Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Now And Again saw Moonlighting’s creator making his own kind of superhero show

One Season Wonders, Weirdos And WannabesOne-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of short-lived TV shows.

The first-season finale of the CBS sci-fi/adventure series Now And Again was one of the damnedest episodes of one of the strangest shows that the network ever aired—and CBS was once the home of The Twilight Zone. Created by Moonlighting mastermind Glenn Gordon Caron, Now And Again was an at-times untenable hybrid of science-fiction, spy action, and domestic melodrama, following a superpowered, scientifically engineered secret agent (played by Eric Close) who has the brain and memories of a recently deceased New York insurance agent named Michael Wiseman (played by John Goodman in the pilot episode). All season long, in between—and often during—dangerous assignments for the U.S. government, Michael found ways to break away from his creator/handler Dr. Theo Morris (Dennis Haysbert) and get back to his suburban home to see his widow, Lisa (Margaret Colin), his daughter, Heather (Heather Matarazzo), and his best friend, Roger (Gerrit Graham), none of whom knew that this handsome, muscled youngster was really the man they’d all loved.

There’s no big adventure in the finale, because Dr. Morris is waiting for a new tracking device for Michael. Most of the episode cuts between the newly separated Roger looking for a place to live, Michael getting antsy from being stuck in his swank Manhattan townhouse, Lisa looking into the possibility that her husband didn’t die right away when he was accidentally pushed in front of a subway train, and what life in prison is like for the series’ big serial-poisoning supervillain, The Eggman (Kim Chan). After nearly 40 minutes of not much, the tracking device finally shows up, but Michael’s worried that Dr. Morris is going to take advantage of the implantation surgery to wipe his memories once and for all, so he knocks him out and races to Lisa’s house to tell her and his daughter to flee. Meanwhile, The Eggman gasses the entire prison population save for his bodyguard (Mick Foley), and escapes. Roll credits. To be continued.

Advertisement

Now And Again was set up perfectly for a second season, which everyone involved expected to happen. It wasn’t a ratings smash, but it did well enough for a show that CBS executive Les Moonves had banished to Friday nights, and it had the kind of critical support and devoted fan base that builds cult hits. (The first season won the Saturn Award for Best Network Television Series, landing in the middle of a six-year stretch when the award otherwise went to two other certified cult favorites: The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.) But Caron suspected they might be in trouble, because he had the clear impression that Moonves didn’t “get” the show. So he decided to force the network’s hand by ending the season on a pair of cliffhangers.

The gambit didn’t work. Now And Again was canceled. And because this all happened in the days before social media rallying, the series is nowhere near as well-remembered as it should be. When the long-awaited Now And Again DVD set came out two months ago, it arrived without fanfare, and didn’t draw much of a response in the media.

Advertisement

And that’s a shame, because CBS finally did justice to Now And Again with the DVD, which contains over two hours of new interviews with the cast and crew. For the most part, the people who made Now And Again talk about how it was one of the best jobs they ever had, and how they still don’t understand how they didn’t get a second season. Caron, though, has a different perspective. He says that when he got the word that they’d been canned, “A small part of me was wildly relieved.”

Outside of maybe Dan Harmon and David Milch, there have been few showrunners as “auteur-like” in the history of television than Caron—not because of any distinct personal stamp that he puts on his work, but because of the way he conducts his business. On Moonlighting, Caron was famously behind schedule constantly, because (as he says on the Now And Again DVD) he didn’t really care whether ABC got 20 episodes a season from him, so long as he turned in a script that was “worth photographing.” CBS let Caron know that he wasn’t going to be able to get away with that on Now And Again, but while he produced a full 22-episode season, he didn’t really change the way he worked. He refused to sit in a writers’ room and would instead hear fragments of pitches from his writers, assign them to flesh out their ideas into scripts, and then rewrite their submissions from top to bottom. And he still took his time with his process, sometimes making actors wait around hours for finished pages.

Advertisement

In the interviews on the Now And Again set, the show’s staff writers René Echevarria (who’d go on to executive produce Teen Wolf), and Michael Angeli (who’s since worked on several genre shows, most notably Battlestar Galactica) talk about Caron’s methods back then, which literally involved him sitting around, waiting to be inspired. Caron would chew over episodes until he came up with something startling, because he believed surprises and unexpected digressions were truer to life. (One of the recurring guest stars on Now And Again, Chad Lowe, says on the DVD that Caron’s scenes are a pleasure for actors to play because they have “so many trains of thought.”) Echevarria and Angeli say that Caron was turned on by story pitches that seemed to put the characters into such impossible corners that the writers had to retire to a nearby bar to try and think of a way out. In that way, Caron is a lot like one of his proteges, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, whose first produced screenplay Wilder Napalm was directed by Caron.

Advertisement

After Moonlighting, Caron preferred to think of himself as a movie director. (His other feature films include the 1988 Michael Keaton drama Clean And Sober, the 1994 remake of Love Affair, and the 1997 Jennifer Aniston rom-com Picture Perfect.) The curious thing about CBS and Moonves’ souring on the show is that Moonves himself had originally courted Caron, promising that CBS would back any pilot that Caron wanted to make, and would give him a sizable paycheck even if the network chose not to go to series. CBS at the time needed the credibility that landing the creator of Moonlighting would confer, and while Caron says that he worried that “everyone will know I’m a fake and a fluke” if he launched another show, the ego-stroking and promise of creative control won him over.

Now And Again was inspired by Damn Yankees, the Tony-winning musical about a dumpy middle-aged man who sells his soul to the devil to become a young, major-league baseball power-hitter, then misses his old wife so much that he moves back into his old house as a boarder. The show also recalls the 1966 film Seconds (about a well-off older man who buys a younger body and then is dissatisfied with his swinging new life), the origin story of Captain America (another government-developed super solider), and the very different secret agent TV series The Six Million Dollar Man and The Prisoner (with Now And Again drawing equally on the rollicking adventure of the former and the rampant paranoia of the latter). The ingeniousness of Now And Again’s body-switching premise was that it allowed Caron to tell stories about problems that matter to middle-aged people—raising kids, trying to pay the bills, keeping romance alive—but to tell them with a star who looked like Eric Close.

Advertisement

The biggest mystery regarding Now And Again’s modest success is how a show with a star as ripped and sexy—and frequently shirtless—as Close couldn’t bring in more viewers. (Also a mystery: Why Close didn’t go on to have a more impressive career. He’s worked steadily, but has been mostly playing supporting characters on shows like Without A Trace and Nashville.) In Now And Again, Close embodies the combination of Michael Jordan, Superman, and Fred Astaire that Haysbert’s Dr. Morris intended his creation to be. Close says he had to work out constantly—on set and off—to maintain his body. But when the camera rolled, he played the fantasy of a man who’d been overweight and out-of-shape for decades, suddenly finding himself looking chiseled, able to lift heavy objects, and run super fast. Close’s Michael enjoys what he can do, though not so much that he doesn’t wish he could just scarf down junk food and watch TV in his an easy chair—two activities that Dr. Morris can’t allow.

The relationship between Michael and Morris—the latter of whom calls his charge “Mr. Wiseman”—anchors Now And Again, imbuing the series with a richer meaning. The man who Michael calls “Doc” is his near-constant companion, and a lot of the show is about Dr. Morris realizing that he’s going to have to adjust his expectations for this project, and to give Mr. Wiseman opportunities to be a person, not just a weapon. Dennis Haysbert had been a professional actor for 20 years before he was cast in Now And Again, but this was the biggest recurring TV role to that point, and it codified the Haysbert screen persona: steely and erudite, with an unexpectedly wry sense of humor. He played well off of Close, showing an unforced affection for Mr. Wiseman, while also coming off as far more committed to the experiment than to Michael’s happiness.

Advertisement

Haysbert’s casting was forced on Caron by CBS, but Caron quickly came to appreciate what the actor could do. The other casting choices were Caron’s, and they were inspired. Colin was a veteran of soaps and procedurals, and played Lisa as a strong, funny woman who was also visibly terrified about having to start her life over without her husband—and without her claim on his life insurance, which gets denied in a running season-one subplot. Matarazzo was best known at the time for playing a painfully awkward seventh grader in Todd Solondz’s offbeat indie comedy Welcome To The Dollhouse, but as Heather in Now And Again, she got to be more of a typically angst-ridden, sarcastic teen, with an unusually non-glam look for TV. (Caron’s policy on casting younger actors: “Don’t get the kid who grew up in Burbank.”) And Graham was someone who Caron had always wanted to work with, having seen him in countless cult movies and quirky TV series.

Graham’s character Roger has one of the most moving arcs in Now And Again. As the only person from Michael Wiseman’s old life who knows that there’s some connection between his late friend and the young hunk who calls himself “Michael Newman,” Roger takes the very existence of a new Michael as a challenge to become a better person. That’s one of the elements that set Now And Again apart from the scores of quasi-superhero shows before and since: The world-saving runs parallel with stories about non-heroes trying to find a job, or to be a good parent. On the DVD set, Graham talks about how easy it was to bring Caron’s words to life, saying that in every scene, there was, “The moment of recognition… ‘I know what that feels like.’”

Advertisement

Caron didn’t neglect the sci-fi/superhero side of Now And Again. In addition to The Eggman—whose first poison gas attack was one of the most terrifying and gruesome scenes ever to appear on a broadcast TV show at that time—Michael deals with strange plagues and dangerous thugs, and he grapples with typical superhero stresses, like how to protect his secret identity in the middle of a public crisis where he has to use superpowers to survive. But Now And Again’s writers also came up with episodes like “I’ve Grown Up Accustomed To His Face,” where Michael wakes up alone and unbarred in his townhouse and has to decide whether to risk escape or to treat this as a test; and “Deep In My Heart Is A Song,” which brings back John Goodman for an extended flashback to Michael’s old life; and “I Am The Greatest,” where Michael meets an earlier experimental super-soldier who’s now living his own life. Caron says he was baffled when Now And Again won a Saturn, because he never thought he was making science fiction. Now And Again is really about obligation and desire, and how we all spend a lot more time on the former than the latter.

Now And Again debuted in the same fall TV season as Freaks And Geeks, another show that might’ve become a phenomenon if it had aired five or 10 years later. The semi-serialized storytelling of Now And Again was rare on prime-time TV in 1999, to the extent that Caron raised a lot of eyebrows when he ended his pilot episode with a “To Be Continued” card. In the years before Lost—or Fringe or Person Of Interest, both of which Now And Again better resembles both structurally and thematically—there weren’t that many shows that balanced stand-alone adventures with cliffhangers and multi-episode subplots. Now And Again’s Saturn competitors The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer were the most successful examples of just that (and they both had the advantage of having grabby names, which Now And Again didn’t). In the middle of its first season, Now And Again landed on the cover of TV Guide, under the headline, “The New Millennium’s Hottest Fantasy Show Has Already Arrived.” That turned out to be wishful thinking.

Advertisement

But even though it didn’t thrive, Now And Again was a worthy experiment in using a preposterous premise as the container for an earnestly philosophical consideration of what animates and motivates a human being. The pieces didn’t always fit together neatly—and ultimately Caron was a bad match with CBS, no matter how much the network wanted him. In the end, Caron turned out to be a lot like Michael Wiseman: working for an organization that didn’t entirely trust him, and doing his best to give them just enough of what they wanted so that he could save at least a little time for himself.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder

Advertisement

Share This Story