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______Three new dramas look on the bright side of life in Splitsville. 11

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By Joyce Millman
September 27, 1999
Salon Magazine

There are so many new shows about divorced people this season, prime time is starting to mirror the actual divorce rate. Yes, TV has come a long way since "The Brady Bunch" coyly created a blended family by way of double-spousal death. Nowadays, divorce dares speak its name -- loudly. Failing at marriage is not (usually) portrayed as a scandal or a moral flaw; on sitcoms from the old "Designing Women" and "Cybill" to "Frasier," divorced people are, if not thrilled with the single life, then at least happy to be rid of their exes' baggage.

The fall's new drama series about divorce, though, are more somber and reflective. Aimed mainly at divorced working mothers, ABC's "Once and Again" and CBS's "Family Law" and "Judging Amy" make a decent attempt to depict what divorce does to a family (or at least to a white, upper-middle-class family). These dramas are a banquet of messy emotions -- anger, resentment, desire for revenge, relief -- topped off with a big fat dollop of guilt, the cherry on the sundae. "Every minute I'm here, I'm worried about what's happening with my kids, and when I'm with my kids I'm worried about what's happening here, and I can't do all this!" exclaims the newly single mom-attorney of "Family Law." Telling his kids that their parents were breaking up, confesses the divorced suburban dad of "Once and Again," was like taking a baseball bat and "having a good solid whack at both their heads."

But while all of these new dramas have scenes in early episodes where divorced parents are nearly undone by guilt, they also have scenes where the heroines pull it together and fiercely renew their vows to have it all -- "all" meaning career, motherhood and freedom. Shows like "Judging Amy," "Family Law" and "Once and Again" may be the perfect fantasy shows for divorce-torn times; their heroines aren't as glamorous as Alexis and Krystle and Amanda, but their revenge tastes just as sweet.

The most elegantly crafted show in this trio is Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick's "Once and Again," which looks a lot like what Herskovitz and Zwick's "thirtysomething" might have become if it didn't get canceled before Hope and Michael reached the breakup they were obviously heading for. A decade ago, Herskovitz and Zwick based "thirtysomething" on their own marriages, which were undergoing the tests of parenthood, career success and stay-at-home-mom restlessness. It's not surprising to learn, having watched "Once and Again," that Herskovitz is now divorced. Those guys are so plugged in to the boomer zeitgeist, it's scary.

"Once and Again" has the duo's unmistakable imprints: lyrically written dialogue that makes white middle-class angst sing, emotionally voyeuristic shots of characters being pensive, snuggly folksy background music, gold and gray autumn light. Herskovitz and Zwick haven't lost the touch for eliciting a deep, visceral identification with their characters; whether that makes the characters, or us, stereotypical is open to debate. The pilot did a fine job of portraying the existential terror of an over-40, minivan-driving soccer mom (Sela Ward) and football dad (Billy Campbell), whose dreams have fallen apart; it did an even better job of depicting their confusing, exhilarating rush of emotions at facing new romantic possibilities.

Lily Manning (Ward) and Rick Sammler (Campbell) have teens at the same high school. They eye each other while unloading the kids one morning, then awkwardly chat during a chance meeting in the school office. In the Sept. 21 pilot, after much agonizing, he called her for a date, then another. They had to speak furtively on the phone, because their kids were always around listening; they necked in his minivan like teenagers, because she was afraid to take him inside her house, lest they get caught (they did, by her ex-husband and two daughters). "Once and Again" has an enticing parallel going; Lily and Rick are behaving like horny teens again (they've shared some of the sexiest TV kisses in a long time) at the same time his son and her daughter are suffering their respective growing pains.

"Once and Again" (which occupies the "NYPD Blue" time slot until that show returns Nov. 9) is not without its drawbacks. Herskovitz and Zwick have come up with this gimmick where Lily and Rick talk directly to the camera in scenes shot in black-and-white; it's supposed to show them revealing the innermost feelings they're unable to reveal to each other. The limitations of this device became apparent pretty quickly in the pilot; it's pretentious and annoying and it breaks up the flow of the story (I use the term "flow" loosely, because the show doesn't flow as much as float). Also, Lily's daughter Grace (Julia Whelan) has been compared by some critics to spunky Angela Chase from "My So-Called Life," which is absurd. Grace is a whiny wet noodle of a girl; she has anxiety attacks when her mother leaves the house, she thinks she's fat and she can't bear that she may actually have to interact with Rick's hunky jock son, Eli, some day. Grace is an all-too-realistic source of divorce guilt for Lily. In the pilot, when Lily finally went tough-love and told her daughter, "I'm not going to let your fear dominate this house anymore," you could almost hear shouts of "You go, girl!" welling up from the suburbs of America.

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