ABC (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

Who knows? Once and Again may degenerate into The Brady Bunch of the 21st Century. But the Sept. 21 premiere gives promise that this new drama from executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (thirtysomething) will take a mature look at the course of love between single parents.

Sela Ward (Sisters) stars as Lily, separated for eight months from the womanizing Jake (Jeffrey Nordling). Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) plays Rick, whose marriage to the still-embittered Karen (Susanna Thompson) fell apart three years ago. Rick and Lily lock eyes one morning when dropping off their kids at school. Result: believably instantaneous attraction. For the rest of the first episode, Lily and Rick try to discharge their parenting duties while carving out a little dating time. Though the characters endure some familiar embarrassments (don't you just know that Jake and her two daughters will enter the house the minute Lily starts to make out with Rick on the couch?), the honest performances and perceptive writing will have you feeling freshly empathetic. The most pleasant surprise is that Jake and Karen, while not especially likable, are not always wrong. But I'm dubious about the technique of having Rick and Lily confide to the camera in black-and-white pseudo-interviews. "I was...amazed by my body; I wanted him so much," Lily says. Better to show us.

Bottom Line: Good grown-up romance

NBC (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

Judging a TV show by its pilot can be as risky as forecasting a national election from the results of the Iowa straw poll. That said, The West Wing sure looks like a winner. Aaron Sorkin, creator of Sports Night, wrote the script for the 1995 movie The American President. Now he takes us back to the White House for a crackling drama series that focuses on the tireless loyalists who serve the chief executive. A sterling cast includes John Spencer as the gruff chief of staff; Bradley Whitford as his idealistic but arrogant deputy; Richard Schiff as the incisive communications director; Allison Janney as the cool press secretary; and Rob Lowe, getting perhaps the best role of his career as a babe magnet in the George Stephanopoulos mold. At the top of the pyramid is Martin Sheen as a president who spins yarns but carries a big stick. If the Sept. 22 premiere can be trusted, these characters will talk the Washington talk without the vagueness and oversimplification so often heard when TV drama ventures into politics.

Bottom Line: High approval rating

ABC (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

If this new sitcom holds its lead-in audience from The Drew Carey Show, inertia is the only explanation. Two old college chums in their 30s—struggling artist Norris (David Alan Basche) and sex machine Hunter (Stephen Dunham)—share a Brooklyn pad and call each other "dude." In the Sept. 22 premiere, their friend Ford (John Ducey) moves in with them after proclaiming himself gay and splitting from wife Suzanne (Rena Sofer). And who's that ringing the doorbell? It's Chloe (Niesha Trout), the 18-year-old daughter Hunter never knew he had. Should the human repartee fail to slay you (Suzanne to Ford: "You promised to love, honor and not go Nancy on me"), Hunter's dog barks jokes that come with subtitles. Maybe she'll sit up and beg to leave the show.

Bottom Line: Oh get lost

PBS (Sun., Sept. 19, 9 p.m. ET)

A golden opportunity for actors, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night has attracted marquee names through the years: Katharine Hepburn in the '60s, Laurence Olivier in the '70s, Jack Lemmon in the '80s. But maybe we get a clearer view of the characters when we're not distracted by the stars. This 1996 Canadian film, making its U.S. debut on Great Performances, employs the cast of a production staged to acclaim at the Stratford (Ont.) Festival. I knew little of these actors, but they moved me like no other Long Day's Journey ensemble. Without going soft in his portrayal of the "stinking old miser," William Hutt earns sympathy for patriarch James Tyrone. Martha Henry gives a ghostly, heartbreaking performance as Mary, his morphine-addicted wife. Peter Donaldson makes older son Jamie's self-hatred disturbingly real, and Tom McCamus is equally effective as poetic brother Edmund, the character based on O'Neill himself.

Bottom Line: Make this journey

CBS (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET)

Ally McBeal obviously provides the precedent for this synthetic new series about lawyer Lynn Holt (Kathleen Quinlan), whose husband-partner walks out and takes most of their practice with him. Apparently trying to top short-skirted Ally, Lynn strips to her underwear as she paces her office and rails against her cheatin' spouse. And the Ally influence is evident when Lynn confers in the bathroom with her loyal colleague Danni (Julie Warner). In the Sept. 20 pilot, Lynn restocks the firm with a couple of eccentric new hires—slick hustler Rex (Christopher McDonald) and flamboyant, man-hating Randi (Dixie Carter)—while she pursues a serious child-custody case and Danni encourages the settlement of an absurd marital-property dispute by threatening to take a blowtorch to a dog. It's a watchable hour, but nary a speck of it feels real.

Bottom Line: Not a strong case

Sunday, Sept. 19 SEALED WITH A KISS CBS (9 p.m. ET) John Stamos gives some lip in this TV movie as a corporate climber who changes his life big-time.

Monday, Sept. 20 LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT NBC (9 p.m. ET) This crime-drama clone spins off to a grisly start with the killing of a cabbie.

Tuesday, Sept. 21 SPIN CITY ABC (8 p.m. ET) Heather Locklear joins the cast as the mayor's senatorial campaign manager. She'll get the male vote.

Wednesday, Sept. 22 COUNTRY MUSIC ASSOCIATION AWARDS CBS (8 p.m. ET) Vince Gill is host for the 33rd annual Nashville jamboree.

Thursday, Sept. 23 FRIENDS NBC (8 p.m. ET) "I do" or "I don't recall"? Rachel and Ross try to determine their marital status in the season opener.

Friday, Sept. 24 NOW AND AGAIN CBS (9 p.m. ET) John Goodman is killed off (alas), but his brain lives on in the premiere of this strange series.

Saturday, Sept. 25 SELENA ABC (8 p.m. ET) Jennifer Lopez stars as the late Tejano singing sensation in this 1997 biopic.

William H. Macy

Since his Oscar-nominated turn as a weaselly car salesman in Fargo (1996), William H. Macy has been so busy filming movies (Air Force One, Boogie Nights, Mystery Men) that he has had to make appointments to see his own leading lady—his wife, Sports Night's Felicity Huffman, 36. So he jumped at the chance to costar with her in A Slight Case of Murder (TNT, Sept. 19, 8 p.m. ET), a comic thriller which he also cowrote. "She's as good as it gets," gushes Macy, 49, who plays a movie critic who kills his mistress in Murder. "She keeps me on my toes."

Acting is what brought Macy and Huffman together in the early '80s when she enrolled in his Manhattan acting class. They dated for years before finally marrying in 1997. These days, the childless couple share an L.A. home, but being in sync remains tricky. Last winter, after a night on the set, "I got in at 5 a.m. when I heard the alarm go off. It was Felicity getting up to go to work," says Macy, who will next appear with his wife in the Tom Cruise film Magnolia this winter. "So I poured her coffee and got into bed. I drank scotch, and she drank coffee. Then she got up, and I crawled onto the warm spot and went to sleep."

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Leonard.