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Fall '99: "Once and Again"

Ach, to be a fortysomething divorcee living in the Pottery Barn. More specifically, to be a fortysomething divorcee who looks like Sela Ward and has a life scripted by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. It must be so hard.

Or hard enough, at least, to inspire the new series Once and Again.

The show's premise is intriguing: can two people on the cusp of middle age recover from divorce and open themselves up to the vulnerability of falling in love? More importantly, can they do so when juggling their bad-seed children and bilious ex-spouses? Most importantly, can they do so when saddled with the patented Zwick/Herskovitz dialogue and horribly annoying black-and-white jumpshot monologues?

I'm not kidding about the dialogue: I watched ten minutes with my closed-captioning turned on, and counted six sentence fragments, four instances of stammering -- transcribed, mind you, into actual text -- and at least two cases where one character cocked their head to the side in a rueful smile while the words "Yeah. Well." scrolled across the screen.

Amidst this verbal constipation, adorable divorcees Sela Ward and Bill Campbell work on having a relationship. One might think that this might be impossible, given that the characters are communicating in oblique sentence fragments, but somehow they manage. The story of their courtship provides the backbone of the series, so it's fortunate that Ward's and Campbell's portrayals are marvelously realistic.

What's unfortunate is the reality check stops there. Since this is the same universe that brought us thirtysomething and Relativity and My So-Called Life, all of the characters are prone to heartfelt speeches and life-altering emotional revelations. They're also unrepentant navel gazers, in search of an explanation for the world around them and convinced it's contained in some tiny, unexamined corner of their psyches. Looking at the SUV-packed village in which smiling yuppie mothers drop off their teenagers on picaresque sidewalks, the well-lit and spacious high school corridors filled with milky-skinned Abercrombie kids, and the airy offices and houses in which the protagonists toil at creative jobs -- well, it's hard to imagine how malleable these characters' constitutions are to be shaped and scarred by such a cushy life.

If you can stomach the nitwits peopling this plushy universe, the series is worth another look. In a landscape filled with shows about teenagers (Roswell, Dawson's Creek) and baby boomers trying to return to the fresh slate they had as teens (Providence, Judging Amy), it's refreshing to see a show about adults living with their past decisions while trying to sustain the courage to keep taking fresh chances. For characters living in a sterile yuppie comfort zone, reinventing your love life is a hard thing indeed.


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