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'BRUTALLY NORMAL,' 'ONCE AND AGAIN' <br> BOTH DEAL WITH FANTASIES

It would be perfectly normal for WB's newest high school comedy, "Brutally Normal" (9 p.m. and 9:30 tonight) to be brutal.

Though having success with such high school shows as "Dawson's Creek," this year's "Popular" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" before Buffy went to college, WB has gotten nothing but F's for its comedies.

So there hardly were great expectations when I plopped in the tape for -- holy horrors -- another high school series.

Surprisingly, this half-hour show set at Normal High School is more than passable and occasionally clever even if the actors look as if they belong in college and act way beyond their years.

It isn't exactly a comedy, so don't expect any big laughs. It is more like a mini-movie, with the three main characters put in situations that deal with teen-age fantasies. Since there are also several fantasy scenes, the series lends itself to obvious comparisons to "Ally McBeal."

Eddie Kaye Thomas (who played Finch, who seduced his friend's mom in the summer teen movie surprise, "American Pie") is back at it again. He is Russell Wise, who is wise -- and smooth -- beyond his years. He may remind some of a droller version of Ross on "Friends."

In the pilot, "You Get What You Get," Russell meets an older, beautiful woman at an art exhibit and shares an unexpected kiss before getting an even bigger surprise when she shows up later as an authority figure.

Russell behaves like any teen-ager might in the circumstances -- he brags about his encounter to the disbelief of his peer group.

His best friend, Robert or Poo (Mike Damus), then gets involved in a clever scheme to prove that Russell is not lying. Meanwhile, their pretty friend, Anna (Lea Moreno), is trying to retrieve an unflattering picture from the school yearbook editor, a creep who isn't beyond blackmail to get what he wants.

Though I didn't really laugh once, the cast and the show's subversive attitude make it a winner. By WB standards anyway.

A second episode, "The Barricade," also has its moments as Russell gets Anna's favorite eccentric teacher in trouble by giving in to a request to express himself. Russell's expression? He drops his trousers and moons the class. This isn't exactly the way the teacher wanted the class to deal with revolutionary ideas. As in the pilot, Russell finds a clever way to extricate an adult from a problem that he has caused.

On the basis of the two episodes available for review, "Brutally Normal" may not be revolutionary television but it is smart and way above normal for a WB comedy.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 4

Also new to Mondays is "Once and Again" (10 tonight, Channel 7) the ABC romantic drama from the producers of "thirtysomething" that played opposite CBS' "Judging Amy" for the first half of the season and hopes to find a larger audience on its new night.

When it left the air in December, the writers put the lead characters in quite a mess, with Lily Manning (Sela Ward) having severely damaged her relationship with architect Rick Sammler (Bill Campbell) by sleeping with her estranged husband in a moment of weakness and then telling Rick about it.

Understandably, Rick reacted by being angry and silent and pulling away. Normally, it might take an adult a decent amount of time -- if ever -- to get over the hurt and betrayal.

The writers clearly risked not only Rick and Lily's relationship but also the viewers' sympathies. Until the episode, this was a couple that you could root for to get their act and families together.

This being television -- and because "Once" isn't exactly a big ratings hit -- the reconciliation has to come quickly.

Lily actually is getting heat from two directions. She and her husband, Jake (Jeffrey Nordling), have begun divorce mediation. Things are going about as well as they are for Amy Gray and her husband on "Judging Amy," which began a similar story line last week.

The return hour of "Once and Again" is full of moments in which you feel the awkwardness of Lily and Rick, who have to interact because their teen-age children have become close enough friends to discuss their parents' mopey behavior.

And, unlike the high school kids in "Brutally Normal," teen-agers Eli (Shane West) and Grace (the wondrous Julia Whalen) are totally believable, likable and flawed teen-agers.

Tonight, Grace becomes Eli's tutor, helping him understand the moralistic lessons of Camus' "The Stranger." That existential piece of work becomes a metaphor for Rick and Lily's relationship, which is resolved in an incredibly romantic way that may seem to many to be more fantasy than realistic. But TV characters typically are quicker to forgive than adults in real life.

To add to the show's richness, former "thirtysomething" eccentric, cruel adman Miles Drentell (David Clennon) joins the cast as Rick's new complicated client.

Miles hasn't changed any, advising Rick he initially thought him "to be a man who is too robust and handsome to have a brain."

Adds Drentell, the adman: "You know what sells product. Shame."

It would be a shame if a show as smart as "Once and Again" doesn't sell. After all, you have to love a show that somehow smartly manages to bring Camus and Drentell together.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

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