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‘Angel’ re-vamps for the new season

WB hopes to attract a broader audience to the horror-comedy

Like many survivors of near-death experiences, the supernatural TV thriller “Angel” is starting a new life. With the WB network seeking to attract a broader swath of the coveted youth audience, the show’s creators have been forced to fix something that many longtime fans felt wasn’t broken.

LAST SPRING, WB flirted with canceling the horror-comedy, which stars David Boreanaz as a vampire with a soul who tries to atone for centuries of wickedness by “helping the hopeless” in demon-infested Los Angeles.

But influential critics, including those at USA Today and TV Guide, praised the show’s offbeat storytelling and urged WB to preserve it for a fifth season. And a spirited cult of fans rallied other viewers in a letter-writing and petition campaign.

The execution was halted, but the show’s budget was slashed and WB told creator-producer Joss Whedon, who spun off the show from his hit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” that “Angel” needed more ... teeth, so to speak.

Now shown Wednesdays at 9 p.m. instead of Sundays, the show is prospering. With its second episode, total viewership was up 21 percent to 5.1 million watchers, compared to the same period last year when it drew about 4 million. That includes a jump of 62 percent among the precious 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

“The WB hoped for a show that would be a little more stand-alone-y,” Whedon said. “When a show is in its fifth year, they don’t expect it to get any sudden heat. They were hoping to pump the audience a little bit ... with episodes people could jump into without being confused.”

SPIKE JOINS ANGEL AND THE GANG

The main changes: dropping actress Charisma Carpenter by abandoning her vainglorious bombshell character Cordelia in an indefinite offscreen coma, and adding James Marsters as Spike, the bleached-blond OTHER vampire-with-a-soul who was last seen burning alive on the series finale of “Buffy.”

“It was just a matter of trying to change the dynamics of it in order to pump it up,” Boreanaz said during a break while shooting an upcoming episode about a reincarnated Aztec warrior with a vengeful streak. “We’ve been a show that’s pretty much been under the radar.”

For four years, Angel and his human partners — which also include the streetfighter Charles Gunn and the bookish British occult expert Wesley Wyndam-Pryce — waged war on Wolfram & Hart, a massive law firm that secretly represents evildoers in everything from contract law and criminal cases to hexes, blood oaths and ritualistic sacrifices.

Now Angel is in charge of Wolfram & Hart — but was the firm’s surrender real, or just a new bid to corrupt him?

“It’s really brought a new energy to it, having the characters relocate to the enemy’s quarters and become the generals of the opposing team,” said Alexis Denisof, who plays Wesley, the conscience of the show who sees the Wolfram & Hart alliance as a nefarious ploy.

“I think there’s a lot of territory to explore in how the characters respond to their new environment, how they’ll pull together and how they’ll pull apart,” Denisof said.

Spike brings to the show a blood rivalry with Angel. Both vampires had a rocky romance with the vampire-slayer Buffy, and both are competing to be the one bloodsucker who gets to become human again by fulfilling an ancient apocalyptic prophecy (that’s the long-term “one-armed man”-style plotline “Angel” established when it started in 1999.)

At least for now, the two won’t be getting into any fistfights: Spike has returned as a ghost, a phantom in the shape of his corporeal self connected to a mystical amulet.

“I get to be the grit in the wheel,” says Marsters. “I just get to make life as miserable as I could possibly make it for Angel, and poor Angel has to deal with it as a hero always does, with as much patience as he can muster.”

Marsters said his transition to the new cast has been welcoming, and Boreanaz seems content — if not enthusiastic — to share the shadows with another vampire.

CRITICS APPLAUD

Meanwhile, some critics are already sold on the “Angel” changes.

“The episodes are more self-contained, and the stories are easier to follow,” wrote USA Today critic Robert Bianco. “What hasn’t altered is Whedon’s ingenious mix of comedy and suspense; his fascination with the meanings of right, wrong and responsibility; and his ability to produce a ceaselessly entertaining hour of television.”

The longtime fans, however, are still debating the value of Spike, the abandonment of Cordelia and which new character should become Angel’s love interest.

“Right now all I can really say about whether the changes will be good, is that whatever Joss Whedon does to Angel keeps the show on the air for several more seasons, I’ll be happy,” said Karen Drowne, 41, an insurance claims adjuster from Lakeland, Fla., who runs the fan site www.solitaryphoenix.com. “And that will be good.”© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.