Before being abruptly cancelled by Netflix last week, The OA was poised to take its third season to strange places. Which is saying something, considering how weird it was from the beginning. The show started with a 4400-style premise (people mysteriously vanishing and returning with inexplicable abilities) and threw in alternate universes, synchronized tai-chi that could open transdimensional portals, haunted houses, the Russian mob, and a telepathic octopus. At the end of the second season finale, the characters jump to a new dimension where—spoiler alert— OA actors Jason Isaacs, Ian Alexander, and others are playing fictionalized versions of themselves on the set of a TV show…that looks like The OA. Are they in our world or a nearly identical one? Is the show they’re filming in that universe cancelled too? Is this all a big fakeout by Netflix and part of a bigger narrative for season three? We may never know.
Like horror movies in the 1960s or machismo action in the 80s, visions of the wonders and terrors of the future are ubiquitous on today’s streaming television. Whether we’re building a new society from scratch (Mr. Robot, many episodes of Black Mirror) or jumping into sexy new bodies ( Altered Carbon, Westworld), these shows explore technology as simultaneously a source of untold possibility and one of potential exploitation and control. In The OA, we see that its impact, for better or for worse, always comes down to the people who harness it: Prairie (Brit Marling) and her fellow captives find a way to cross between multiple universes, but the trip is hardly the ultimate escape that it’s cracked up to be, and our heroes find they’re still trapped by their own fears and personal limitations. Hap (Jason Isaacs), meanwhile, invariably ends up in a position of abusive authority, no matter what universe they’re in.
For fans of stories about finding ways to break through (or at least subvert) complex layers of control, next month marks the 20th anniversary of another surreal, sci-fi television series that was also cancelled too soon: Now and Again. Debuting amid widespread Y2K paranoia, it was a show that mined many of the themes that have come to define future-obsessed programs like The OA, including near-death experiences, swapping an old consciousness into a new body, and clandestine science experiments. Probably most importantly, it highlighted society’s growing unease surrounding technology’s potential to bring about a better world—and the need to reassert one’s independence in the face of it.
John Goodman plays Michael Wiseman, a middle-aged insurance executive who falls to his death on a subway platform in Manhattan. The U.S. government salvages his brain from the accident and places it into the superpowered artificial body of a 26-year-old man (played by Nashville actor Eric Close) as part of a secret military science experiment. Under the supervision of Theodore Morris (pre-24 Dennis Haysbert), the project’s lead scientist, Michael basically becomes Captain America and gets sent on secret missions, combating rogue military generals and black market organ harvesters alike. But his new life has a catch: Under penalty of death, Michael can never again contact his wife and child, or let them know he’s still alive.
CBS execs wanted Now and Again to be something like The $6 Million Dollar Man meets The X-Files, according to The New York Times. By September 1999, when the show premiered, the network had already found success with police procedurals and other programs featuring paranormal and clandestine elements, such as The Twilight Zone, Mission: Impossible, and Touched by an Angel. The executives’ hope was for the bionic man to face off against different villains each week. What they got instead was a sci-fi show that was part action thriller, part romantic drama—and part musical, with Michael getting drunk and singing "Groovin'" by the Young Rascals before getting hit by a train in the pilot, Lisa and her husband playing “Heart and Soul” in old family videos, and Dr. Morris occasionally breaking out into songs like “Close To You” or “Fly Me to the Moon.”
This lighthearted, multi-genre approach was especially bizarre considering that the plots in Now and Again were usually terrifying. In the first episode, an elderly man in Tokyo gets off the subway and leaves four eggs on his seat. As the train continues on, the eggs roll off and hit the ground, where they crack open. Suddenly, everybody’s bleeding from their eyes, nose, and mouth. By the time the train car pulls into the next station, all the passengers are dead. Other episodes feature the leader of a religious cult using microwave technology to spontaneously combust anyone attempting to oppose him, a psycho scientist who releases a suicide-inducing serum, and entomologists using trained insects to commit assassinations.
At the same time, the show follows Michael’s wife Lisa (Margaret Colin) and daughter Heather (Heather Matarazzo) as they engage with their own suburban struggles. Lisa faces off against the corporate execs who don’t want to pay out her late husband’s life insurance policy; Heather learns how to drive. In most episodes, Michael still finds ways to contact or help his family without revealing who he really is, suggesting that even in a world where technology is capable of literally giving someone a brand new body, it can’t override our love for the people in our (former) lives. As such, there’s something deeply nostalgic about Now and Again; Michael’s life is far from perfect at the start of the series (he has weight issues, a family that mostly takes him for granted, and gets passed over for promotion), but after he suddenly “dies” and comes back to life, all he longs for is to go back to the way things were.
Now and Again quickly became known for delivering imaginative scenarios that gave the two other high-profile sci-fi programs at the time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, a run for their money. But what really made the show stand out (and the reason why it holds up today) was its unique sense of style and delivery. This was a primetime program presented with the kinds of long-form storytelling elements we might associate with today’s big-budget HBO shows, expanding beyond the trope-of-the-week formula to encompass evolving character arcs and recurring villains or crises. Years before they became trademarks of shows like Lost, Fringe, and Breaking Bad, most episodes of Now and Again began with what felt like a non-sequitur cold open. Montages were timed to the pace of snare drum rhythms and jazzy interludes, a technique that shows like The Wire and The Sopranos would come to popularize.
In one episode, all we hear is heavy breathing as we look through a gas mask in first-person perspective; we’re the elderly terrorist from Tokyo, now in a New York hotel bathroom, using a syringe to inject neurotoxins into eggs. When a maid walks in, an egg falls and hits the ground. Still looking through the old man’s eyes, we follow as he packs up his gear and leaves, the hotel now littered with bleeding bodies in the hallways and elevator. In another episode, Lisa goes through her morning routine, Michael trains under the watchful eye of Dr. Morris, and the egg man sends a ransom letter to the mayor—all to the tune of "Something’s Coming" from West Side Story, foreshadowing the confrontation, likely between all three, that we know is on the way.
Despite being saddled with a terrible soap opera-y title and airing on the Friday night death slot, Now and Again averaged 11 million viewers a week during its run from September 1999 to May 2000; it also won three Saturn Awards and currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nonetheless, CBS canceled the show after one season, with former network CEO (and then-programming chief) Les Moonves citing unjustifiable expenses (it was shot predominantly on-location all over Midtown Manhattan) for only fair ratings. Because this was well before the days of social media, there was no tangible for people to rally and petition to save it—and in the years since, it’s been all but lost to time. In 2014, CBS released a DVD of the entire 22-episode series, swapping out much of the music for generic, license-free tunes. But for fans of Now and Again, an altered show is better than no show at all. (Some of the original episodes can be found on YouTube.)
When Now and Again debuted in 1999, CBS was capitalizing on our concerns about the future with a show about synthetic bodies, covert U.S. government agencies, and advances in biowarfare —depictions of a “future” we’re still obsessed with 20 years later, as advances in technology make what previously seemed impossible increasingly tangible. But the lesson of Now and Again isn’t about the benefits of having superpowers, or even a new lease on life. Throughout the series, all Michael ever wanted was to be with his family. Ultimately, Now and Again’s message was a warning: Technology will take us far. But we’ll still always miss how things were before.