Show feels real, up to a point

October 05, 1999|By Susan Reimer

AFTER TWO weeks of tender, funny, greedy foreplay, forty- something divorced parents Lily and Rick had successful sex.

At the conclusion of last Tuesday's episode of "Once and Again," she was babbling happily through the afterglow, and he was kissing her mouth shut for Round 2.

Tonight at 10, ABC will air the third installment of this smart, sleek drama, and I expect that Rick and Lily will be made to pay for their stolen pleasure, either by their needy teen-age kids or their nasty ex-spouses.

Stay tuned, because there are only neat endings in made-for-TV movies. Series television is looking to hook you.

And I'm hooked.

From Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the creators of "thirty- something" and "My So-Called Life," comes the latest installment of generational angst.

"Once and Again" is the story of Lily, who has just recently gotten up the nerve to send her manipulative, womanizing husband packing, and Rick, who has been divorced for three years from his brittle, inflexible wife.

She's terrified and he's adrift when they lock eyes across the school parking lot. Against the backdrop of the domestic chaos whipped up by their teen-age kids -- and the Greek chorus commentary from their cynical sidekicks -- they try to clear a path toward each other.

This is "thirtysomething" all grown up and, like that show, "Once and Again" is not for viewers who don't care what the characters are thinking. This is television for people who like to talk about their therapy.

But it is very good television.

Television can be good for one of two reasons, I think. It is either transporting or it is engaging. "Once and Again," though a disappointment in the meaningful title department, is the latter.

If you can't click on a drama about family life in which everyone eats breakfast out of silver chafing dishes and the mother goes horseback riding in the morning, you might as well watch good-looking people in nicer houses than yours articulate your life better than you are able to do.

The first two episodes had just enough of these little epiphanies to allow us to like Lily and Rick without feeling like the show was a naked rip-off of our lives.

For example, there is the moment when Lily opens her eyes to the morning and you know she is thinking, "Same stuff, different day." The moment in the restaurant when Lily and Rick take out their cell phones and place them on the table next to the salad forks -- their electronic leashes. He asks her, "Do your kids torture you?" That is just the word we use.

And there are others. Rick admits that after you have introduced yourself often enough, what you say sounds like a lie even if it is not. Lily brightens as she describes her pregnancies and the birth of her children. Women never tire of retelling those experiences.

Lily's comment that you can't stay married if you are miserable and Rick's rueful response: "Oh yes you can." His confession that he lived knowing he failed his wife a little more every day.

We can recognize the comfort and safety for Lily in folding towels. We see our husbands in Rick's loving denial of his son's learning disability.

But now that Rick and Lily have broken the sexual tension, I wonder where this show is heading. Will it deteriorate into "thirtysomething" meets "Step by Step?" How like me, a woman, to worry that "Once and Again" won't work -- something Rick touches on when he talks to his son about sex.

"We're worried about the moment and how it is going to go," Rick says. "They worry about the after."

There are some false notes in "Once and Again," and they clang like a bell. Lily acts as if the over-the-top adolescent insecurities of her 14-year-old daughter are a complete surprise. Where has she been, and what magazines has she been reading?

And she tries to talk her daughter Grace out of it by suggesting that she "let fear be your friend." Hell-o-o-o?

Also, Rick's cool, buddy-chat acceptance of his son's decision to have sex in Rick's apartment isn't credible. Somebody want to be the grown-up here?

Perhaps the biggest flaw in "Once and Again" is the notion that there are lean, good-looking, sensitive, '90s-guy architects out there in the land of divorce.

Billy Campbell as Rick is a human lottery ticket. My single-parent girlfriends tell me there is no one out there worth having coffee with, let alone anyone you'd leap into bed with before the end of Episode 2.

But I will be watching tonight, and for Tuesday nights to come, because I want to see Sela Ward as Lily navigate the no-man's land between what is expected of a woman and what she wants for herself.

Whether you are married with children or divorced with children, it is familiar territory.

Pub Date: 10/05/99

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