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Yuppie Angst Ages Nicely

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Tuesdaysomethings. . . .

A newcomer already in place is “Judging Amy” on CBS, and on the way are the WB’s “Angel” and UPN’s “Shasta McNasty” and “The Strip.”

Arriving tonight are NBC’s vapid fourth rock from the sun, “The Mike O’Malley Show,” and the WB’s own inexplicable alien, the animated “Mission Hill,” making a quickie pit stop here en route to its ultimate Friday time slot.

Easily the evening’s brightest new light, though, is “Once and Again,” a sleek, gleaming, sophisticated and highly inviting ABC family drama about tender, romantic, hopeful--and yes, funny--beginnings arising from ruptured marriages in upscale suburbia.

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“Once and Again,” too, premieres tonight, and is from the producing pair whose creation of “thirtysomething” for ABC in 1987 gave viewers an earlier, terrific, challenging hour of television.

And pop culture new slang.

Some words are destined to become Play-Doh. So almost from the onset of “thirtysomething,” other age groups began to be loosely categorized in print and elsewhere as twentysomethings, fortysomethings or whatever. And talk about versatility. Linguistic adventurists learned that “something” not only could be detached from “thirty” and applied in singular or plural to other numbers, but also to just about any noun.

Just as “gate” could be severed from “Watergate” and transplanted elsewhere for the purpose of creating catchy new designations for lesser scandals.

Which returns us to “Once and Again,” the latest from Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, and to ABC’s troubling decision to plunk it down in the 10 p.m. time slot that “NYPD Blue” will reacquire in eight weeks.

Drafting a disruptive relocation in advance of a show’s arrival is bad enough. Hinting at a term limit for a series--that may become the season’s most engaging newcomer--is even worse, and sufficiently scandalous to earn the ultimate title of disgrace.

Tuesdaygate.

Viewers ultimately will make the call on “Once and Again,” which is likable out of the, uh, gate, with Sela Ward and Billy Campbell laser-locking at first sight as Lily Manning and Rick Sammler in a relationship between middle-aged parents as humorous as it is touching.

He’s a divorced father of 12-year-old Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood) and Eli (Shane West), a high school junior whose insecurity stemming from a learning problem belies his status as a Big Man on Campus.

She’s a married-but-separated mother of two daughters, 9-year-old Zoe (Meredith Deane) and 14-year-old Grace (Julia Whelan), who wears her self-conscious teen angst so painfully that you may think you’re watching Claire Danes in “My So-Called Life,” another appealing ABC series from Herskovitz/Zwick that lasted not much longer than a zit in the mid-'90s.

The chemistry between Lily and Rick is immediate and so palpable that it bursts right through the screen. Against a background of minutiae and mess on the home front, and Lily’s neuroses, the first two episodes are mostly foreplay for the inevitable You Know What, a sequence that resonates honesty not because this union under the sheets is perfect, but because it isn’t.

Before reaching that point, Lily and Rick have some humorous moments in which they emulate the awkward behavior of teens, even as they fulfill the roles of parents counseling their own kids. If Lily’s intense dating jitters are distractingly over the top at times, she has other attributes that more than compensate.

There’s a soothing tone of civility here, even from adults who are meant to be somewhat combative, that seems almost too good to be believed. Except for a glitch or two, for example, Lily’s estranged playboy husband (Jeffrey Nordling) remains amiable. And Rick’s former wife (Susanna Thompson) is so reasonable and attractive that you wonder what the problem was.

It’s just television, of course. Yet very good television.

*

Which is much more than can be said about that comedy in futile pursuit of a good punch line, “The Mike O’Malley Show,” whose star is yet another stand-up comic granted his own TV series. Make that plural. His first one was the brief “Life With Roger” on WB.

Do any of these guys ever work clubs anymore?

This is one of those slob buddy comedies in which Mike and his New Haven, Conn., homemate, the manchild Weasel (Mark Rosenthal)--a sort of Stanley Kowalski-lite--spend a lot of time reveling in the refuse of their lives while wondering aloud why anyone would ever think them just a bit gross.

“The Mike O’Malley Show” would be tolerable if it were funny. But it’s not, tonight’s only positive result coming when Weasel utters this memorable self-mocking line: “Put two losers together, and you know what society calls us? Buddies.”

Speaking directly to the camera (“So you’re probably wondering what went wrong”), Mike sort of narrates his own story, which tonight opens with a flashback of him consoling his pal Jimmy (Will Arnett), whose fiancee, Marcia (Kate Walsh), has left him at the altar. Cut to the present, when Jimmy, who is supposed to be a doctor, is breaking a vow to Mike by again preparing to marry Marcia. So Mike refuses to be best man.

You believe Jimmy is a doctor the same way you believe that Mike’s former girlfriend (Missy Yager), who is working on her second degree from Yale, still maintains an interest in him. The only way you see them together is if she puts him on a leash and walks him.

*

Perhaps “The Mike O’Malley Show” would be more fun if it were animated and most of its characters had blue hair. However, that doesn’t work magic for “Mission Hill,” whose cartoon look is all that distinguishes it from other mundane sitcoms.

At least that goes for the premiere, which has 24-year-old wannabe cartoonist Andy French acquiring his little brother, Kevin, and the family dog, Stogie, from their parents, who are moving to Wyoming. His entourage already includes his oafish sidekick Jim.

Andy immediately begins teaching nerdy high schooler Kevin the ropes of bachelorhood. The brothers fight, the dog barks, there’s talk of masturbation, breasts are called “jugs,” gay guys passionately smooch and Kevin gets drunk and makes such a din that he disrupts Andy from having sex with his girlfriend.

Just the kid-accessible ticket to lead off WB Friday nights.

Although “Mission Hill” is billed as a series that will both “embrace and satirize youth culture,” its value and benefits from animation are not immediately apparent. Nor is there much distinctive about the voices (Wallace Langham, Vicki Lewis, Brian Posehn and Scott Menville).

You’d expect better from creators Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who are former executive producers of Fox’s “The Simpsons,” a parody of the nuclear family whose animation has always transported viewers to comedic realms beyond the reach of live action. And, unlike this first taste of “Mission Hill,” the writing ain’t bad either.

* “Mission Hill” premieres at 9 tonight on WB before moving to its regular 8 p.m. Friday time. The network has rated it TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex).

* “The Mike O’Malley Show” airs at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

* “Once and Again” airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on ABC. The network has rated it TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for coarse language).


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