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by Bruce Fretts

'Again' and 'Again'
Could ''Now and Again'' be the next ''X-Files''?
Meanwhile ''NYPD Blue'' may be getting bumped by the overrated ''Once & Again,''

They're both new shows. They're both created by veterans of late-'80s ABC dramas. And they both have the word ''Again'' in their title. But there's one big difference: CBS' ''Now and Again'' is the fall's most underrated series, and ABC's ''Once & Again'' is the most overrated.

''Now'' follows a washed-up insurance-company executive (John Goodman, whose performance in the pilot was so Willy Lomanesque that you wish he'd replace Brian Dennehy in ''Death of a Salesman'') who falls in front of a subway train, then has his brain transplanted into a perfect human specimen (Eric Close) designed to work as a government agent. Yes, that old story. But as told by Glenn Gordon Caron -- in a radical departure from the smirky romantic banter of ''Moonlighting'' -- ''Now'' is funny, scary, and surprisingly addictive.

Even though he is forbidden to make any contact with his old family, Close wants more than anything to see his wife (Margaret Colin) and teenage daughter (Heather Matarazzo, of ''Welcome to the Dollhouse''). Both these actresses are so instantly endearing that you root for a reunion. They're just part of a fantastic ensemble. Close seemed fairly generic on duds like ''Dark Skies'' and ''McKenna,'' but he displays a new vitality here. As his God-complex-ridden ''creator,'' Dennis Haysbert contributes a bravura turn. Gerrit Graham supplies winning comic relief as Goodman's cowardly ex-coworker.

As Close pursued and finally captured a terrorist known as the Eggman (because he injected eggs with nerve gas), ''Now'' has built a sizable audience in a tough spot -- Fridays at 9 p.m. -- that used to be owned by Fox's ''The X-Files.'' Creator Chris Carter hasn't been able to hang onto viewers with his inferior follow-ups ''Millennium'' and ''Harsh Realm.'' With its potent mix of paranoid fantasy, dark humor, and sexual tension, ''Now'' may be the new ''X-Files.''

''Once,'' on the other hand, feels like the old ''thirtysomething.'' Exec producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz's latest series suffers from some of the same flaws as their original yuppie opus -- self-absorbed characters, uneven acting (Sela Ward is wonderful as a suburban single mother, but Billy Campbell is way too plastic as her divorced-dad lover), and dialogue so indulgent it makes you want to scream (e.g. ''What does it mean to be an architect?'').

While ''Now'' has proved terrifically unpredictable, ''Once'' has stuck to a routine course: Ward and Campbell met cute (dropping off their kids at school), fell into bed, felt guilty, and worried that they were moving too fast. That all happened in the first few episodes -- where do they go from here? At this rate, they'll be married by May sweeps, creating a ''Brady Bunch''-like blended family next season.

Now comes word that ''Once,'' which was originally set to air in the Tuesday-at-10 time slot only until ''NYPD Blue'' returned on Nov. 9, may stay there indefinitely. That would seem like a vote of confidence from ABC, but ''Once'' has been slipping in the ratings since its strong debut, and the network must know that moving it now could hurt it even more. Instead of shunting aside a certified TV classic like ''NYPD,'' here's an even better idea for how to save ''Once'': Put John Goodman's brain in Billy Campbell's body.

October 15, 1999