintended Consequences.” [Weblog entry.] TeeVee. 22 May 2002. (http://www.teevee.net/2002/05/abc-the-law-of-unintended-consequences.html). 18 Nov. 2010.