TV Guide
by Shawna Malcolm

Fantastic Four:
Action! Romance! Adventure! Now and Again puts it all together -- and adds up to one of the smartest shows on TV

It seems not even superheroes always nail it on the first try. On an unseasonally warm day in late November, Eric Close, Now and Again's resident state-of-the-art stud, is in the middle of shooting a scene that calls for his bionic character to bust through a door and rescue costar Dennis Haysbert whose wrists are presently bound to a leather chair. Close handles the entrance with proper crime-fighting aplomb, but executive producer Ron Schwary, who's also directing this episode, remains unimpressed with the way his star is removing the tape from Haybert's mouth. "Faster," he instructs. "Just grab the corner and let 'er rip." Close nods, then tries again, and yet again, until Schwary seems ready to move on. "That's good enough," he says. "What do you mean, 'good enough'?" Close cracks. "It doesn't get any better than this."

That's exactly what CBS executives have been thinking about their innovative new drama. Since its September debut Now (Fridays, 9 P.M./ET; this week the show airs TuesdayDecember 28, 10 P.M./ET) has mesmerized critics and viewers alike with its high-concept, millennium-ready premise: The brain of middle-aged insurance agent Michael Wiseman is transplanted into Close's hot bod by Dr. Theodore Morris, a mysterious government scientist (Dennis Haysbert), who orders his new creation to become a warrior in his fight against terrorism. Michael's wife, Lisa (Margaret Colin), daughter Heather (Heather Matarazzo) and best friend, Roger (former Grateful Dead songwriter Gerrit Graham), believe him dead, and Dr. Morris refuses to let the newly minted Michael contact them to tell them otherwise.

Now and Again's smooth mix of action, adventure and romance makes it Friday night's coolest hit since The X-Files.

The show's smart seamless blend of sci-fi, action and romance has proved to be a refreshing alternative to the rash of teen dramas and formulaic sitcoms currently cluttering the TV landscape. "We strive pretty hard for the unexpected," says creator Glenn Gordon Caron (Moonlighting). "I don't want the audience bored. So just when you think the story is going to zig, a lot of times it zags." Hence viewers hit such detours as Michael (who refuses to forget his family) briefly encountering Lisa (she not only failed to recognize her hubby but mistook him for a homeless man), and wisecracking Heather being struck by lightning, only to see what she believes is an angel floating outside her fourth-floor hospital window (it was really her concerned dad in a fluorescent gravity-defying jumpsuit). Such creative plotlines have viewers riveted. Now consistently ties for first place with Dateline NBC on Friday nights among 18- to 49-year- olds. "There's finally something cool for people my age to watch," says 17-year-old Matarrazzo, best known for her turn as a junior high outcast in the indie film 'Welcome to the Dollhouse.' "Diagnosis Murder just wasn't cutting it."

At the center of the show is the charismatic Close, who is at once playful, sexy, and fierce. Ironically, the 32-year-old, who had starred in three failed series in five years (including CBS's cowboy saga The Magnificent Seven), was initially reluctant to take another stab at TV. "But I couldn't get [Now's pilot script] out of my head," he says, on a break at the drama's New York set. "I was struck by how, even though this guys body is bionic, his soul is distinctly human. It was a challenge I was excited to take as an actor."

Caron was considerably less enthused about meeting Close. "Eric was actually the network's suggestion," Caron explains. "And because of that, I have to admit I wasn't holding out a lot of hope." He should have been. "Eric walked in, and I had the same feeling about him that I did when I first met Bruce Willis,' he says. "I was just knocked out."

Close has been known to have that effect on people now and again, especially since his beefy role regularly requires him to flex both his acting chops and his biceps. "My characters body is supposed to be worth $3 billion, so you could my I feel obligated to stay fit," says the actor, who maintains his sleek physique with daily two-hour workouts and does as many of his own stunts as Now's producers will allow. "But you should've seen me pre-personal trainer."

Last spring, said trainer helped Close drop 15 pounds in the nine days before shooting began on the series' pilot. "Granted, that's not the best way to do it," he says now. "But I'd just spent two years on a Western, which didn't call for much exercise other than riding the occasional horse. I wasn't exactly in 'perfect specimen' shape."

Times have certainly changed. "People have started coming up to me in church to tell me how jealous they are that I'm working with Eric," says Colin. "I tell them they should be. He's not only a looker, he's one of the sweetest guys you'll ever have the pleasure of meeting." While Close -- who has a 13-month-old daughter, Kate, with wife Keri, a former social worker -- finds the new-found attention "flattering, he says, "My wife just laughs. She's like, 'Yeah well, I know what you look like when you wake up in the morning.'"

Besides, Close modestly adds, 'I think what [viewers] am really responding to are the hearts of these characters. Here's a guy who's head-over-heels in love with his wife and determined to find some way to be with her again."

'It's an incredibly romantic show and much more realistic than you'd think if all you knew about it was that Eric was some sort of supernaman," adds Colin ("Independence Day"), who was nonetheless hesitant to join the series because of the time it would mean away from her two sons, 9-year-old Sam and 6-year-old Joey, and husband Justin Deas, who plays Buzz on Guiding Light, In fact the hours have proved long enough that the 42-year-old actress has been reduced to drastic measures. "My roots were showing, and I wound up coloring my hair myself because I didn't have time to go the salon. Next thing I know Glenn's written that into the show," she says. "God only knows what he'll come up with next."

Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Television, found himself thinking the same thing last year. "Moonlighting was one of the most revolutionary shows in the history of television,' he says "I was extremely interested in seeing what else Glenn could pull out of his hat." Explains the 45-year-old Caron, who had spent the last decade concentrating on film (he directed 1988's "Clean and Sober" and 1997's "Picture Perfect"). "Les wound up making me an offer my ego couldn't refuse. He said, 'Write whatever pilot you want, and we'll make it.'"

The result is a series inspired not by the superhuman antics of The Six Million Dollar Man but the romantic notions of the musical "Damn Yankees," in which an aging hero sells his soul to Satan in exchange for youth (and a shot at winning the pennant), only to realize that all he really wants is to return home to his wife. "In the beginning, everybody wanted to call it an action-adventure," says Caron, sitting behind a blueberry iMac in his otherwise sparsely decorated office next-door to Now's stages. "I thought 'Gosh, if that's what you think it is, I've really failed.' Sure, it has that element, but hopefully it's all of the different things that life is -- a comedy, a thriller, a romance, even a melodrama."

Caron knows from melodrama: As the creator of Moonlighting, ABC's 1985-89 private-eye hit, he routinely clashed with star Cybill Shepherd. In fact, the "creative differences' became so heated (not to mention widely publicized) that Caron left the series during its fourth and final season. "The one big lesson I learned from that experience was not to build a show around two people, especially if one of them is Cybill Shepherd," he says, sighing heavly. "One of the things that made it so difficult was, the structure of the show was such that Bruce and Cybill were literally in every frame. That was particularly hard for Cybill because I don't think she was prepared for 80- to 90-hour workweeks.'

In contrast, Now's ensemble came to their roles with eyes wide open. "Glenn's daring and original, and he's not out to kiss anybody's butt," says Matarazzo, who remembers watching Moonlighting with mom Camille and older brother Mark as a child. Adds Colin: "Any arguments that come up are very creative and exciting. Glenn's not afraid to kick it up, nor is he interested in just slapping a Band-Aid on things. I very much enjoy and respect that about him."

Yes, but what everybody really wants to know is will Caron allow his leading lady to hook up with his leading man? The writer-director-producer laughs at the question that has haunted him since his Moonlighting days. "You see how well that turned out last time," he says, referring to the show's creative slump after Willis's Dave and Shepherd's Maddie finally did the deed. "Seriously, I don't know. I haven't thought that far ahead. But I'm just stupid enough to make that mistake again." Moonves isn't worried: "I don't think it's as much an issue this time, since these characters are already married. I mean, if they slept together, he'd be sleeping with his wife, although technically she'd be sleeping with a better body than she's used to. That's every woman's fantasy, isn't it?"

December 25, 1999