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Super slayer 

Is "Smallville' the new "Buffy'?

We've seen it before. An angst-ridden teen with mysterious super powers struggles to fit into a hostile world. The series originally sticks to a monster-of-the-week formula, with high-school tribulations manifesting themselves via supernatural metaphors (freaky outcasts, evil cheerleaders, etc.). Eventually the format gives way to longer story arcs, and the series morphs into a nighttime soap opera.

It's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," as well as the new face of "Smallville," another WB product that started weak but has become darn near addictive as its third season launches. Admittedly, the show still can't compare to "Buffy" mastermind Joss Whedon's deviously complex plotlines and dialogue, but "Smallville" has nudged its way up from "good backdrop for folding laundry" to just below "guilty pleasure."

The show's premise both allured and annoyed me from the start. What if teenage Clark Kent (hot-but-hollow Tom Welling) had once been buddies with Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum)? It's a twist on the old Superman rivalry with some titillating implications, a Star Wars-prequel take on how Lex got lured to the dark side. Sadly, "Smallville's" first season played like a cheesy "Dawson's Creek" knock off, but with meteorite mutated bad guys thrown in every episode.

After season one, the producers got wise and, much like "Buffy," moved away from the weekly meet-and-beat ghoul guest rut. The turning point arrived with an appearance by Christopher Reeve, who revealed to Clark his Kryptonian heritage and gave a long-awaited hint of continuity with the bigger red-tights storyline.

But "Smallville" also embraced its inner soap opera. Lex's dad went blind, then recovered. Martha Kent had a miscarriage. And the family always teetered on the verge of losing the farm (pass the Tums, please!).

The show ripped a page from the "Slayer" script with its cliffhanger, which saw brooding Clark bound for Metropolis. We knew he'd return, just like Buffy did, but never suspected he'd land in a full-on action series. Season three so far has seen as much gunplay as typical Tarantino fare.

The teen-turmoil and soap-opera elements still apply (Lex was stranded on a desert island, for fuck's sake), but "Smallville" does a better job of balancing these discordant subplots than one might expect. By season three, "Buffy" had found its stride as a smart, funny and frequently thrilling fantasy series. "Smallville" seems on the verge of doing the same.

The WB, perhaps still smarting from losing "Buffy" to UPN, has smartly paired "Smallville" with the more obvious successor to the Slayer fanbase: "Angel." That show, a "Buffy" spin-off now entering its fifth (!) season, seems perpetually on the verge of finding its niche, but keeps making freakish and fundamental changes.

In what may be the most contrived plot turn since "The Golden Girls" sold their house and opened a hotel, Angel and company have snuggled up with their arch-nemeses, Wolfram & Hart. I always found it insanely lame that the best Joss Whedon could do for Angel was to pit him against an evil law firm. Last season ended with the firm ceding its turf to Angel, making him the CEO of its L.A. office. Um, what?

Of course, not everyone may be as bugged by the law firm setup as I am. Says one friend, the new storyline makes sense: "Buffy" dealt with the pressures of high school and college; "Angel" now addresses the compromises you make when you enter the (evil) corporate world.

Regardless, hardcore fans are probably going through a crisis of conscious right now, trying to figure out if the new "Angel" will stay true to its dark and moody roots, or sell out to a soulless industry.

"Smallville" and "Angel" air at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Wednesdays on the WB.

tray.butler@creativeloafing.com

The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.

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