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NOW AND AGAIN: Smart TV That Doesn't Know Where It's Going

But then, that's what makes it unpredictable.

By Edward Gross     May 01, 2000

In the NOW AND AGAIN episode 'There Are No Words', a virus connected to Dr. Theodore Morris is actually erasing the words from all forms of print on a global basis, and there seems to be no cure. In reality, it's all just a dream, springing forth from Morris' denial of reading material to his 'creation', the genetically engineered Michael Wiseman. At episode's end, in a move that would make Charles Dickens proud, Morris brings Michael a bag filled with books for him to enjoy.

Admittedly it all sounds pretty sappy, but, instead, 'There Are No Words' serves as one of the most effective episodes of television aired this season, aided in no small part by the performances of Dennis Haysbert as Morris and Eric Close as Michaelparticularly Close's response to being given this 'gift'.

'Wasn't it great?' enthuses the actor. 'I loved playing that reaction, and I thought it was a fantastic episode. But I've liked every episode that we've done; I've found every one of them to be entertaining in their own way. The funny thing is that I've watched every series that I've worked on, and this is the first time where I've ever watched a show that I've been on where I've actually lost myself in it just like anybody else, and have cried and laughed. This is the first time in my career that I can remember being affected by a program after it's been shot.'

Creator Glenn Gordon Caron has his own theories as to why Close and millions of Americans feel so strongly about NOW AND AGAIN. 'I'm easily bored,' he says. 'I'm also a snob. So if I've heard the idea before, I'm completely disinterested. That's not to say that we constantly succeed, because we don't, but what I love is when somebody comes in and pitches me an idea and they can't tell me what's going to happen. You just go, 'That can't possibly have an ending,' and then I'm really intrigued. Then I'm bound and determined to do it. They say, 'We don't know how it will end.' 'I don't care. That's what makes it great.''

It's this kind of unconventional approach to network television that has endeared both NOW AND AGAIN and Caron's previous TV creation, MOONLIGHTING, to viewers and critics alike. The premise of NOW & AGAIN has forty-something insurance salesman Michael Wiseman (John Goodman) get struck by a train. Instead of dying, Wiseman's brain 'wakes up' in a new, genetically created body that puts the Six Million Dollar Man to shame. Wiseman's creator is Dr. Theodore Morris, who explains to him in no uncertain terms that his old life is over; that if he contacts his wife (Margaret Colin) or daughter (Heather Matarazzo), he and they will be executed. Furthermore, Michael will now do the bidding of his government or, again, he will be terminated. He reluctantly embarks on this new life, still managing to come into contact with family and managing to stay alive while doing so. He also takes on a series of inhuman testssome more outlandish than othersand missions, all very much rooted in reality.

NOW AND AGAIN has no idea what it wants to be. It's romantic; it's dramatic; it has sci-fi overtones; it's funny; it offers ample opportunity for Morris to break out into song and, most of all, it manages to touch the heart of the audience. The inability to define the show is something that, initially, troubled Close.

'I had never heard of Eric Close before,' Caron admits, 'and I was very dubious about him because he was a network suggestion. Whenever the network suggests an actor, you go, 'Oy, this is going to be awful.' But he came into the room and he just floored me. We hit it off instantly, but he was absolutely puzzled by the fact that the pilot had no clear-cut ending. He said to me, 'So, where's this show going?' And I said, 'I have no idea. Don't know, and I like it that way.' He didn't know what to make of that. I said, 'Isn't it much more exciting to be part of a story where the obvious conclusion is not what we're heading towards?' I think he became intrigued by that idea.'

Close, a veteran of such series as SISTERS, DARK SKIES, and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, concurs. 'I was hesitant to take the role at that point,' he says. 'But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in the past everybody sort of had an answer as to where the show was going to go. They had it all mapped out, but nothing lasted longer than a year. For the first time I thought, 'Maybe there is something to not knowing.' I was intrigued by it. I thought, 'He's got a good track record and is a very talented writer and director. What have I got to lose?' I really wanted to give it a go and I loved the script, so I couldn't pass it up. I kind of felt that even if it wasn't picked up beyond the pilot, I had to do the pilot because it was amazing.'

Caron chalks up the genesis of the series to a couple of different things. 'I have three children,' he says. 'My middle child, who is 15 now but at the time that all this started to stew was 12 or 13, was starting to ask me to take her to see the SCREAM movies. She was watching DAWSON'S CREEK and all these kinds of shows. I have this sort of simple-minded philosophy about kids and culture and all that, which is that when they're young, you lead them to culture. You say, 'Ooh, here's a book I love, can I read it to you?' Or, 'Ooh, here's a movie I love, let's watch it together.' Then they get to a certain age where they start leading YOU to culture. 'Hey, dad, listen to this song,' and suddenly you're listening to something that, if you didn't have an 11, 12, or 13 year old you would never listen to.

'Watching all of these TV shows and movies with her,' he continues, 'I realized that her view of the world was oddly that the only people that experienced romance or passion or ardor, were people between the ages of 15 and 25. And once you hit 25, you became a schoolteacher or a parent and you no longer had that experience. I thought, 'Gee, that's sort of fascinating,' because as a kid I would go to the movies to learn how to be an adult. Not consciously, but that's sort of what went on. You went to the movie and invariably saw older people playing out older scenarios, and you stored them away, thinking, 'Oh, that's sort of complicated, being an adult.' That's not what was going on in the culture right now. So I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to do something, whether it was a movie or a television show, about people approaching middle-age that suggests they still experience romance, passion, and all that?' The more I thought about that, the more I thought, 'Gee, that sounds wildly boring.''

Then he was struck by the notion of having one part of the couple being considerably younger than the other. 'Normally,' Caron notes, 'we tell stories about older men and younger women. I started to play with the idea of a younger man and an older woman, and that it might be interesting if this younger man was buzzing around this older woman and she didn't understand why. Then, somewhere in there I remembered, as a kid, seeing DAMN YANKEES. I remember always being fascinated by this guy who desperately wanted to be a Washington Senator so he can beat the Yankees. He's a fifty-year-old man, a married guy, who trades his soul to the Devil and becomes a young baseball player. No sooner doe he get what he wants, which is to be 22 and a wildly successful player, than he realizes that what he really wants is to be home with his wife. Somewhere in all that, this sprung forth. It sort of grew out of that, the combination of those two things.'

One thing it did not evolve from was THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. 'I can't tell you how completely disinterested I was in THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, and how horrified I was when I realized that that was what we were going to be compared to,' he says. 'Not to do any disrespect to that show, which I've never seen; it's just nothing that captured my interest. It seems to me that in due course people got the idea that there was more to the show than that.'

Much more, as far as Close is concerned, the actor enthusing that he is able to identify with this character more than any other he has ever played. 'Partially,' he muses, 'because of the fact that he is a father and a loving, committed husband. Despite the fact that the set-up is completely out thereguy's brain transplanted to another guy's bodyif you can put that aside, the strength of the show is the fact that these characters deal with situations which can be real-life: danger, loss, hope, love, and all the rest. If you were to break its appeal down, the final product is so real that you can't help but feel what these people are feeling. It's so genuine, is what I guess I'm trying to say. And these characters are constantly growing.'

Character evolutionand the evolution of the series itselfis one of the television medium's greatest virtues, offers Caron. 'It's one of the things that makes it unique as a form of literature,' he opines. 'There's really no other form of contemporary, visual literature that allows you to do that, where the beast takes on a life of its own by nature of the fact that it exists over time. In our case, I would say the most striking manifestation of that is the humor of the show. If you look at the pilot, it's imbedded with a tremendous sense of, I think, sadness and ache, largely because it's framed by the death of John Goodman. Much to my amazement, as we moved away from his death and started to deal with the life of Michael Wiseman, the life of Lisa Wiseman post John Goodman's death, there was this tremendous humor to be mined, particularly in the relationship between Michael and Theo, which, on the face of it, seems prisoner and guard. The truth of the matter is that we have a terrific cast. I think it's one of the best on television.'

As far as Caron is concerned, one of his most important jobs is to make sure that the series stays fresh and unconventional. 'When we did MOONLIGHTING,' he says, 'everyone said that we lived in a three-network universe. I always said we lived in a four-network universe. I was always saying, 'No, no, no, I'm competing with HBO; I'm competing with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Of course now we compete in a hundred-channel universe. The bottom line, when you pare away everything else, is that you're telling a story. And I think as storytellers we have to be mindful of the fact that people have been coming to the same well for their water, for their stories, for fifty or sixty years, and we sort of know most of the stories. So there's an obligation to startle. That's the way we earn our keep. That, I think, is what makes people cynical about television. They say, 'I've seen that show; I've seen that idea; I've seen that notion for a series; I've seen that guy...' I think part of the obligation when you're dealing with a hundred-network universe is (a) from the beginning to do something so different that it at least compels people to sample it; and (b) hopefully in the course of telling your stories you have such a particular point of view that people don't feel they can get it anywhere else.'

The real question, of course, is whether or not Caron and company will have a second season to tell their tales. At the moment, NOW AND AGAIN is reportedly 'on the bubble', which means its fate will not be known until CBS announces its fall schedule in mid-May. 'We're still pulling much better demographics than they've ever had,' says Caron. 'I was shocked to hear them say we were on the bubble. But we serve at the pleasure at CBS, so I hope they choose to let us continue. My gut feeling is that we will be picked up.'

'I don't know what the network is thinking,' adds Close. 'I don't have my finger on their pulse, and I don't know what they base their decision on. If they base their decision on us being an original show, I think this is one of the most original shows on TV since THE X-FILES. I thought THE X-FILES really broke new ground and was so much fun to watch. I think this show is the same way. It takes huge risks. You don't get too many shows where the dialogue is interesting, original, and intelligently written. We take the most outlandish, crazy idea and turn it into a story that people believe is happening. On that merit, I would like to believe that I'm right; that we'll get picked up.'

If so, he has definite ideas of where he would like the show to go. 'I'd like to see more of Michael dealing internally with what's going on in his situation,' he explains. 'He's in a prison, so to speak. I want to see more of his private moments, just between him and the audience that nobody else sees. I would also like to see him go on more missions and go from being a captive of Dr. Morris to them working together more as a team. And not always having Dr. Morris say, 'If you run, I'm going to get you.' It should get to the point where Michael accepts the fact that he is who he is and he embraces his role in his new life. I would also like to see him solve some situations with his mind instead of his brawn. That's important to me, too.'

Well, don't look to Caron for answers. 'I'm not sure if I could articulate what my ideas for a second season are. Everything is sort of embryonic,' he says. Given his penchant for creatively flying by the seat of his pants, you know that he's telling the truth.

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