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Thursday, August 06, 2015

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Now and Again: The Complete Series

Here we are again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly blog about something in my movie collecting that I've watched.  This time out, we get to one of my favourite "Brilliant-but-cancelled" TV shows, Now and Again.  This originally appeared in my notes at September 26, 2014.

I was so tickled when my inbox lit up with the news that Now and Again was finally coming to DVD!  On my wish list of "brilliant-but-cancelled" TV shows that I wanted to revisit on DVD, it was always near the top.  In fact, going over my home video library, I dare say it was the last one on my wish list.  I've just finished watching it, and I'm glad to say, it's still as good as I remember.

Now and Again premiered in the fall of 1999, and ran for just one season.  It was created by Glen Gordon Caron, who created the legendary 1980s romantic-dramady Moonlighting.  After a successful decade in film, it was Caron's much-hyped return to television.  And Caron gave us a sweepingly romantic superhero show. 

Our hero is Michael Wiseman, a high-powered insurance salesman working at a high-powered Manhattan insurance company.  Mid-40s, still madly in love with his wife, and a devoted father.  But then, one day, he's killed in a freak accident on the subway.  He wakes up as a brain in a jar, where a government scientist offers him a choice:  die, again, or, have his brain implanted in a bio-engineered perfect body, as part of a government project.  Michael agrees, and he wakes up in a body that's in the mid-20s, age-wise, and as the scientist tells us, the body is gifted with "the strength of Superman, the speed of Michael Jordan, and the grace of Fred Astaire."  So, Michael begins a new life as Captain America, pretty much, but there's one problem.  To maintain the project's secrecy, he can have no contact with anyone from his former life, or he and those he makes contact with will be killed.  But Michael is still desperately, hopelessly in love with his family, and always finds himself being drawn back to them. 

Caron was able to assemble a spectacular cast for this.  As Michael Wiseman, he got Eric Close, who, after this, went on to a successful run on Without a Trace.  Close does a great job as Wiseman, enthralled with his new body and abilities, but frightened at what his new job entails, and the longing for his former wife.  His wife, Lisa, is played by Margret Colin, whom you may remember as Jeff Goldblum's romance in Independence Day.  Again, her story is a good emotional thrust, as we see her grieving and rebuilding her life and resuming her career following her husband's death.  And for the daughter, Heather, we got Heather Matrazzo, fresh off the 1990s indie classic Welcome to the Dollhouse.  There's also Gerrit Graham as Roger Bender, Michael's former best friend, who's going through various mid-life crises of his own.

Rounding out the cast is Dennis Haysbert, shortly before he found super-stardom as the President on 24, as Dr. Theodore Morris, the slightly-mad scientist in charge of the project and Michael's handler.  Dr. Morris easily becomes the most complex character of the show.  While he and Michael eventually do form a kind of friendship, at the end of the day, they don't really trust each other.  And despite his assertions that Michael's family will be killed if the project is revealed, Dr. Morris is surprisingly tolerant of Michael's visits and crossing-of-paths to his old family. 

Perhaps the most shocking moment for Dr. Morris is the episode Lizzard's Tale.  Dr. Morris runs into an old colleague of his, who has gotten out of the business of attempting to grow organs in a lab and begun the much more lucrative practice of organ harvesting.  When the colleague discovers what Michael is, he kidnaps Michael in the hopes of using him as an organ farm.  When Dr. Morris discovers what's happening, he shows no hesitation whatsoever in killing his former best friend to preserve the project's secrecy. 

Despite his rigidness, though, Dr. Morris can be shown to have a soft spot and a change of heart.  The episode There Are No Words finally brings to light one of the show's recurring thoughts.  To ensure that Michael remains committed to the task, he is kept completely isolated from the outside world:  no TV, no radio, no books.  This, of course, drives Michael crazy with boredom in his downtime.  After begging Dr. Morris to let him read again, they're called away on their latest mission.  Some mysterious plague is destroying all the ink in the world, leaving all printed matter just blank pages.  The culprit is eventually revealed to be the nanite-based immune system that Dr. Morris developed, which has mutated, spread through the world like a virus, and declared ink to be a foreign invader that must be destroyed.  As Dr. Morris slowly becomes disgusted with himself as he discovers he's deprived the world of the printed word, he wakes up and it was all a dream.  And he allows Michael to read again.  It's an OK episode.  They try to draw allusions to A Christmas Carol, but I think they could have done better than the "It was all a dream" ending.  It teeters very close to being a "very special" episode, with the message that "reading is good." 

Another example is the episode Deep in My Heart is a Song.  Michael falls victim to a neurological condition he kept under wraps, that renders him catatonic.  When he's given the order to dispose of Michael and put a new brain in the body, Dr. Morris instead kidnaps Michael to take him home, and spill the secret about the project so Michael's family will have one last chance to say good-bye. 

You never know when Dr. Morris is going to be a friend or foe to Michael, which really throws you off. 

If there's one thing that mildly annoys me after all these years, it would have to be the character of Heather.  You often see it written that kids on TV rarely act like real kids, and you really see that with Heather.  She's a little too quippy and a little too sarcastic to be a real teen.  However, she does get some great moments.  Such as the episode A Girl's Life, where she's struck by lightening walking home from school one night, and rendered comatose.  Dr. Morris hears of the incident, and rushes Michael to her bedside, just in case it's his last time to say good-bye to his daughter.  But Heather comes out of her coma...just as Michael accidentally turns on the super-bright light suit he's wearing as part of Dr. Morris's latest experiment.  This leads Heather to start telling people that she saw an angel as she was coming out of her coma, leading to a rather raw episode about faith and friendship.  It's a good one, as she struggles with a new found faith, and she learns who her true friends are as they stand by her. 

And there's also The Bugmeister, where Heather is feeling all kinds of teen angst, and finds in a kindred spirit in an entomologist while on a field trip.  Of course, the entomologist turns out to be evil, and before long, Michael's coming in to save the day. 

But the crux of the show was always Michael's longing for his old life, a good example of this being the episode By the Light of the Moon.  Dr. Morris is temporarily removed from the project, and his replacement is an attractive female doctor.  Michael is conflicted, as he starts having feelings for this new doctor.  And, it turns out, the feelings are returned.  But as close as the two become, Michael cannot go through with it, as he still loves his wife too much.  It's also a good showing of Dr. Morris's "project comes first" mentality, as in the twist ending, we see that the new doctor was in fact sent in by Dr. Morris to seduce Michael and thus make him forget about his wife and old life. 

And let's not forget the superhero-ish action, as Michael is frequently called upon to vanquish all manner of supervillains.  In one of his earliest outings, he has to take down a pharmacist who has developed a drug that removes people's fears, and they have to stop him before the city is full of people who aren't afraid to take foolish risks.  Then there's the cult leader, who figured out how to harness microwaves to duplicate hellfire and smite those who oppose him.  And, Michael's arch-enemy, the Egg Man, so named for his chosen method of distributing nerve gas:  injected into eggs. 

In fact, Now and Again represents one of my top first world problems:  a brilliant-but-cancelled TV series that ends on a cliffhanger.  A series of misunderstands leads Michael to believe that his wife and daughter have uncovered the secret, and that Dr. Morris is about to have them killed.  So he escapes to rescue his family.  Meanwhile, the Egg Man escapes from prison, bent on revenge, and with a new henchman played by WWE superstar Mick Foley.  It drove me nuts that it ended on a cliffhanger.  Luckily, one of the bonus features on the DVD is a round table discussion with the writers, and the first thing they bring up is their proposed resolution to that cliffhanger. 

It's been great re-visiting Now and Again, and I'm glad that it held up.  I'm just really happy to have this series on DVD.  It still fits the definition of brilliant-but-cancelled. 

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