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Now and Again

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Watching the new series Now and Again, you realize how little pure playfulness there is in prime-time programming. I’m not talking about the relentless joke making that goes on in sitcoms good and bad; I mean the sort of light, airy humor that we most often used to get from movies (in nearly any Cary Grant film, for example, or in the chatty flights of fancy of Preston Sturges’ comedies).

Now and Again — starring Eric Close as a human brain encased in a ripped bod created by our government — toys with and confounds its audience’s expectations in a way that no other TV show has since Ally McBeal in its first season, and does so with considerably more grace. That Now and Again not to be confused with ABC’s entrancing divorcee divertissement Once and Again — comes from producer-writer Glenn Gordon Caron only adds to the unexpectedness of this new show’s artfulness. Caron was the creator of Moonlighting, the 1985-89 show that started off cleverly, then slowly but steadily turned Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd into annoying dingbats to be avoided.

If you watched Now and Again‘s pilot, you know that a weary, middle-aged insurance salesman, played to portly perfection by John Goodman, was accidentally rammed by a New York City subway car. When, a few seconds later, we were meant to believe that Goodman’s jowly, lovable Michael Wiseman had been replaced by Close’s pretty-boy Wiseman, you probably shouted at the screen the same thing I did: ”I want my John Goodman back!” But Caron’s nervy and frustrating opening soon began to pay off.

While not an actor in possession of the presence or audience goodwill that Goodman has, Close is no bland robot; he quickly establishes his own wry, quizzical personality. His mind transplanted into a superior human container, Wiseman is faced with a classic dilemma: He can remain alive — to use his superhumanly strong body to defeat threats to national security — but he must never reveal to his wife and daughter the person he has become. If he spills the beans, our government will spill his — and his family’s — blood.

Thus, Wiseman, unrecognizable to his family, stands in the shadows and looks longingly at Margaret Colin (and who wouldn’t?). Playing his wife, Lisa, Colin is a bit tremulous and tentative, just as a grieving widow might be. CBS has been trying to turn Colin into a TV star for years, but until now the net has channeled her tart intelligence and wide-eyed beauty into characters on lawyer-themed clunkers like The Wright Verdicts, Legwork, and Foley Square, and into a nothing role in Chicago Hope. In Now and Again she’s finally free to be complicated: vulnerable, angry, and perplexed by her husband’s death, yet resourceful and strong, providing support for daughter Heather, played with a refreshing lack of smart-aleckiness by Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo.

Two other characters help give Now its zing. Gerrit Graham’s Roger Bender was Wiseman’s insurance-company colleague and best buddy, despite the fact that he’s a corporate weasel whose lack of scruples extends even to cheating Lisa out of a decent death settlement when the John Goodman-Wiseman dies. But it’s a measure of how deft Caron’s writing is that we come to see that Roger is less venal than hapless, and he soon becomes a sympathetic comic foil who stays involved in the Wisemans’ lives.

Just as good is Dennis Haysbert as the Eric Close-Wiseman’s government-appointed overseer, Dr. Theodore Morris. Required to frequently be cold and imperious — ”You are an experiment,” he informs Wiseman, ”and I will tell you when and what you will do” — Haysbert also conveys the enthusiastic curiosity that’s the flip side of scientific concentration. He likes to test his Three Billion Dollar Man (the late-20th-century price tag for building a better Lee Majors) by daring him to try to outrun and outwit his government handlers; it amuses Dr. Morris to see how clever his ”science experiment” can be.

The series’ first story line — about an elderly Japanese man intent on blackmailing the government by threatening to nerve-gas Manhattan —— was at once suspenseful and whimsical. This doddering terrorist transported the deadly gas inside ordinary eggs, Caron’s symbol for the fragility of life. By cutting back and forth between the terrorist’s awful preliminary attacks (releasing just enough gas to leave everyone in a subway car writhing, dying with blood pouring from their mouths) and Wiseman’s wistful, illicit attempts to contact his family, Now and Again managed to avoid both hyped-up melodrama and wet sentimentality.

Caron is a master of juxtaposition, and not just in matters of plot points. In interviews, he claims he thieved the show’s basic premise from the musical Damn Yankees, and episodes frequently use show tunes such as West Side Story‘s ”Something’s Coming” as ironic mood music.

Although there’s always the chance that Close and Colin could become as peevishly insufferable as the squabbling couple on Moonlighting did, right now the playful atmosphere of Now and Again provides a blissful kick unlike anything else in prime time. A