“Once and Again,” created by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz — those experts in the emotional lives of sensitive, upper-middle-class white people, as evidenced by their other shows, “thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life” — was a family drama that ran on ABC from 1999 to 2002. It revolved around the lives of two divorced people, Lily (Sela Ward, who won an Emmy for the role) and Rick (Billy Campbell), who first meet at their kids’ school, and then fall in love and get married at the end of Season 2, blending their families. It was a show about feelings, and its characters would sometimes address the audience in black-and-white interstitials as if being interviewed for a documentary.
To look back on the ratings that led ABC to bounce “Once and Again” around its schedule for three seasons, before canceling it in 2002, is to remember how much the standards for success have changed. During its first season’s Nielsen ratings, the show drew nearly 11 million viewers each week, and in its last, an audience of 6.7 million watched it weekly, despite its frequent hiatuses and time-slot changes. Today, those audiences would be among the largest on television; back then, they doomed it. After its cancellation, some passionate fans of “Once and Again” bought a billboard in West Hollywood imploring then-Disney chair Michael Eisner to change his mind before the May 2002 ABC upfronts. (He did not.)
On the show, Evan Rachel Wood played Rick’s daughter, Jessie, who is 12 when the story begins. It was a breakout role for Wood, who, as Jessie, mourns her parents’ relationship; stops eating, and is sent to therapy in order to heal (her therapist was played by Zwick); sings movingly at Rick and Lily’s wedding; and begins dating another girl (a pre-“O.C” Mischa Barton), the first such relationship between teen girls on network television. On a show about carefully calibrated pathos, Wood got to demonstrate a huge range — from the abject pain of Jessie’s anorexia and therapy, to the joys of falling in love for the first time. After “Once and Again,” Wood went on to star in “Thirteen” (2003), “Across the Universe” (2007), and many more movies and television shows, most recently HBO’s “Westworld” and Miranda July’s “Kajilionaire,” which opens this weekend.
“It’s such a good show!” Wood said about “Once and Again” during a recent interview with Variety. “I rewatched it as an adult, and as a divorced parent. And could not get off of my sofa. I knew it was a good show when I was on it, but I really understood it as an adult.”
Wood’s “Once and Again” binge is not legally duplicable, because the full series doesn’t exist on DVD, nor does it stream. The first two seasons were released on DVD; the third, inexplicably, never was. “And that pisses me off, because that’s the one that I’m in with Evan!” said Zwick with a laugh during a recent interview. “You would think I should know more of these things about my career, but apparently, I’m clueless.”
The more modern problem with access to the show, though, is that where most of “Once and Again’s” contemporaries stream — “Friends” and “ER,” of course, but also shows such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — the show in a digital dead zone. And no one appears to know why, or to be willing to provide the answer.
“I almost emailed Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz just to say, ‘Hey, so what’s the deal? When are we going to get this on Netflix? Like, what’s going on?’” Wood said.
If she had done that, though, Zwick would have the same question. “It’s a mystery, and a vexing one,” he said.
He also noted that none of the Zwick/Herskovitz shows stream, even “thirtysomething,” which was the team’s biggest commercial success. “Look, I get emails from Peter Horton all the time saying, ‘Why? Why isn’t ‘thirtysomething’ on? I used to be an actor, people should know!’” Zwick said, laughing again. “I get it from all sides.”
“Once and Again” was produced by Touchstone Television, which is now ABC Studios. Repeated attempts to speak with someone there who makes these kinds of decisions — especially now that ABC Studios has a streaming arm in Hulu — were met with failure. Nor would MGM, the studio that produced “thirtysomething,” offer any answers about why that show is digitally AWOL. “Thirtysomething’s” DVD release was held up for 18 years because of music clearances, but in 2009, Shout! Factory showed those could be overcome. As for whether those issues are complicating factors for either of these shows, as well as “My So-Called Life,” it seems nearly impossible to find out: These just aren’t the kinds of calculations companies like to make in public, as Mike Ryan’s recent Uproxx story about his quest to watch “Cocoon” also illuminated.
Whatever the reasons, it’s a loss. After Wood’s adulthood re-watch of it, she said, “I did not want it to end, and I got why people protested when it went off the air. Because I was like, ‘That can’t be it. I need more!’”
A small consolation, perhaps, is that the internet’s gonna internet — meaning, there are multiple YouTube tributes to Wood’s Jessie’s queer romance with Barton’s Katie on YouTube, one of which has racked up 4.4 million views and counting. The arc includes a scene in which the two characters kiss after they confess their feelings to one another, a controversy back in 2002 that caused a Virginia ABC affiliate not to air the episode.
The storyline, Zwick remembered, is one that Wood, who was then 14, embraced: “There are a lot of kids who would have some kind of inhibition, or hesitation — and Evan was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m there.’”
Wood, as much as anyone, knows how crucial that plot was. “It was so important,” she said. “And they didn’t know when they assigned that storyline to me that I was queer. I knew — at the time, I was actually just sort of becoming fully aware of it. So the stars certainly aligned in that way. Maybe they knew before me!”
Nope. “Guess what?” Zwick said. “We had no idea. Our writing that was based on nothing other than something in our own lives, and some people’s children that we know. It was all very personal.”
Zwick talked about finding Wood, and compared it to casting Claire Danes in “My So-Called Life.” “Someone walks in, and what they know you couldn’t possibly hope to teach,” he said. “They are possessed of this remarkable authenticity of emotion.” He said he’s worked with actors who, were they given lie detector tests, would pass — and Wood is one of those. “There are other actors, and there are very few, who when you say ‘action,’ they go into this kind of profound relaxation, this very special place, where they are no longer just seeming, they are being. And that’s what would happen,” he said.
When Zwick played Jessie’s shrink, Dr. Rosenfeld, opposite Wood, he experienced her acting as a scene partner. “I don’t think that Evan is capable of a bad take, or doing something that is inauthentic,” he said. “I know that there were times that I was sitting opposite her, and I would be so mesmerized, and so into the moment of being with her, that I would just completely forget anything around me or the surroundings or even the fact that I was supposed to act.”
It sure would be nice if audiences today could get to see such scenes — along with the whole wonderful series — right?
Wood hasn’t given up hope. “There’s a petition going around the internet to stream it,” she said. “And I’ve signed it!”