Coming after "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life" (their biggest commercial success and biggest cult hit, respectively) and before "Once and Again" (their most acclaimed series), "Relativity" (1996-97, ABC) is a forgotten entry in the oeuvre of producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. It shouldn't be, as this is a lovely 17-episode exploration of 20-somethings in the same way the other series focused on teens, 30-somethings and 40-somethings.
It's more than that, though. A double meaning is hidden in the title of this debut creation of Jason Katims ("Roswell," "Friday Night Lights," "Parenthood"). In layman's terms, relativity means everything is interconnected. "Relativity's" central connection comes when Los Angelinos Isabel (Kimberly Williams) and Leo (David Conrad) meet and fall in love in Italy, in a pilot episode that's a 45-minute crack binge for hopeless romantics.
But the word also calls to mind "relatives." Isabel and Leo would like to stay in their bubble of perfection, but when they get back home, they have to deal with their families and jobs. Herskovitz, Zwick and Katims show just as much love for the supporting cast as the camera does for Williams and Conrad.
This is good, because I could've easily watched a series where Doug (Adam Goldberg), Leo's best friend, and Karen (Jane Adams), Isabel's sister, are the main characters. Goldberg is a master of naturalistic yet charismatic line readings – and he perhaps delivers the earliest use of "weak sauce" on TV -- and Adams has a sneaky, sad beauty. Their relationship – which starts when Doug elbows his way into Karen's car troubles – follows in the footsteps of Isabel/Leo, but it's more extreme. While Isabel was Everett's (Randall Batinkoff) girlfriend for seven years, Karen is married to Alan (Joseph Kell).
These are not really love triangles. The casting directors are deliberate in their chemistry calculations: We know it's supposed to be Isabel/Leo and Doug/Karen. A core argument of "Relativity" is that people need to be happy not only for their own sake, but for everyone's sake. While it's a cruel reality that Everett and Alan have to get their hearts broken, the show makes a strong case that people must choose relationships that make them happy.
A character who grew on me over the course of the 17 episodes is Leo's kid brother Jake (Devon Gummersall, the only carryover from "My So-Called Life"). He's a less book-smart answer to Brian Krakow, and in an era when Angela Chase analyzed every moment of her life and Dawson Leery would do the same thing a couple years later, Jake is a fragile teen who tries (unsuccessfully) to shield himself from the world through silence. Gummersall mostly acts without words; this is peppered with "MSCL"-type utterances that are more meaningful for their rarity. It particularly works in "Billable Hours" (14), when Jake hits it off with Isabel's cousin Anne (Holly Marie Combs). They agree that a Romeo-and-Juliet comparison is apt – "but they, like, died," Jake notes.
"Romeo and Juliet" imagery is again used in the series' final scene when Leo calls to Isabel on her balcony. Their relationship has monkey wrenches. As Leo's boss summarizes: "The single most incredible connection you've ever had with anyone ... doesn't mean there aren't going to be any problems." However, "Relativity" is not a Shakespearean tragedy, it's a happy story of soulmates that absolutely wallows in the benchmark moments of romance storytelling. When Leo asks Isabel to move into his apartment in "Moving In" (5), the camera holds on Isabel's glowing reaction for a few extra beats.
Still, as perfectly matched as Leo and Isabel are, the reason I love "Relativity" is the warm, familial spirit. I got most teared up when the sisters – Isabel, Karen and Jennifer (Poppy Montgomery) – sing carols at the end of "Unsilent Night" (11). The scene is simple, but it comes at the end of a tumultuous episode built on the performance of Richard Schiff ("The West Wing") as Leo's dad, Barry. He's the Scrooge of the piece, but with a valid reason, as he was laid off on Christmas Eve and he struggles to tell his family. In a nice 1996 touch, he loses his tire-selling job "to a web page."
"Relativity" has aged beautifully, but its most of-the-time element (aside from a guest appearance by the BoDeans) is the lack of cellphones -- a cellphone appears just once in the series. For example, in "Valentine's Day" (16), Isabel thinks Leo is dead in a ditch somewhere because they can't connect via phone. Sometimes I felt like the writers were wringing maximum "missed connection" drama out of the series before cellphones became ubiquitous.
Also on the list of era-specific elements is that Isabel works as a proofreader at a thriving local magazine, which is run by her father David (Cliff De Young). Regardless of the era, the portrayal of the magazine is off-point, particularly when David writes a column and puts Isabel's byline on it. (While editors do indeed rewrite the prose of reporters, bylines are not thrown around willy-nilly.)
It would be a disservice to "Relativity" to say that it was Herskovitz and Zwick's trial run for "Once and Again," but their deftness at juggling a large cast is notable here as early as "First Impressions" (3). Leo meets Isabel's family, and vice versa, but it all happens by accident; it's perhaps too showy for such an early episode, but it's still an impressive feat of logistics. Then in "Karen and Her Sisters" (15), Karen spells out her inner feelings with a therapist; "Once and Again" would use a similar device of characters giving asides to the viewer.
"Relativity" is smarter than your average character drama. With a lot of shows – even ones I love – I am tricked into feeling smart because I notice a glance between characters and I anticipate the upcoming storyline (as the writers intended). On "Relativity," the characters are aware of each other, and this makes them seem real (even within the context of a "soulmates" story). For example, I noticed the flirtations between Karen and Doug, and then Isabel brings it up to Karen. Being on the same page as the characters enhances the connection.
One notable long-burn relationship that got cut off by the cancellation was Jake-and-Jennifer, whose age difference is an obstacle (he's 18, she's 21). Although we do get one inadvertent "stomp on your heart" scene of Jen casually saying she wishes he was her kid brother, she does genuinely like him, and their associated bundles of young-adult problems hint at compatibility. Whereas Isabel and Karen break free of stale relationships for passionate ones, Jen is the object of desire of her older, married photography professor (Kip Gilman). He chooses his family, though, a cautionary note that Isabel's and Karen's approaches are not guarantees of happily-ever-after.
As Jen and the professor look at his recent work in the darkroom (hey, another '90s element), she accidentally sums up the moving picture that is "Relativity": "It's this incredibly happy photograph about a very sad subject."
(This blog post is part of a series about great short-lived TV shows that haven't been released on DVD or digital or streaming services, and are rarely – if ever -- shown in syndication. While some of these shows can be found somewhere on the Internet, fans of great TV want to see them get a proper release. If you're one of those fans, your best bets are to vote for the show at TVonDVD.com or to request information from Amazon.com in the event the show gets released. This will let the copyright holder know of your interest. Find an index of my TV reviews here.)