Gothic Power/Modern Warrior

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Appearing in practically every scene of the new TNT series "Witchblade," Yancy Butler admits she's "pretty beat. We have never probably worked less than a 14-hour day. We have definitely gone up to 18 hours. And by the time I go home and memorize the next day's lines, it's 19 hours. But I have been motivationally jazzed."

TNT aired a two-hour pilot for "Witchblade," based on the best-selling Top Cow comic book, last summer, which became the No. 1 basic cable original movie of 2000 among the highly sought after demographic groups, adults 18-49 and 25-54. The first of 11 hourlong episodes kicks off Tuesday.

A cross between "NYPD Blue" and gothic fantasy, "Witchblade" follows the adventures of Sara Pezzini (Butler), a tough, honorable and sensitive New York detective whose search for justice brings her in contact with an ancient weapon. The Witchblade is so powerful that it can battle all of the Earth's darkest elements.

Since prehistoric time, the Witchblade has picked women of incredible strength and power to wear it. Though possessing the Witchblade gives Sara even more powers, she also must learn to harness its abilities.

David Chokachi plays her new partner, Jake McCartey; Anthony Cistaro is Kenneth Irons, a billionaire intent on possessing the Witchblade; Eric Etebari plays Irons' mysterious cohort, Ian Nottingham; and Will Yun Lee is Sara's slain partner, who has become her ghostly guardian.

TNT was in the market for a weekly series that would first and foremost appeal to men. "Witchblade," says Julie Weitz, executive vice president of original programming, filled the bill.

"I would say 99% of comic book [readers] are primarily male," says Weitz. "If we can get the men and it has elements that are appealing to women, we get the women too. The action element, the strong woman element, the mystery, the cop element--that is all very appealing to both."

The response from women to Sara in last year's movie was positive, says Butler. "Here is a great blend of someone who is very soft and vulnerable in her situation, but can hold her own physically and mentally."

TNT's Weitz adds: "I felt my contribution was to make Sara real, down to earth and beautiful in a natural way."

Weitz also made sure she was clothed. In the comic book, Sara catches the criminals in stiletto heels and a metal bra. "I wear sensible shoes," Butler says, laughing. And jeans, a sweater and a black jacket.

Executive producer Ralph Hemecker admits it has been tricky to balance the realistic and fantasy elements of the series.

"I am calling it 'gothic verite ' because you want to keep the gothic-supernatural, sometimes sci-fi elements going as well as the reality," he says. "But that was one of the hooks for me. I thought it was a pretty unique combination that gave you a lot of storytelling elements."

He and his staff of writers and directors are attempting to inject "Witchblade" with "weight," he says. "We are trying to embrace the genre instead of trying to make it broad or really campy."

"It doesn't look silly," echoes Butler. "The great thing is: The audience is finding out with Sara what this thing can do."

As an example, Butler singles out a scene in the movie in which Sara walks into her precinct and sees a knight in shining armor. "If this was a fantasy-based show, it wouldn't be as odd," says the actress. "But we are juxtaposing these two totally different worlds, and that is what makes it different and cool."

The cutting-edge special effects also give the series an added zing. The amount of effects, says Hemecker, varies from episode to episode.

"Some shows are much more effects-intensive than others," says Hemecker. "We have got to be very judicious in where we decide to use the effects because, obviously, on an eight-day [shooting] schedule, it is tricky."

Hemecker discusses his ideas for the special effects with specialist Max Ivans. "He's really creative and smart," says Hemecker. "Sometimes I'll come to him with things that seem undoable, and he'll think of a way to get it done on schedule and budget."

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* "Witchblade" airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on TNT. The premiere episode has been rated TV-14-L-S-V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence).

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