I do not know if I can take another television series created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. When they came out with "thirtysomething" in 1987 it was like watching our lives on TV. I can still remember all the married couples that talked about how they recognized themselves in the myriad machinations of Michael, Hope and the gang. Then in 1999 they came back with "Once and Again," and all I can is that I hate to think what would have happened if I was not already where the characters ended up in the third season, because if I was still in first season mode when this aired it would have been way too painful. In fact, I would maintain that there will always be moments from this series that will threaten to rip off the scabs, twist the knife, or at least keep you up all night because they hit too close to home for those who have been involved with a divorce.
You might have heard originally the idea with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was for Mary Richards to be divorced, and they could not get that idea to fly because the networks thought audiences would think Laura had divorced Rob Petrie. But divorces are so painful, despite their regularity on soap opears, that there have been other concerns with having a show that is about divorce. "Once and Again" is more about life (and love) after divorce, and the series dodges a major bullet by making sure the principle couple to be are already divorced and separated respectively when they first meet and sparks start to fly despite the train wrecks that are their lives. This television series might be too painful to watch for some (I want to be Rick but I know I am a lot closer to Jake and that conclusion certainly hurts), but that is what happens with shows that are real rather than merely being considered reality programming.
The fortysomethings in the main spotlight are Lily Manning (Sela Ward), who kicked her husband Jake (Jeffrey Nordling) out of the house for having an affair, and architect Rick Sammler (Bill Campbell), who has been divorced for three years from Karen (Susanna Thompson). Lily works part-time at a bookshop with her sister, Judy Brooks (Marin Hinkle), while Jake runs the restaurant once owned by Lily and Judy's father, and Karen is a lawyer. Both ex-couples have two children. Living with Lily are Grace (Julia Whelan), an awkward high school freshman, and young Zoe (Meredith Deane), who has the ability to ask the pointed question at the wrong moment. Living with Karen but frequently visiting Rick are Eli (Shane West), a high school junior who plays basketball and has some sort of learning disability, and Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood in the role that first got out attention), who is smart, thin, and working on her black belt in tae kwan doe.
Lily and Rick meet at the high school when Grace has an injured ankle and Eli has academic problems, and from the start the couple find they are embarrassments to their children ("Pilot"). Rick is clearly smitten and Lily is surprised to find herself enjoying a relationship with another man ("Let's Spend the Night Together"), which is not easy when she finds herself working with his ex-wife at a school carnival ("The Scarlet Letter Jacket") and her sister clearly disapproves of the guy ("Liars and Other Strangers") and his involvement in Lily's life ("A Dream Deferred"). Meanwhile the kids have resorted to parallel euphemisms: Lily is "The Mom" and Rick is "The Dad" and have to deal with their own teenager crises in terms of sprained ankles ("The Ex-Files"), out of control parties ("Outside Hearts"), and the revolving door of adolescent affection ("Sneaky Feelings," "Daddy's Girl"). Then there are the ups and downs of the love lives of both Judy ("The Mystery Dance") and Karen ("Cat-in-Hat"), in the wake of Lily and Rick's romance, as well as Jake's ongoing involvement with young Tiffany (Ever Carradine) becoming painfully clear to Grace ("Letting Go").
There is a major subplot in the first season regarding Lily's father, Phil (Paul Mazursky), who shows up for "Thanksgiving" expecting things to be patched up between Lily and Jake, who is clearly more like a son than a son-in-law, to Lily's absolute frustration. Add to the interpersonal complications, which includes Lily's brother Aaron (Patrick Dempsey), the escalating financial problems of Jake that are putting the house that Lily and her daughters live in at risk ("Mediation"), and force Lily to go out and fin a job ("My Brilliant Career"). As for Rick, Herskovitz and Zwick introduce him to a new circle of hell when who else but familiar face by Miles Dentrell (David Clennon), who has relocated to the Chicago area from Philadelphia. The conceit of the series was the use of black-and-white "interview" segments where the characters admit to themselves things they would never say aloud. This matters on "Once and Again" because getting these characters to say what they are thinking without being prompted by anger or fear is often difficult and our feelings towards Grace, Judy and Karen are tempered because of these moments where their pain becomes most clear. The season ends with an indication that the genesis for this series might have been the romance between Lily and Rick, but that what it is really going to be about in the next two seasons is how these two families become one, while maintaining tangible links to the families they were in the past ("A Door, About to Open").