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The 'Buffy' spinoff looks like a winner; Preview: In Los Angeles, and by himself, 'Angel' finds more souls to save.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Angel is sitting in a bar in downtown L.A., trying to drink away the Buffy blues. He's got 'em bad, and he's sounding sad.

"My story?" he says in the voice drenched in neon and noir. "It all started with a girl. She was a really, really pretty girl. I mean, her hair. Her hair was."

Angel never quite finishes the sentence. Before he can take another sip, he's out in an alley behind the bar slugging it out with a couple of nasty-faced vampires, saving a girl with long blond hair from their drooling fangs -- a girl a lot like the one he left back in Sunnydale.

This is Angel's lot in "Angel," the WB spinoff of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" starring David Boreanaz, which debuts tonight. Angel's new job is saving souls in seedy, old L.A., especially the souls of young pilgrims to Hollywood who go there following their show-biz dreams only to become the victims of sexual predators.

(This is, after all, WB. You didn't think he was going to save senior citizens, did you?)

For those not familiar with the elaborate vampire mythology designed by "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon, Angel is not an easy guy to understand. He's a vampire, but he has a heart and soul that can feel human emotions. He also has a gypsy curse on his head that says if he ever experiences happiness, he will once again be reduced to being a purely evil fiend.

Oh, yeah, he's also 244 years old, but doesn't look a day over a buff 24. Most important of all, he is the absolute, loving soul mate of the vampire slayer from Sunnydale known as Buffy. Only they can't be together any more, because he's afraid his vampire lust for her blood will overcome his better angels (so to speak) and he will turn her into one of the living dead.

If you have never seen "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," some of that might sound a little kooky. But it works. Boy, does it work. It works like Homer and Shakespeare worked for earlier cultures that got their sagas around a campfire or down at the Globe Theatre rather than from the tube.

And it looks like it is going to work in "Angel," too. In the pilot, at least, Whedon manages to capture some of the same "Buffy" sensibility -- a rare combination of sexual energy, irony, intelligence, hot bodies, cool moves, action, menace and comic relief. The challenge is to sustain that tricky tone for a full season.

Tonight, Angel's playing savior to a young actress from Missoula, Mont. She's been badly abused, and all she wants to do is go home. Typical of the comedy that keeps this from being a sappy melodrama, she asks him if he's ever been to Missoula.

"During the Depression," he says. "I mean, my depression. I was depressed for a while and went to Missoula." You live 244 years, you've got secrets.

And, along the way, Angel picks up a couple of fun helpers to lighten the funky gloom in his subterranean digs -- the self-absorbed and silly Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) from Sunnydale, and Doyle (Glenn Quinn), a kind of punk Irishman who is half demon and plagued by really bad migraines. During the migraines, though, Doyle gets flashes that include pieces of information, like names and addresses. The messages during those headaches come from "the powers that be," Doyle says.

"Powers that be what?" Angel asks sarcastically. But he soon accepts the information channeled through Doyle and lets it direct him to souls in need of saving.

As for Cordelia, she came to L.A. to be an actress and, as you might guess, she's bombing. She's also next on the hit list of one of the city's worst sexual predators when she and Angel reunite.

With its placement after "Buffy," I'd be stunned if "Angel" is not a success. But it is not all scheduling. Boreanaz makes for an appealing teen hero -- wounded, lovelorn, brooding, sexually smoldering and cursed, a video version of Emily Bronte's Heathcliff in black leather.

'Buffy, the Vampire Slayer'

Buffy's got the off-to-college, missing-Angel, I'm-in-a-life-passage blues. She's got 'em bad, and she's acting real sad, too, as the fourth season of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" opens tonight with "The Freshman."

In fact, for the first part of the hour, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is acting like a downright drip, clutching her books to her chest like a frightened schoolgirl and walking with her head down around a campus that appears to be just too big and scary for poor little Buffy. She gets so wimpy that, by the first commercial break, I was certain she was about to morph into Felicity and start talking to a tape recorder about how bad she feels.

But, then, the vampires appear. Oh, yeah, Buffy just happened to choose a campus near another nest of vampires, don't you know.

At first, the vampires only make matters worse, with the queen of this coven stomping Buffy. This is where Buffy either goes under or takes her vampire-slaying game to the next level.

"The Freshman" is a smart and stylish launch of Buffy onto the next stage of her Hero Quest.

'Sports Night'

Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night" returns for its second season tonight, and the presence of Robert Guillaume would be reason enough to watch.

Guillaume, who suffered a stroke last year, is back as Isaac Jaffee, the newsroom boss, and he plays a key role in tonight's and next week's episodes. It is art imitating life as Jaffee, too, returns to the job early after suffering a stroke. And I do mean "art."

The staff, though, has some questions about Jaffee's ability to steer the ship. And then there's Casey (Peter Krause) wanting to ask Dana (Felicity Huffman) for a date but not exactly sure how to make that move.

If you are a fan, tonight's premiere will remind you how much you like this show and how much wiser it is than any other sitcom on TV. If you haven't yet seen it, make an appointment to do so.

Next week, a consultant arrives (played by Huffman's real-life husband, William H. Macy, of "Fargo"). He looks to be exactly the kind of villain this show really needs to stir its insides.

Tonight's TV

What: "Angel"

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Where: WB (WNUV, Channel 54)

In a nutshell: Worthy, sexy spinoff

What: Fourth season premiere of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer"

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Where: WB (WNUV, Channel 54)

In a nutshell: Have fangs, will travel

What: Second season premiere of "Sports Night"

When: 9:30 to 10 tonight

Where: ABC (WMAR, Channel 2)

In a nutshell: Wise and winning

Pub Date: 10/05/99

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