Nothing before like 'Now and Again'

Preview: File `Now and Again' under comedy. No, wait, under drama. Um, make that romance. Better still, mark this bewitching show `all of the above.' And don't miss it.

September 24, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If it seems to you that everything on network television looks and sounds the same, I have a suggestion: Check out the premiere of "Now and Again," one of the stranger but also more intriguing pilots in years.

Forgive me for not being able to describe it in a short, parenthetical bite, but neither CBS nor creator Glenn Gordon Caron ("Moonlighting") seems quite sure what to call the new hourlong series either.

Caron calls it "wiggy and out there." CBS describes it as an "action-comedy-drama-romance about a middle-aged insurance executive who dies a violent death only to discover that his brain has been saved by a government anxious to put it in the body of a 26-year-old man they have manufactured in a laboratory."

So, we're actually talking action-comedy-drama-romance-science fiction. Are we missing any other major genres? Oh, yeah, there's a moment about half-way through that features a government scientist (Dennis Haysbert) breaking into song, offering his version of "Close To You." I guess what we have here is an action-comedy-drama-romance-science fiction-musical.

"Now and Again" is uneven, if not jarring, as it jumps from genre to genre, but this is Caron, a daring storyteller, trying to nudge commercial television in the direction of Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective." In the end, you might feel a little addled, but the ride he takes you on is one you won't confuse with, say, your last viewing of "Diagnosis Murder."

The hour opens in a Tokyo subway train where a terrorist act is about to take place; on the soundtrack the Beatles sing "I am the Egg Man." It is bloody, strange and unsettling.

But, before you can even start to process it, the scene shifts to morning in suburban New York as Michael Wiseman, a middle-aged insurance executive played by John Goodman in a cameo appearance, starts to awake in bed next to his wife, Lisa (Margaret Colin).

The next 15 minutes make the show look like it might be a more traditional family drama, as Michael tries to communicate with his daughter, Heather (Heather Matazarro), at the breakfast table and heads off to his job in Manhattan as a mid-level executive at an insurance company.

But, then, it gets way too dark and deep for any traditional family drama, as Michael gets the news that he's been passed over for the vice president's job he coveted only to see it given to a 27-year-old puffed-up wunderkind (Chad Lowe) whom he trained.

I love the stretch of this hour. The interplay between Michael and his best friend, Roger Singer (Gerrit Graham), touches chords of anxiety and even despair for aging baby boom men in corporate America that prime-time TV never goes near. Capitalism and what it does to those it considers no longer of use are simply not questioned this way in commercial-friendly network TV.

But, again, just as I am settling in, boom, Michael gets hit by a train when he's jostled onto some subway tracks. Listen, I'm not giving anything away here. You need to know this to even start to understand this series, and every preview in every magazine has already described Wiseman's death.

But Wiseman is not technically dead. The government has "saved" his brain to put in the body of a 26-year-old superman built in the lab at a cost of $3 billion.

Haysbert ("Love Field") is the doctor in charge of the experiment. The body that Wiseman's brain is housed in belongs to Eric Close ("The Magnificent Seven" and "Dark Skies"). He is the new, improved Michael Wiseman. There is only one catch to his bio-engineered immortality: He must not contact anyone from his former life, and he misses his wife and daughter dearly.

Haysbert is a knockout as the singing doctor, and the interplay between him and Close is both funny and touching as the new Michael Wiseman struggles with feelings of loneliness and identity confusion.

The hour ends with a million loose ends hanging. The terrorists are still out there, and what have they got to do with Michael Wiseman anyway, you might be wondering. A hint: Think "La Femme Nikita." There's a reason Uncle Sam spent all this money making a superman.

OK, that leaves 999,999 loose ends, but I don't care. I'm sick of neat, boring and predictable TV. "Now and Again" is nothing if not messy television, but I'm bewitched, bothered and a bit bewildered by it.

And I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear Haysbert singing those very lyrics next week.

`Cold Feet'

"Cold Feet," a network described "relationship drama" about three Seattle couples (two married) in their 30s, is the series that replaces "Homicide: Life on the Street" in NBC's Friday night lineup. NBC thinks it is a great match with "Providence," which leads off the night and attracts a huge audience of young women.

I think the network underestimates or, perhaps, simply does not understand the appeal of "Providence," with its promise to young career women that you can return home. Or, maybe, NBC underestimates young women.

(Gee, that would be a shock: A network underestimating its audience.)

"Cold Feet" is all talk, talk, talk about relationships, relationships, relationships. It's like these women only have relationships with men so that they have something to talk about to their women friends.

The big promise here is that "the one" is out there, and once you find that divinely ordained and perfect mate, life makes sense. Please, go listen to a Sinatra record; this is not the way it works. (OK, I'm only kidding about Sinatra.)

Jean Louisa Kelley as Shelley Sullivan, the single woman at the center of tonight's story, is precious enough to make you gag. I liked the relationships on "Homicide" a lot better, like the one between Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and the woman who wanted to have sex with him in a coffin. God, I miss "Homicide."

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