”Now and Again”? More like now or never. Friday night (9:00 p.m.), CBS airs the first of the season’s three remaining episodes. But insiders say unless the series sees a hefty ratings bump pronto, it won’t be on the schedule when the network unveils its fall lineup on May 16. ”Now” — about a middle aged insurance salesman who’s reborn in the body of a Government-created superhero (Eric Close) — debuted to critical praise (EW’s Ken Tucker gave it an A and called it ”a blissful kick”) and healthy ratings (tying for first place in its time slot among 18-49 year olds). But since then, viewership has plunged 34 percent to last week’s 8.1 million. Here’s what went wrong:
Increased Competition When ”Now” premiered in October, it had such feeble competitors as ABC’s TGIF, Fox’s ”Harsh Realm” (which lasted just three episodes), and yet another night of ”Dateline NBC.” But the new year intensified the fight: ABC twice put the ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” behemoth against ”Now;” ”Dateline” was bolstered by such news blockbusters as the Elián Gonzalez case; and Fox’s game show entry ”Greed” became a surprise hit.
Bad Scheduling ”Now” was hurt by its low-drawing lead-ins (the thankfully canceled ”Cosby” and the if-you-blinked-you-missed-it Swoosie Kurtz series ”Love & Money”). These shows didn’t deliver enough viewers, nor were they the right kind of viewers: ”The audience for ‘Cosby’ and the audience for a sophisticated adult drama are not going be the same,” says EW TV critic Bruce Fretts. The show was also plagued by frequent preemptions (the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Miss USA Pageant, ”Candid Camera,” even ”Mrs. Santa Claus”) — which meant viewers had a hard time making it a habit.
The ”What Is It” Factor Critics love ”Now”’s blend of sci-fi and romantic comedy (the government superstud is still in love with his former wife, played appealingly by Margaret Colin), but this genre-defying blend makes it a hard sell for mainstream viewers. ”Audiences want to know what kind of show they’re going to watch,” explains Fretts, ”and the great thing about ‘Now’ is that you never know what you’re going to get.”
Indeed, the remaining episodes promise to continue the series’ laudable unpredictability. Friday kicks off a two-parter about killer insect assassins. And the season finale, on May 5, includes a guest spot by the WWF’s Mankind (Mick Foley) and the return of the creepy Eggman, who kills by using poisonous-gas-filled eggs. ”They’ve done some extraordinary episodes,” says Fretts, ”where you can’t believe what you’re seeing.” But whether we’ll see any MORE of them is the question.