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Fall TV Preview 1997: Monday

”Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” ”Timecop,” and ”Cosby” are some of the shows that are examined

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BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
THE WB, 9-10 PM
STARTS SEPT. 15

Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of the WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has her dream story line for this season picked out. ”Right now I just want a vacation,” says the 20-year-old actress wearily. ”So it’s Buffy in a coma.”

Over Michigan J. Frog’s dead body. Since it swooped onto the schedule last March, Buffy — a hybrid comedy and action hour about three teen misfits who fight supernatural monsters in Sunnydale, USA — has brought The WB something none of the fledgling network’s other shows have: respect. Reviewers rejoiced at its fang-sharp wit and high-school-as-horror-show premise, and the media made an instant celebrity of former All My Children star Gellar (no wonder the poor girl’s tired — she just finished shooting the features Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer). ”I believe [Buffy] had a lot to do with me getting the movies,” says Gellar. ”It got my name out in a different circle than soap fans. Now when people look at me they scream ‘Buffy!’ instead of [her Children character] ‘Kendall!”’

Buffy has upped The WB’s profile, too. ”I think we really put it on the map in a way it hadn’t been before,” says Joss Whedon, the sometime screenwriter (Toy Story, Alien Resurrection) who created and exec-produces Buffy. ”I would, however, like more than five people to watch it.”

Ah, the classic dilemma of the critical darling: After debuting with The WB’s highest Monday numbers ever (4.8 million viewers), Buffy has seen its ratings fall to mere-mortal levels — it ranked 144th out of 155 shows last season. The biggest problem may be its lead-in, 7th Heaven, a wholesome family drama aimed at viewers who think ”camp” is something you do in the woods. ”That isn’t the best matchup,” admits entertainment president Garth Ancier, who expects to transplant Buffy to Tuesdays when The WB starts programming that night in January.

Meanwhile, Whedon is working on strengthening Buffy‘s creative bite. This season, two punk vampires, Spike and Drusilla (James Marsters and Juliet Landau), replace the now-obliterated nemesis, Master. ”The idea was to get somebody younger and anarchic,” says Whedon of the ghoulish duo who will wreak havoc from an abandoned factory. In addition, look for Sunnydale’s bitch goddess, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), to get more involved in demon fighting, and for Buffy’s smart-alecky cohort Xander (Nicholas Brendon) to finally make some headway in his crush on her; Buffy will seduce him to irk Angel (David Boreanaz), her undead true love. ”It’s a very typical high school dilemma,” says Gellar of the ”nice, safe guy”- versus-”bad boy” dynamic. ”When we come back, you’ll find Buffy really trying to find her place.”

The same could be said for The WB. The so-called weblet took a giant leap toward legitimacy in July when it commandeered five stations formerly affiliated with rival UPN. Even more important is The WB’s knack for attracting distinctive talent. While UPN’s biggest claim to fame this fall is a show featuring Andrew Dice Clay, The WB boasts sitcoms starring former Seinfeld writer-producer Carol Leifer and Tom Arnold, in addition to the mid-season drama Dawson’s Creek, a beautifully crafted coming-of-age series from Kevin Williamson, Hollywood’s screenwriter of the moment, thanks to the Scream movies.