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Commentary: This top-notch show deserves to stay on air

Monday, March 04, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Here we go again.

Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, creators of "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life," have topped themselves with the remarkable "Once and Again," the best drama on the air. But, once again, the show is in danger of cancellation and fans are rallying to save it. I wish them well.

The cast is superb, the writing extraordinary and the production -- characters periodically address the camera in confessional black-and-white vignettes -- memorable. Amazingly enough, it's not HBO, it's ABC.

Only in its third season, it's still fresh and doesn't feel like a series ("NYPD Blue" anyone?) that has stayed too long at the fair. "Once and Again" tackles the messiness of modern life but also its triumphs, large and small. Unlike the increasingly dark "ER," it allows its characters some measure of happiness and hope.

Although the series started off focusing on Lily (Sela Ward), a soon-to-be divorced mother of two, and the boyishly handsome Rick (Billy Campbell), a divorced father of two, it branched out and found fascinating stories in their family trees. Once those branches started to get tangled, the show got even more interesting.

In addition to divorce and remarriage, the series has dealt with the death of a parent, mental illness of a sibling, unemployment, anorexia, bankruptcy, sibling rivalry, stepsibling rivalry, the angst of high school, the trials of trying to achieve a perfect Thanksgiving, the bumpiness of blending families, unplanned pregnancy, the emotional peril of dating a married man, loneliness, depression and -- now -- a long, painful rehabilitation after a car accident.

In tonight's episode, "Falling in Place," the badly injured Karen Sammler (Susanna Thompson) would rather sit in a darkened hospital room staring at Regis and Kelly than start excruciating physical therapy. Her teen-age daughter, Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood) skips school and tells her stepmother, Lily, to stop trying to act like her mother "because you are not my mother and you never will be!"

Karen's teen-age son, Eli (Shane West), gets a job but doesn't act like he wants to keep it. Her ex-husband (Campbell) wonders if he's trying to be too helpful. Like a quilt sewn with invisible stitches, these plot lines and others are joined together.

Tonight, Karen lashes out at her physical therapist: "My life has been ripped apart, and I doubt very seriously if you have any idea what that's like."

She, however, will conclude that her children still need her, realizing, "I am not lost to them. I am not lost to me." And let's hope "Once and Again" is not lost to viewers, either.

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