Lynette Rice
September 29, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Seems hard to believe, but there are actually people out there who find it hard to watch the perfectly chiseled Billy Campbell and the preternaturally lovely Sela Ward as Once and Again‘s fortysomething lovebirds. Apparently that’s what happens when viewers tune in to a drama that so closely mirrors their own often-messy lives. ”I hear everything from ‘it’s too painful to watch’ and ‘it’s too close to my own life,’ to people who say they love it and can really identify with it,” says Ward. Echoes Campbell, ”It’s really had an effect on people who have taken the time to find it.”

The suffering of those who stayed loyal to Rick Sammler and Lily Manning — two dizzy divorcées attempting to merge their complicated lives with all the grace of a train wreck — continued off screen, as viewers saw their beloved series overshadowed on a weekly basis by its time-slot competitor, CBS’ freshman success Judging Amy. Once and Again may have led the fight for viewers ages 18 to 49, but by season’s end, Amy appeared to be winning the war, attracting 14 million fans.

”I’m not happy with the situation,” says Marshall Herskovitz, who exec-produces Once with partner and fellow thirtysomething cocreator Edward Zwick. ”I didn’t like the fact that there were two shows at 10 appealing to the same audience. It doesn’t serve anybody.” His problem is not about to go away. This year, ABC will follow the same odd strategy it did last season: running Once and Again at 10 p.m. Tuesdays until January before replacing it midseason with NYPD Blue (Once then moves to 10 p.m. Mondays). ”We were able to come up with a schedule where Once and Again and NYPD Blue were in originals virtually every week they were on,” says Jeff Bader, ABC’s head of scheduling, defending the musical-time-slots plan. ”It worked well last year.” Herskovitz, meanwhile, is channeling any lingering scheduling angst into Once‘s original mission. ”I set out to humanize all sides of a dilemma that’s very familiar to the American public: divorce,” he says. ”That has been particularly challenging.”

When we last left the challenged couple, an inaugural summit was about to occur between the Sammlers and the Mannings. Lily was frantically preparing for her kids to sit down with Rick’s kids for dinner — hoping against harried hope that everyone would magically and effortlessly bond, and the relationship would reach a new level of security. (Yeah, right. And Lily’s daughter Grace will be calling Rick ”Daddy” by episode 5.) This being a Zwick-Herskovitz drama, Lily’s familial stresses won’t end there: She’ll wrestle with the management of her dead father’s restaurant — and the man who runs it, ex-hubby Jake (Jeffrey Nordling) — while navigating her place as a twentysomething’s assistant at an online magazine.

Once‘s first four episodes will be lighter on Lily stories, however, as the overworked Ward needed a bit more time for her off-camera family. ”Last season, Lily was put through all stations of the cross, and I was working a considerable amount of hours,” says the recent Emmy winner. ”I was begging to have a little break to see my two very young children [Austin, 6, and Anabella, 2]. My son last season said he wanted to scribble all over [my contract]. Needless to say, that put a knife through my heart.”

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