Looks like there's a changing of the guard in store for Sunnydale.
Faithful watchers of UPN's Buffy the Vampire Slayer know Sunnydale as the ill-named California town that had the misfortune of being built over the hellmouth, a spot all the world's supernatural nasties call home. They've also doubtless heard that star Sarah Michelle Gellar will have fulfilled her seven-year commitment to the show at the end of this season and may not be returning.
And while it's dangerous to assume too much from watching just the first episode of any Buffy season - season five, which started out with the Buffster battling Dracula, ended with her dying to save a sister who had never even been introduced in seasons one through four - tonight's 8 o'clock opener suggests the creative forces behind the show are getting ready for anything.
Like, perhaps, a name change to Dawn the Vampire Slayer.
Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) is Buffy's kid sister, and tonight finds her filling the role of apprentice slayer, watching with a mixture of awe and exasperation as the finer points of vampire extermination are explained. "It's about power," Buffy continually reminds her, establishing the rationale by which a teen-age girl can defeat the undead in hand-to-hand combat, "who's got it, who knows how to use it."
By show's end, not only is Dawn proving she's got at least some of the moves, but she's even linked up with her own nascent Scooby gang - a pair of loner misfits whom no one else in school wants any part of (shades of how Buffy linked up with Xander and Willow way back when).
Although it's too early to say much about Dawn's new pals - neither Carlos, first seen skulking off to the basement, nor Kit, who's introduced sobbing in a lavatory stall, is given enough screen time to make an impression. But the budding process of regeneration that begins tonight bodes well for a series that was best back when its characters were encumbered the least.
Not that last season was a bust. The celebrated musical episode, "Once More With Feeling," featuring songs written by series creator Joss Whedon, was exemplary in both its daring and its execution, and the season finale, where a vengeful Willow's determination to destroy the world (after the murder of her lover by the cretinous Warren) was averted by something as simple as childhood friendship, again demonstrated how the show deftly balances the apocalyptic and the mundane.
But the overall tenor of the season was so dark (heck, it began with Buffy being yanked - unwillingly - from heaven), that fans began worrying it had lost its way amid all the melancholy.
Not all the signs tonight are positive. The rehabilitation of Willow (Alyson Hannigan), whose destructive rage caught everyone off-guard last year (she was always such a nice girl!), appears to be taking place in a British pasture way-too-immersed in New Age philosophy; even Willow realizes she deserves harsher treatment than this. And Spike, Buffy's vampire lust object who got his soul handed back to him last year - doesn't seem nearly as compelling as an emotional cripple as when he was an emotional abomination.
Still, Buffy is still Buffy, complete with its universally appealing cast (someday Gellar will get the recognition she deserves for anchoring the show so effortlessly), classic dramatic themes (has there ever been a more doomed love than Spike and Buffy?) and pop-cultural asides galore (tonight's reference points include Harry Potter, The Fantastic Four and Rod Serling's The Twlight Zone). And the closing scene tonight is guaranteed to make longtime fans of the show euphoric.
Whedon has said he's determined to lighten the mood in Sunnydale this year, and he's going about it by revisiting the past. Thus, tonight centers on the re-opening of Sunnydale High, which had been destroyed at the end of season three. A reluctant Buffy, who's had to play mom to Dawn since their real mother died of a stroke, is forced to send her little sis back to a place she knows is dangerous.
Dangerous for Dawn, yes, but probably very good for the show.
UPN is trying for a supernatural doubleheader by pairing Buffy with Haunted, a new series about a private eye with some other-worldly connections. But tonight's 9 o'clock premiere is so relentlessly dark, both visually and spiritually, that it's hard to imagine anyone sticking with it beyond an episode or two.
Matthew Fox (Party of Five) plays Frank Taylor, a former police detective who apparently quit the force after his young son was abducted two years ago. He's now a private eye, and working on cases like the one he's on right now - trying to reunite parents with their lost children - helps him live with himself.
In the course of tonight's investigation, Frank is stabbed and nearly dies. When he awakens, he finds he has some new connections to the other side; dead people - especially those with an ax to grind against the people who killed them- begin talking to him.
It's nice that they help him find the bad guys and all. But it would be better maybe if what they told him was to lighten up a little.