It would have been easy to make "Once and Again," featuring the appealing stars Sela Ward and Billy Campbell, simply a study of love the second time around. But executive producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, longtime creative partners, have a history of tackling difficult subjects, in television dramas such as "thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life" and "Relativity," and the Oscar-winning movie "Traffic" (on which they worked as producers).
In the ABC drama, they have been exploring the dynamics of families, especially shattered families. And over the course of its second season, "Once and Again" has become prime time's definitive look at divorce.
Of special interest is what happens to children in the aftermath of a breakup. The two sets of divorced parents on the series are, for the most part, attentive to every nuance of their kids' emotions and needs. Despite their efforts, the children suffer.
"That's maybe the point. Even with the best of intentions, there's still a cost," says Zwick, who is married with two children. His own parents divorced when he was 16.
In tonight's season finale, Lily Manning (Ward) and Rick Sammler (Campbell) are scheduled to tie the knot. For many of the show's fans, Lily and Rick and romance are why they tune in each week. But Zwick and Herskovitz have always had more than romance in mind.
"We wanted to have a larger canvas to talk about divorce and other issues," says Herskovitz, himself a divorced father of two. "We see ourselves as observers. . . . We are trying to talk about the complexities of divorce and what it means to be a parent and moving on with your life."
Shane West and Evan Rachel Wood portray 18-year-old Eli and 14-year-old Jesse Sammler; Julia Whelan and Meredith Deane are 15-year-old Grace and 10-year-old Zoe Manning. The four present different reactions to the upheaval created by their parents as the series looks at what it means to be a child in a broken family.
This is familiar territory for Zwick and Herskovitz, who delved into adolescent anguish in the short-lived but widely acclaimed 1994 drama "My So-Called Life."
"Adolescence is a time in which you experience everything more intensely," Zwick says. "We felt adolescence was not necessarily being explored in the degree and complexity and depth it could be."
In one episode, "Thieves Like Us," written by co-executive producer Winnie Holzman, the story followed the trail of some makeup stolen by Grace. Near the end of the hour, a drawer was opened, revealing hidden pizza, which Jesse supposedly had eaten at dinner. The stash served as a clue that the teen, contrary to her parents' optimism, was in serious trouble.
More than any other character on the one-hour drama, Jesse has gradually descended into a downward spiral, which this season evolved into the eating disorder anorexia.
"Everything is hitting Jesse in the face," says 13-year-old Wood about her character. "She's tried to get past the divorce, but now the families are joining together and it's a whole new life. It all feels like the walls are closing in on her."
Wood's performance has won raves from colleagues, critics and fans. "I do get a lot of letters from people saying, 'That was me.' I think it gives them comfort knowing they're not alone."
Actress Susanna Thompson, who plays Jesse's mother, Karen Sammler, says Wood is "a complete and satisfying joy to work with . . . she's extremely gifted in terms of the emotional ranges and nuances that she brings to the character."
Wood knows something about the pain of divorce--her own parents' marriage ended four years ago. "Playing that kind of role didn't take much acting," she says. "It all hit very close to home."
If Lily and Rick get married and the families merge, Wood has a wish for her character: "I would like to see Jesse have a good bond with [stepsister] Grace. I would like to see them get along. I think Grace can really help Jesse."
Indeed, rather than resolve Jesse's illness with the usual television tidiness, the anorexia story line has been woven through the season. If "Once and Again" is granted a third season (the network jury is still out), Jesse's fight with the eating disorder will continue.
"Anorexia is pernicious and not something which goes away overnight. We would be remiss not to continue to honor the story line," Zwick says.
Zwick has a special interest in this particular plot, as he also took on the role of the psychiatrist treating Jesse. It was his first foray into professional acting, something he had not done "since his most embarrassing high school experiences." But there was something about the psychiatrist role that, he says, coincided with "a very brazen, audacious desire to put myself at risk."
* The season finale of "Once and Again" airs tonight at 10 on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).