Don't bother waiting for the next "Batman" movie -- it hits the small screen tonight in the guise of The WB's "Angel" (at 9 on WCWB).
This spin-off from the cult hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ably transplants Buffy's vampire beau to Los Angeles, where he helps the helpless without ever cracking a smile.
Angel (David Boreanaz) is one tortured vamp.
He became a vampire and did his share of raping, pillaging and blood sucking before getting cursed with a conscience. Then he fell in love with Buffy, endured a forbidden romance, experienced true bliss that broke the curse, became evil again, went to hell and returned as a good guy only to break up with his beloved because they could never make it as a couple.
The guy's had a rough 200-plus years, so he's a little depressed.
Enter Doyle (Glenn Quinn), a half-human, half-demon who gets visions of people in need and passes along their names to Angel. He also acts as a spiritual adviser and much-needed comic foil who compares Angel's new Los Angeles pad to the Batcave.
Doyle lectures Angel, telling him he's cut himself off from the world and that he's got to get out of his funk and care about the people whose lives he's trying to save.
"It's not just about saving lives," Doyle says. "It's about saving souls."
Welcome to "Touched by a Vampire."
Though the show is missing the emotional depth of "Buffy," "Angel" creator Joss Whedon replicates other aspects of the "Buffy" style and darkens them.
Darkness is the key. It's the only way a show starring Boreanaz could work. On "Buffy" he excelled at brooding and acting evil, but little else. He shows some improvement in "Angel," particularly in a semi-comic scene where the introverted Angel tries to meet a woman he's supposed to help.
The demonic duo are joined by another "Buffy" transplant, sublimely snooty Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter). She moved to Los Angeles to become an actress, and meets up with Angel at a Hollywood party.
"I better get mingling," she says. "I really should be talking to people who are somebody."
Like "Buffy," "Angel" will have serialized elements. Tonight the law firm of Wolfram & Hart is introduced. They have some sort of pact with the underworld that will be explored in future episodes.
The "Angel" pilot contains a few missteps -- he's drunk when the show begins, but lucid two minutes later; when did Angel learn to use a computer? I can't imagine the show ever having the impact of "Buffy."
But as spin-offs go, this one shows promise.
And as a super hero story, "Angel" is already leagues better than the last two big-screen "Batman" movies.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (8 p.m., WCWB)
Whenever there's a TV show as well-crafted as this, you hold your breath, hoping it will somehow stave off the quality drop that befalls almost all TV series.
What effect will the departure of Angel and Cordelia have on "Buffy"? Can creator Joss Whedon handle two shows at once?
So far, so good.
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) head to the University of California at Sunnydale in tonight's season premiere. Brainy Willow is finally in her element, but Buffy is overwhelmed. It's a natural reaction for a college freshman, but one that's rarely dramatized. Willow is energized by the college's mammoth library; Buffy feels like an ant.
Writer/director Whedon forsakes the typical depiction (beer blasts, frat parties) and hones in on more specific details (campus groups thrust pamphlets at freshmen, urging them to protest on behalf of a variety of causes).
Tonight's season premiere introduces new elements to the show's mythology, including a psychology professor (Lindsay Crouse), mysterious vampire kidnappers and possibly a new love interest for Buffy. There's also a tie to the "Angel" premiere that follows, but you'll have to pay close attention to catch it.
"Party of Five" (9 p.m., WPGH)
Not every series avoids pitfalls the way "Buffy" has so far. "Party of Five" is a perfect example. The show peaked with Bailey's (Scott Wolf) alcoholism storyline and it's been downhill ever since.
Julia (Neve Campbell) turned into a harridan, Charlie (Matthew Fox) got involved with an airhead stripper (Jennifer Aspen) and Claudia (Lacey Chabert) continued to be ignored by her siblings.
Tonight's season premiere lays the groundwork for Jennifer Love Hewitt to leave for her own show, "Time of Your Life" (premiering Oct. 25). But the centerpiece of the hour is a welcome return to form, focusing on the family and the oft-delayed marriage of Charlie and Kirsten (Paula Devi). It's a sweet hour that hearkens back to the show's beginnings.
But the damage has been done. "Party of Five" strayed too far from the Salinger family in recent years and the wedding comes two seasons too late. It's time to end this party before the show's early years get tainted further.
"Shasta McNasty" (8 p.m., WNPA)
The UPN comedy proved itself aggressively stupid and offensive in a preview outing Thursday night. Then again, what would you expect from a show titled "Shasta McNasty"?
A dumbed-down, modern-day "Monkees," "Shasta" follows the politically incorrect adventures of three dim-witted guys in a Southern California rap group called Shasta McNasty.
"Shasta" held my attention better than the boring, and now-canceled, "Mike O'Malley Show," and I did laugh -- twice. But the funniest line was stolen from "American Pie." Tonight UPN repeats Thursday's episode at 8:30 after the premiere of the pilot, which cribs from "There's Something About Mary."
In Thursday's episode Scott (Carmine Giovinazzo) showed a modicum of common sense and decency; Randy (Dale Godboldo), the only black member of the rap trio, tried to get extra money from a special minority job placement center because of "200 years of slavery;" and Dennis (Jake Busey) proved to be the show's resident idiot.
The main plot of Thursday's show found the guys tangling with guest star Verne Troyer, who played Mini-Me in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."
Troyer endured a host of indignities. He wore a sombrero that served as a tortilla chip tray and bowl of dip. He was called "one of those Wizard of Oz freaks," "little dude" and "a little hot dog with a hat on it."
Dennis offered faint praise of Troyer, saying, "Dude, you are better than a monkey!"
The "Shasta" crew is so unrelentingly dim there's no way anyone would strive to emulate them -- except maybe the show's target audience of immature, adolescent males. And that makes the jabs at Arabs, the obese and little people particularly hurtful.
But compared to Fox's coarse comedy "Action," "Shasta" isn't the McNastiest new show this season. Thursday's episode contained sexual innuendo, but little profanity.
Scarier than "Shasta McNasty" was one of its advertisers: the U.S. Air Force. Do we really want "Shasta" fans flying planes with bombs? Dude, I don't think so.
"Sports Night" (9:30 p.m., WTAE)
In its first season, "Sports Night" was refreshing until it became repetitive. Even with an over-reliance on maddening Sorkin Speak (each character repeats what the last character just said in back and forth banter), "Sports Night" was always sophisticated with smart characters who could be funny without telling jokes.
As the second season begins, writer/creator Aaron Sorkin ditches the repetitive banter and almost all attempts at goose-the-laugh-track humor, making the show the half-hour drama it struggled to be from the start. In a rough-cut tape sent to critics, the laugh track was missing, although it could be back when the show airs tonight.
It's been 90 days since Dana (Felicity Huffman) broke up with Gordon, and Casey (Peter Krause) still can't bring himself to ask her out. Dan (Josh Charles) keeps pushing him to no avail. Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) refuses to speak to Jeremy (Joshua Malina) and Isaac (Robert Guillaume), still recovering from his stroke, forgets to tell Dana important information about the sportscast's start time.
In next week's episode, Isaac hires a ratings' consultant (William H. Macy) much to the dismay of Dana, providing fodder for drama stemming from conflict, which plays to "Sports Night's" strength.
Funny, poignant and dramatic, "Sports Night" is off to a winning start.