By Ken Tucker
Updated November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The line could have come from a hard-boiled crime novel, a great film noir, or a classic ’60s girl-group refrain: ”I told him that I loved him and I kissed him and I killed him.”

But these words — their cadence full of doom, piercing like a stake through the heart — actually came from a recent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) explained how she offed the one vampire a slayer could really fall for, the soulfully re-souled Angel (David Boreanaz). The line — from a script by Buffy writer and coexecutive producer David Greenwalt — was a momentary pause in the show’s usual onslaught of jagged jokes and fizzy pop-culture references. It was an example of unguarded, unironic emotionalism in a slam-bang series that prides itself on its blithe knowingness and sarcasm and just keeps getting better at juggling hilarity, gothic romance, and horror.

Tell people that Buffy is an hour as dramatically satisfying as Homicide, ER, or NYPD Blue and you’re likely to be met with snickers and a dismissive wave. That’s because most TV featuring either the supernatural or attractive young people is often built more along the lines of Charmed than Buffy.

The WB’s latest entry in the teen sweepstakes is actually building on the ratings of its lead-in, Dawson’s Creek, among 18- to 49-year-olds. Charmed cannily plays to adolescent interest in witchcraft (and all-ages interest in tightly clothed young women) by casting Picket Fences‘ Holly Marie Combs, Melrose Place‘s Alyssa Milano, and the first lady of the American theater, Lillian Gish — oh, sorry, Shannen Doherty — as San Francisco sisters who become witches. But, I hasten to say to Steve Allen and the Parents Television Council, good witches, witches who help people.

Spike-heeled where Buffy is fleet-footed, Charmed is Charlie’s Angels with a Ouija board. Like Angels, this newcomer is executive-produced by Aaron Spelling and plays up the stars’ separate-but-equal charms. The Halliwell sisters are like superheroes: Prue (Doherty) can move objects telekinetically; Piper (Combs) can momentarily freeze time; Phoebe (Milano) can foresee the immediate future. They live together in a big ramshackle house, fighting warlocks and being catty toward each other.

”You sleaze!” squeals Combs to Doherty when Shannen sleeps with a guy on a first date; a bit later, after Doherty’s Prue has been snappish, Milano remarks, ”You’d think Prue would be mellower — it’s been what, six months?” Charmed is a bit thin in the plot department; the main things it has going for it are the sisters’ pulchritude and the presence of Doherty, who is that rare item: a TV star who succeeds on the strength of her vitriol. Perennially crabby, delivering her lines as if she has contempt for them — Prue? Shannen? Where does one end and the other begin? — curt, cranky Doherty gives Charmed its kick.

By contrast, Buffy‘s kickiness is both literal (its neck-snapping martial-arts scenes are simultaneously cartoonish and scary) and figurative; no show this side of Seinfeld loves the language of conversation (the wisecrack, the pun, the withering retort, and the muttered aside) as much. The third season got off to a sensational start through role reversing: a runaway-from-home Buffy reduced to waitressing while her chums back home — Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and werewolf boy Oz (Seth Green) — were forced to hold down the fort against the hell-spawned demons that continually invade their small, cursed town of Sunnydale.

If the obvious joke behind Buffy has always been that vampirism and lycanthropy are metaphors for really raging hormones, the series has sustained itself by regularly exploring the serious side of the joke. Gellar and Boreanaz are awfully good at playing out the fatalistic love between Buffy and Angel; unlike the romances on other prime-time teen soaps, this one carries dark emotional weight. In light contrast, the most delightful development on the series has been the hotsy dating that wisecracking Xander and withering Cordelia are indulging. Give series creator Joss Whedon credit: No other show balances so many elements as deftly, without a trace of corniness or melodrama. I can admire Charmed for its shrewd casting and pop-culture timing, but week in and week out, Buffy just slays me. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A Charmed: B-