Each year my daughter and I have watched one TV series together: First it was “Beverly Hills 90210,” then it was “My So-Called Life,” then “Felicity,” and, last year, “Once and Again.”
Sharing the shows bonded us in a particular way, and opened the door to many conversations we otherwise might not have had, such as what to do if a date got drunk or a friend offered her drugs.
Now, my daughter has graduated from high school and is no longer living at home. Last week, we each watched the season’s first episode of “Once and Again” (the program aired on ABC on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m ), and then spoke about it on the phone the next day—as I also did with several adult friends.
“Once and Again” sensitively, accurately and compellingly portrays what life is like for each member of two divorced families. The first season focused on the earlier phase of life after a divorce, showing what the texture of life was like for a single parent whose ex-husband was often still around the house interacting with their children, and captured the comforts and discomforts of that particular situation. It focused on Lily, the single mother, played by Emmy-Award-winning Sela Ward. Although Lily’s own religious identity is not clearly defined in the series, she is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and she did have a Christmas tree in her home. Her ex-husband Jake appears to be Jewish.
Last season, the newly divorced Lily struggled to learn how to handle her finances and find a job. She found one, working in a company with a boss and colleagues half her age. She also developed a romantic relationship with Rick (Billy Campbell), a divorced, father of two, who is not Jewish and much of the season focused on that relationship, its impact on their children, and the limits that having children imposed on it.
The series has excelled in creating believable, rounded characters, particularly the four children—Lily’s two daughters: Grace (Julia Whelan), now a sophomore in high school, and Zoe (Meredith Deane) in middle school; and Rick’s son and daughter: Eli (Shane West), who attends the same high school as Grace, and Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood), who this season is a freshman at the school. Each of them has very different needs, lives and reactions to their parents’ relationship.
“Once and Again” has also explored the lives of Lily and Rick’s former spouses, Jake (Jeffrey Nordling) and Karen (Susanna Thompson), each of whom is involved with a significantly younger person, and their children’s reactions to changes in their lives. While the sulky Grace clearly resents her dad’s young girlfriend, her younger sister Zoe thinks the girlfriend is cool, and befriends her.
The first episode of the new season explored what happens when Lily and Rick, wanting to spend more time with each other, try to get their families together for an evening. Poignantly, the focus was on Rick’s daughter, the emotionally fragile Jessie, whose mixture of vulnerability and awkwardness was perfectly captured by actress Evan Rachel Wood. As Jessie says, in these approximate words, “I just started high school and I don’t feel comfortable there. I have to switch back and forth between your house and Mom’s, so I really don’t have a place that is mine. And now I have to adjust to another new situation—spending time with your girlfriend and her family. I didn’t choose any of it.” When her dad replied, saying how lonely he had been, the conflict between their needs became patently clear. Lily and Rick want to move on, to develop and further their new relationship. The children, already battered by a change they did not choose, want things to stay the same.
In a recent book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, A 25 Year Landmark Study, Judith Wallerstein claims that while divorce may improve the lives of parents, it damages their children, and that its impact is felt resoundingly throughout the children’s lives. “Once and Again” explores the effect on both the parents and the children, and it does so compellingly, in all of its complexity.