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Once and again, it comes down to ratings

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 15, 2002

[Photo: ABC]
In tonight’s series finale of Once and Again, Rick (Billy Campbell) gets the career opportunity of a lifetime but it’s on another continent. Lily (Sela Ward) also has exciting news. It adds up to another life-altering decision for the couple.
In TV, as in life, sometimes there is no justice.

Case in point: ABC's sterling family drama Once and Again; a critically acclaimed, hourlong show about two divorced fortysomething parents who fall in love, get married and struggle to manage their blended family.

Over three seasons, the show has tackled everything from a high school girl's budding lesbian relationship to the effects of mental illness and Alzheimer's disease on a family -- always with poignancy, depth and a level and characterization rarely found in today's pile of reality TV series and cookie-cutter sitcoms.

Star Sela Ward won an Emmy in September 2000 for her work on the series, once hailed by TV Guide as the Best Show You're Not Watching.

Earlier this month, ABC finally gave up on transcending that dubious honor and canceled Once and Again, which airs its final episode at 10 tonight on WFTS-Ch. 28.

And in this critic's mind, there's mostly one reason why it's hitting the showers.

It's just too good for television.

I know. That's something people always say when their favorite show gets canceled -- even when the show in question is more A-Team than Hill Steet Blues. But when you're talking about a series that's getting clobbered by NBC's limp Quincy rehash Crossing Jordan (get star Jill Hennessy out of her tight jeans and see how long that one lasts), there's a case to be made.

Of course, Once and Again cocreator Marshall Herskovitz is far too nice to agree with my analysis, though he appreciates the sentiment. He blames the show's death on constant schedule shuffling (moving to Fridays just about killed the series) and a storytelling style that isn't mass appeal.

"Most people want TV shows to transport them away from their lives . . . using real life as a reference point is more familiar in the world of movies," said Herskovitz, who crafted tonight's finale before anyone knew the show was canceled. "But I'm touched and moved by the efforts people have gone through to save the show. If TV is a passive medium . . . then when somebody has an active reaction to a show, that's the ultimate compliment."

First, Once and Again is a show that challenges viewers, refusing to cast its conflicts in simple, black-and-white tones. When the series tackled the theme of overworked spouses, for instance, Ward's Lily Manning feared she was dating a man with the kind of work habits that helped kill her marriage, while Billy Campbell's Rick Sammler struggled to keep his architecture firm afloat.

It was a dose of reality within a TV drama that nearly brought tears to my eyes. But it may have been too much for TV viewers wanting shows that offer an escape from everyday problems, not an exploration of them.

"I really think maybe it's too real for some people," said Penni McDaniel, an Atlanta fan who got involved with the effort to persuade ABC to save the show -- writing letters to network executives, e-mailing journalists and contributing $50 to publish an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter supporting the program (the group also has planned a demonstration today at ABC's offices in Burbank, Calif.)

"Everything they deal with is so true to life, and maybe people don't like seeing their life played out on the screen like that," added McDaniel, who said it's the only show her husband and teenage kids will watch with her. "Personally, that's what I like most about it . . . (and) I can't understand why more people don't feel that way."

Another ABC series faces a similar problem: Denis Leary's sidesplitting cop comedy The Job.

In it, Leary plays Mike McNeil, a morally bankrupt New York City detective who cheats on his wife, and abuses drugs and his position as a cop.

[Photo: ABC]
Denis Leary, above, in the cop comedy The Job. It, too, suffers from low ratings.
Few shows on network television are as funny -- in one episode, a drug-free McNeil chugs so much cough medicine he's constantly explaining away an ever-present green moustache -- but the show's gritty realism and lack of sympathetic characters so far have doomed it to low ratings (hardly helps that it's competing against two other quality shows: NBC's The West Wing and Fox's The Bernie Mac Show).

"It's a not-feel-good show," said Leary, talking to TV critics in January. "But . . . I've watched TV my whole life growing up . . . and the best stuff, the stuff that really made me laugh . . . was Archie Bunker and Ralph Kramden . . . all really screwed-up people. You know, the best guys are all f--ed up."

With Once and Again, fans blame ABC for moving the show around its schedule too much -- it's had seven time slots in 21/2 years -- and for insulting the show's creators by cutting back this season's episodes from the traditional 22 to 17 or so.

And at a time when Disney-owned ABC says it wants more family-oriented programming, how can executives keep the "lets watch pretty, capable women demean themselves for a man" reality show The Bachelor, while canceling Once and Again?

"I'm just so mad," said McDaniel, who plans to join protesting fans nationwide in boycotting Disney and ABC over the issue. "I don't know what I'll watch at 10 p.m. Mondays, but it probably won't be ABC."

Industry experts say there's one reason why Once and Again is outta here: ratings.

So far this season, Once and Again is ranked 103rd among all prime time TV shows, one of the lowest rankings for a Big Three network drama series still on the air. The only way the show could survive is by super-delivering the female demographic for which the show was developed, but it never did.

In fact, ABC tried mightily to make Once and Again a success, snubbing news star Barbara Walters by briefly kicking venerated newsmagazine 20/20 off Fridays to make room for it last year. And at a time when ABC shows such as The Court and Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central) have been yanked off the air after two or three airings, nearly three years of effort seems like a lifetime of chances.

"In today's hyper-competitive environment, a show can't have a niche audience and survive," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Group in New York (who did admit that if Once and Again's female viewers were instead young males, advertisers might have kept the show on TV). "It was well-written, well-acted and well-produced, but not aimed at a mass audience."

Carroll pointed out other problems with the show: It had too many storylines that carried over across several episodes, making it tough for viewers to drop in midseason. And even challenging series such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Sex and the City leaven their groundbreaking aspects with audience-pleasing doses of sex and violence.

"It's difficult to get people to sample a show where the focus is Alzheimer's (disease)," Carroll said. "Honestly, viewers don't always make the right choice . . . but they often do. And (as in elections), sometimes the winner isn't the best-qualified candidate, but the most popular."

No doubt, this is the strangest midseason the TV industry has seen in awhile.

Normally a place for taking chances with innovative concepts -- Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle all debuted in midseason -- this year's most popular midseason shows have been CBS's awful talking baby comedy Baby Bob and MTV's reality show on the family life of heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne, The Osbournes.

Right now, a significant number of shows remain on the bubble -- with no clear sign they'll be renewed for next year -- including CBS's The Education of Max Bickford, Fox's Dark Angel, ABC's Dharma and Greg and NBC's Watching Ellie. Already, series such as UPN's Roswell, As If and Random Years, CBS' American Fighter Pilot, Fox's American Embassy and the WB's My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star have gone to TV heaven.

But few cancellations this year will trouble me as much as the death of Once and Again -- a show that was a little too good at breaking the rules of network TV to survive.

- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail

At a glance

The final episode of Once and Again airs tonight at 10 on WFTS-Ch. 28.

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