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The series premiere of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is like 'Clueless' with teeth

The series premiere of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is like 'Clueless' with teeth
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is more than a little star–struck when she comes face to face with the greatest vampire of all time, Dracula (guest star Rudolf Martin), in the season premiere episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." (Richard Cartwright / The WB)

When "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" debuted on March 10, 1997, Los Angeles Times reviewer Howard Rosenberg described it as a "way cooler, way funnier, way scarier" version of the movie that inspired the TV series -- a show in which "plots ... are secondary to fun." Of course, our Buffy did some growing up after the pilot.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is "Clueless" with teeth.

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The WB network hopes to take a bite out of the competition with its way cooler, way funnier, way scarier weekly version of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" theatrical movie, memorable mainly for Paul Reubens (the former Pee-wee Herman) in fangs, Donald Sutherland lurking in a slouch hat and Luke Perry just barely avoiding the hickey of his life.

The new series is deliciously funny satirical gore, tracing the exploits of a 16-year-old high school girl (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who has the guile, strength and martial arts skills (to say nothing of an ever-present stake and cross hanging from her neck) to slay blood-guzzling vampires. It's a dirty job, you know, but somebody has to do it.

What's to worry about vampires? Buffy explains the concept: "To make you a vampire, they have to suck your blood, and then you have to suck their blood. It's a whole big sucking thing."

Speaking of that, however, someone also must be sucking brain matter from the WB executives who scheduled this two-hour premiere at 8 p.m. (the regular time slot for the weekly hours is 9 p.m.). Even beyond its considerable violence, its vampires (much more heavily made up and menacing than their au naturel counterparts in the 1992 movie) could be terrifying to younger children.

In another example of TV's new content ratings being much too vague, the potentially frightening nature of the material is not at all clear from the relatively mild TV-PG that WB has applied to initial episodes of this series. TV-PG is shorthand meaning: The program may contain infrequent coarse language, limited violence, some suggestive sexual dialogue and situations.

If that is so, why did WB run a promo for the series (replete with those snarling, ghoulish images) last Thursday afternoon on its Kids' WB! network, between benign cartoons aimed at young children? If WB executives are trying to entice callow young kids to watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," then a plague of boils on them. If not, then why deploy the scary promo when WB knows little kids are the predominant audience?

In either case, the offense spells irresponsibility.

The neck suckers in this comic thriller of a series may take themselves seriously, meanwhile, but at least Buffy slays with a sense of humor, thanks to the writing of series creator Joss Whedon and the talented Gellar's easy grasp of parody and effortless execution of his lines. They're more clever than those Whedon wrote for the movie. Moreover, Gellar's Buffy is better and edgier than Kristy Swanson's in the movie.

Tonight finds Buffy and her mother as recent arrivals in Sunnydale. Adjusting is hard: new town, new school, new teens, new vampires, some of them secretly mingling with ordinary students who include Buffy's close friends, the bookish Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and the loyal Xander (Nicholas Brendon), as well as nasty Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), the campus snot and Buffy's biggest rival.

Willow and Xander know Buffy is a "slayer," as does Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the very droll, very British school librarian who, as one chosen to be a vampire "watcher," guides and oversees Buffy's activities.

They begin tonight after a student's drained, alabaster-hued body is found in a school locker. Behind the ghastly blood work is "the master," a vampire deluxe with an attitude and really bad skin problem. We watch him get ever pastier in his candle-lit underground chamber while awaiting "offerings" from his sub-vampires and pontificating endlessly: "As it is written, so shall it be." That would freak out even Bela Lugosi.

We hear foreboding vampire talk of a "harvest," a "prophecy" and the "anointed," and in a coming episode Buffy is forced to choose between her social life and her higher calling as a "slayer" standing between these covens of darkness and the endangered residents of Sunnydale. But plots here are secondary to fun.

Why do "the master" and his toothy crowd spend much of their time slinking underground? "Vampires really jam on sewer systems," explains Buffy, who is capable of breezy one-liners even while nailing her foes with a stake or taekwondo. And showing he's in touch, Whedon also includes some serious teen dialogue.

Owen: "Hey."

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Angel: "Hey."

Still . . . there's something bothersome about the cross that makes the vampires in "Buffy" shrink in horror. As a non-Christian, I demand to know why a Jewish star doesn't also work. Perhaps, like TV's aged record of exposing young children to inappropriate promos, it's a matter of irreversible tradition.

As it is written, so shall it be.

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