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FAMILY ISSUES, BIG AND SMALL, <br> SPICE 'ONCE AND AGAIN' OPENER

Now comes the hard part for Lily Manning (Sela Ward) and Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell). After tying the knot in last season's "Once and Again" finale and uniting their two families, there is little time for romance.

They have to now deal with the smaller and bigger issues connected to marrying again and bringing their families together.

If tonight's effective and affecting third-season opener (10 p.m., Channel 7) is any indication, this isn't going to be anything close to "The Brady Bunch."

Lily and Rick are going to have to behave as much like referees as parents and stepparents.

Essentially, every issue they face deals with power -- loss of it, fear of not having it, joy of winning or earning some of it every once in a while.

The little issue tonight concerns the territorial dispute between Lily's younger, fifth-grade daughter, Zoe (Meredith Deane), and Rick's fragile, 10th-grade daughter, Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood). They share a room for the few days a week that Jessie is legally required to live with her father. And things between the two daughters aren't going well.

Sleeping arrangements and poster placements lead to numerous battles that land uncomfortably in the lap of their parents when they would rather be in each other's arms.

But they soon are confronted with a bigger problem, which has been revealed in ABC's promos. Eli (Shane West), Rick's lost but inherently good 18-year-old son, has been arrested on drug charges after his friend's marijuana is found in his car.

Eli's mother and Rick's ex-wife, Karen (Susanna Thompson), who is shaken by Rick's remarriage, wants her son to face the music. Her sentence: Life without music, his one true love.

Will Rick agree or will he listen to reason in the name of Lily and reach for a compromise?

It would be unfair to tell you the outcome. Besides, that really isn't the point. To many, the power plays between Rick and his ex-wife and Rick and his new wife will be realistic and compelling, which is a hallmark of this critically acclaimed but little-watched program.

If Rick expected Lily to sit back and be powerless in her new position as a stepparent, he was sadly mistaken. Seeing the one parental opening available to her, Lily befriends Eli and is able to do something his birth parents can't do: See him for who he really is.

Indeed, one of the strongest scenes in the hour is a face-off between Karen and Lily in which Rick is uncomfortably and oddly silent.

The perplexed look on his face makes you feel for him. He is certain to be in the middle of many more arguments this season. And you have to empathize with the ladies as well. Lily has to feel a little powerless, Karen has to feel like she is losing a little control.

Sure, the children don't have it easy. But the territorial dispute among the four parents (Lily's ex, Jake, played by Jeffrey Nordling, will have his own issues eventually) will likely be a big focus of the series this season.

As well-written and as beautifully performed as this series is, the family drama will probably be a tough sell on Friday nights, when viewers typically head for the video store.

It got the time slot because ABC Entertainment won a power struggle with ABC News. The coveted 10 p.m. Friday slot has been the domain of the news magazine, "2 0/2 0," for years. "2 0/2 0's" ratings have been strong, though its demographics could have been better.

The loser in the power struggle is Barbara Walters, who didn't appreciate being moved to 10 p.m. Wednesday. Like Karen, she doesn't like losing and is biding her time to reclaim control.

If "Once and Again" doesn't establish its ratings power within a month or so, one can see Walters getting her old home back before the new year.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 4

Like many critics, I wasn't involved in ABC's reality series, "The Mole" (8 tonight, Channel 7). In the show, 14 people of various ages and walks of life try to uncover who among them is a spy trying to sabotage the games they play for prize money. The winner of the contest walks away with as much as $1 million, depending on how well everyone does in the games.

"The Mole" lost me early last season because the premiere was so confusing and there really wasn't a play-along element to keep one's attention.

However, that all changed on one sleepless night during ABC's portion of the summer press tour in Los Angeles. The final few episodes of the series were replayed on closed circuit and I couldn't turn it off.

The gamesmanship between the participants trying to stay alive while uncovering who was a network plant was incredibly involving.

And ABC promised in a subsequent press session to make the series more accessible in its second year.

It has done just that. The new edition, "The Mole II: The Next Betrayal," may not allow you to know as much about the participants as the players do. But at least viewers see the weekly quiz the players are taking this time and know enough to play along. Viewers just won't know if they would have passed the quiz, since the answers aren't revealed. You just find out who had the lowest score, because that person is eliminated.

In the first two episodes, the 14 players, who quickly establish themselves as personalities, go to Switzerland and Italy to play some adventurous, funny and selfish games that test their psyche. Alliances are made, trust is broken.

It never gets as down and dirty as "Survivor" or "Big Brother," but people's feelings are definitely hurt and arguments ensue. And in reality TV, that is viewed as a good thing.

"The Mole" is so much more involving and entertaining than it was early last season that I might even consider playing this season. But as smart and as much fun as the new "Mole" is, the only viewers probably willing to sacrifice their Friday nights every week to watch and play this game are relatives of the participants.

Rating: 3 stars
e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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