San Francisco Chronicle
by Tim Goodman

"Now and Again" is different and better
Glenn Gordon Caron show inspired by "Damn Yankees'

ONE OF television's most thrilling shows is "Now and Again," and it has nothing to do with cheap action or riveting drama.

"Now and Again" is a treasure, a wonderful, inexplicable piece of work that separates itself from the pack mostly by being so hard to pigeonhole. And pigeonholing is a byproduct of life in Hollywood, where no show gets the green light unless the producer can say "It's "NYPD Blue' meets "Dawson's Creek.' "

But "Now and Again" (9 p.m. Friday, Channel 5) becomes thrilling just because it's different each week, an hour that is not predictable or by the numbers. It hasn't achieved a level of greatness yet and may never. It's not a landmark show. It doesn't play like a feature film as does "The Sopranos." It never flexes its acting muscle like "ER," or desires to have its uniqueness easily identifiable like "Sports Night."

In fact, people who haven't sampled the series are probably thinking, "Isn't that the show about the fortysomething couple having lots of sex?"

It's not.

"Now and Again" is a show that got on the air because Leslie Moonves, in his effort to turn around CBS, approached "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Gordon Caron and said, in essence, "Make any show you want."

And Caron decided that he'd make a TV show that critics immediately thought was a kind of reworking of "The Six Million Dollar Man," but was really inspired by "Damn Yankees." And that should be enough to tell you that "Now and Again" is wholly different than most of what else is on television.

It would be wrong to come to this series expecting it to levitate. That's not the point. The genius of the show - OK, it does kind of hover - is that it's not exactly about what you think it's about. There are nuances and fun little moments that stand out without needing to scream "quirky!" like "Ally McBeal." It manages to be filled with sci-fi moments without remotely looking like "The X-Files." The dialogue is rich and playful without using the kind of sledgehammer approach that helps separate Aaron Sorkin's "West Wing" from other dramas.

"Now and Again" hooks viewers by doing a lot of little things well and subtly, by being continuously entertaining without having to be dumb or laughtrack-saturated in the process.

The series had the most jarringly audacious pilot in some time, with guest star John Goodman portraying an Everyman insurance broker named Michael Wiseman who gets knocked in front of - and killed by - a speeding subway train. He wakes up to find his brain put in the body of a government-created superman of sorts, played by Eric Close.

No great creative leaps there. And neither do they come in the rules he must live by: Contact your wife (Margaret Colin) or daughter (Heather Matarazzo) and you'll be killed. It's a tidy formula that leads viewers to believe the show will be about one thing (government science project built to counteract terrorism), but is ultimately about something else: Relationships.

It's about this new Michael Wiseman longing for his wife and kid, but not being able to reconnect (a la "Damn Yankees" ) because he no longer exists. Switching gears, changing these emotional tones, is what Caron is particularly adept at and why this show brings viewers back. It's not the same thing every second.

"Now and Again" is a nice package. It plays to all kinds of audiences. Yes, there's action. There's even that sci-fi element (he can bend steel, climb walls, etc.). It's a family show. It's a romance. There's comedy. And with Dennis Haysbert playing the scientist who created this new almost-human defender of the people, there's a detached hipness that attracts viewers looking for something slightly off, less predictable.

Haysbert's character sings Frank Sinatra and the Carpenters and show-tunes. He's coolly confident yet kind of bent. You find yourself wanting more of him, to see if he'll sing again or do something unexpected.

And that - that intangible where we are watching because we want to find out more about the characters and be entertained along the way - is what makes this show go. But yet, "Now and Again" is not boldly original. Just when you think it's going to become something really special, like a "Twin Peaks" or, hell, "Cop Rock," it stays conventional. That's disappointing on one level, but staying within the confines of the drama formula (particularly on staid CBS) is exactly the reason "Now and Again" is still on the air.

If "Now and Again" was too edgy - the most overused word in Hollywood - the CBS audience would abandon it.

In fact, it's amazing that anyone is watching at all. CBS executives have already joked about the Friday night line-up, calling it "No Flow Friday" (meaning "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and the now-canceled sitcom "Love & Money" were not the ideal lead-ins to each other, much less this show).

But "Now and Again" wins its time slot every week. People are finding it. They are hooked by something Caron mixed up in his mind, the way he tweaks the direction of the show.

Earlier this year, before the pilot had aired, Caron said, "Hopefuly, it'll intrigue the hell out of people. It will compel them to come back. . . . The medium is 50 years old now, so the literature is 50 years old. And when you have that much material to stare at, you get a sense of expectation - "I know where this story is going, I know what's going to happen there.' So I think if you can come along and say, "Let me tell you a story, let me tell it in a slightly different way,' you might get people, instead of being passive about it, to be a little more active, in terms of "Oh, I've got to see where that goes.' And as a storyteller, selfishly, that's what I want."

It's clear now that's exactly what he's given us. Something just a little different, something fresh, without alienating anyone along the way.

In television, that's thrilling in its own way.

November 12, 1999