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'Once and Again' is just great

In a season that's drowning in shows about teenagers, it isn't hard for a show about adults to stand out. However, even if that were not the case ABC's "Once and Again" (Tuesday, 9 p.m., Ch. 4) would still stand head and shoulders above the pack.

Quite simply, this is the best new show of the fall.Considering its bloodlines, that shouldn't come as any surprise. It comes to us from Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the creators and/or executive producers of "thirtysomething," "My So-called Life" and "Relativity." And, like those shows, "Once and Again" is intelligent, thought-provoking television about characters and situations that ring true.

And the lead characters certainly aren't teenagers. Lily (Sela Ward) and Rick (Billy Campbell) are a pair of 40-year-old divorced parents who are more than a bit surprised to find themselves attracted to and falling in love with each other.

As with all good drama, there are complications. Lily is actually still in the process of divorcing her philandering husband (Jeff Nordling). Her 14-year-old daughter, Grace (Julia Whelan), is suffering the sort of teen angst that's so common -- despite the fact that she's a smart, pretty girl, she thinks she's quite the opposite. And 9-year-old Zoe (Meredith Deane) harbors a "Parent Trap" fantasy that her parents will get back together again.

Rick is still dealing with his own guilt over his divorce. His 16-year-old son, Eli (Shane West), is popular and athletic, but he has a learning disability. And that's something that Rick's ex-wife (Susanna Thompson) blames on the divorce. And, while Rick lives near his kids, his 12-year-old daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) still misses him.

Not that "Once and Again" is by any means a downer. There's great joy in Rick and Lily's relationship, and great humor in watching these two people who haven't dated for so long that they don't quite seem to remember how it's done.

Like "thirtysomething," the writing is nothing short of wonderful. It was even enough to lure Ward -- who won a best-actress Emmy for "Sisters" back to the grind of weekly hourlong TV drama.

"I swore I'd never, ever do another hour show," she said. "I have two kids now. I'm going, 'I've got a life.' And that script sat on my desk for almost two weeks."

But Ward's agent finally convinced her to read it. And she said she was hooked on Herskovitz and Zwick's word on page 1.

"By the time I got through with the script, I couldn't get it out of my head," Ward said. "I hadn't seen writing like that in maybe my entire career."

Of course, there's more to a show than just the writing. But the casting in "Once and Again" also hits the mark. Ward and Campbell are great -- as is the entire cast.

Fans of "thirtysomething" are going to love "Once and Again." As will anyone looking for TV that's smart and entertaining.

There aren't a lot of great new shows on the networks' schedules this fall, but "Once and Again" definitely fits that bill.

THE MIKE O'MALLEY SHOW (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., NBC/Ch. 5) proves one thing -- that somebody at NBC thought that Mike O'Malley is capable of carrying a show all by himself. He's not.

O'Malley plays a 30-year-old guy who has always resisted growing up. He lives with an incredibly annoying, slacker roommate named Weasel (Mark Rosenthal) and acts pretty much like a way-too-old frat boy. But the wedding of his best friend makes him rethink his life and decide to win back the girl he wronged (Kate Walsh).

This isn't an awful show, but it isn't a good one, either. O'Malley isn't Roseanne or Bill Cosby or Drew Carey, and even if he were, the show needs better writing.

And the word is that NBC execs became disenchanted with the show already. Don't be surprised if it's one of the first cancellations, at least on the Peacock network.

MISSION HILL (Tuesday, 8 p.m., WB/Ch. 30) is the kind of show that's easy to review. It's awful.

This animated half-hour is ugly to look at, stupid and offensive. Oh, and while it's supposed to be funny -- it's not even close.

Other than that, it's a fine show.

If it matters, the show is about a twentysomething slacker sort of guy, Andy, who lives in the big city with some weird friends. He's an aspiring cartoonist, but mostly he works boring jobs which allow him time to be self-absorbed. In the pilot, Andy's 17-year-old brother moves in with him when their parents relocate to Wyoming.

Again, the animation is just terrible. It's surprisingly violent. And what passes for humor here is when one of the characters pulls his car off to the side of the road so he can urinate in an alley.

"Mission Hill" also breaks one of the few remaining prime-time network television taboos when two of the regular characters -- a pair of middle-aged gay men -- engage in a passionate kiss onscreen. It's supposed to be funny, but, like the rest of the show, it's not.

If any of this sounds entertaining to you, seek counseling.