<i>The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Melrose Place</i> and <i>90210</i> Make The CW a Small Network with Big Buzz

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I'm not sure what to say these days about The CW. Can we really call it a "network"? Following the quick cancellation after only two episodes of The Beautiful Life: TBL, it has been offering only eight first-run hours of primetime content a week for most of the fall season. And yet, it has been getting some mighty big buzz of late, so it must be doing something right.

For example, I can't think of a casting move this season that received as much attention as the addition of Heather Locklear to the recently revived Melrose Place. The new MP has traded heavily in a presumed nostalgia for the original, creating compelling stories for vets Thomas Calabro (the evil Dr. Michael Mancini), Laura Leighton (sparkling nut-case Sydney Andrews, foolishly killed off in the MP premiere and confined to flashbacks), Daphne Zuniga (the enormously successful but still neurotic photographer Jo Reynolds) and Josie Bissett (great fun in her brief return as unexpectedly bitter and bitchy fashion designer Jane Andrews). There was even a passing reference to a "Mr. Hanson." Could that signal an eventual appearance by Grant Show as Jake? I'm guessing he might be the birth father of bad boy David Breck (Shaun Sipos), currently known as Michael's angry son. Regardless, and with all due respect, the arrival of Locklear as super-bitch Amanda Woodward, now an all-powerful publicity executive, brought the show more nostalgic stardust than all of her former co-stars combined.

But will the small but significant ratings uptick MP enjoyed upon Locklear's debut hold? The problem here is that The CW targets viewers so young they likely have no investment or interest in any of these characters, including the almighty Amanda. Their point of entry must be located within the ensemble of new residents in the title apartment complex. Unfortunately, those new young characters haven't proved nearly as interesting or appealing as the aging originals, with the exception of Ella Simms (breakout star Katie Cassidy), the beautiful bisexual power publicist who has infiltrated the lives of most of her neighbors and is now unhappily pressed under Amanda's well-manicured thumb. The recent announcement that Colin Egglesfield (angry alcoholic chef Auggie Kirkpatrick) and Ashlee Simpson-Wentz (manipulative nobody Violet Foster) will be leaving the show is a good first step toward fixing all that's wrong with it, if it is indeed worth saving. I think Michael Rady (not at all convincing as babe-magnet filmmaker Jonah Miller) and Jessica Lucas (as his boring fiancée Riley Richmond) should be the next to go, unless executive producers Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer have hugely unpleasant plans for their characters. The big problem here is that in their handling of the new MP, Slavkin and Swimmer need to loosen up and trash it up. I thought I detected some of this during the episode featuring Locklear's return, but it wasn't enough.

I wonder why youth-obsessed The CW got behind this huge influx of MP veterans when similar stunt casting last year on the new 90210, including Shannen Doherty as Brenda Walsh and Tori Spelling as Donna Martin, yielded such disappointing results. The only franchise vet over there who has been effectively integrated into the new show is Jennie Garth as Kelly Taylor, who has had much to do as guidance counselor to the new generation, half-sister to tortured Silver (Jessica Stroup) and daughter to self-centered mother Jackie (Ann Gillespie), who lost her battle with cancer on this week's episode. Jackie's death scene aside, 90210 in its second season remains as cold and empty at its center as the still-forming MP has been during its first few weeks. The only hope I see for it is the impending arrival of recently tossed General Hospital co-star Greg Vaughan, a well-liked and talented actor who had been badly miscast as gentle soul Lucky Spencer on that soap. Vaughan has a big following among soap fans, and if 90210 plays to his strengths there may be hope for it in the new year. If The CW's pointless One Tree Hill can last seven seasons (and counting), surely 90210 can get it together for a couple more.

The biggest news at The CW this fall has been the success of The Vampire Diaries, a torrid teeny-something serial with two bloodsucking brothers at its center, which seems to have replaced the somewhat played out Gossip Girl as the network's primary buzz generator. I haven't read the young adult novels by L.J. Smith on which it is based, which leaves me wondering how long the show's narrative can hold together, given that it's set in a small town with a rising body count that would seem to be a beacon not only for the FBI but a cable news network or two, as well. I think the reason this show has caught on with The CW's young audience is that show-runner Kevin Williamson has top-loaded it with as much sex, skin, blood and violence as anarchic broadcast standards will allow. That's what the kids are responding to today, making them no different than the kids of yesterday.

I don't know where the VD narrative is headed, but here's a suggestion: Given that brothers Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon (Ian Somerhalder) and their vampire acquaintances have complex histories dating back hundreds of years, how about creating a few flashback storylines? Flashbacks worked well a few years ago on Angel (whose title character was the original modern-day vampire hunk) and a few decades ago on Dark Shadows (which revolved around popular culture's first-ever soulful vampire). They also added to the excitement of HBO's vampire riot True Blood in its second season.

My own pick for the best series on The CW remains Supernatural, which has evolved into one of the best shows on television, period. Season 5 has found demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester not so much caught up in the End of Days (yes, that apocalypse) as trying to figure out its scary specifics. It isn't all storms and fires and death and destruction (except, so far, in Jasper County, Missouri). God is M.I.A., Lucifer walks the earth in human form and Sam and Dean have learned that they are the intended vessels for a climactic confrontation between the two. Those would seem to be intimidating challenges for any two actors to meet, but Jared Padalecki (as Sam) and Jensen Ackles (as Dean) continue to do outstanding work, regardless of the curves show-runner Eric Kripke throws their way. I should think most young actors would kill to land roles as demanding as these. Week after week, Padalecki and Jensen shift gears between exciting action sequences, powerful dramatic confrontations and side-splittingly funny moments with equal aplomb.

Yes, there is much humor amid the horror of it all. Indeed, if I were to shove aside the third season of AMC's Mad Men, then I think my two favorite hours of television this fall would be the two recent episodes of Supernatural that were played largely for laughs. The first found the brothers at the mercy of returning demon the Trickster, who trapped them inside a number of television series including a brilliantly conceived generic three-camera comedy and spot-on spoof versions of Grey's Anatomy and CSI, the two shows against which Supernatural is scheduled on Thursday nights. The second brought them to a Supernatural convention in a haunted hotel filled with geeks doing their best to talk and act like Sam and Dean. Both episodes were stand-alone gems that were funnier than any episode of any sitcom this season (with the possible exceptions of CBS' The Big Bang Theory and ABC's Modern Family).

As I think about it, the current show-runners over at The CW's longest running series Smallville (which began in 2001 on The WB) could take a lesson from the inclusion of lighter moments on the otherwise very intense Supernatural. Amazingly, Smallville still has life in it (especially when other super-beings from the D.C. Comics universe show up), but the emphasis this season on absolute darkness, with very little light (and precious little humor, none of it inspired) is dragging it way down. Grim and depressing just doesn't fly as Friday night entertainment. Also, Superman isn't Batman. The obvious influence of The Dark Knight isn't helping this aging franchise at all.

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