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It's debut night for a thriller and a drama

As crime reporter Carl Kolchak might have said back in the 1970s, get me rewrite.

In my season preview, I noted that the pilot of ABC's remake of "Night Stalker" (9 tonight, WKBW-TV), starring feature film actor Stuart Townsend, had some of the worst buzz of the new season and was being reworked.

After further review, the call is reversed. The revision of the pilot by Frank Spotnitz ("The X-Files") results in a chilling, creepy hour that is augmented by a change in Townsend's mood, some poetic narration and mood setting music by Philip Glass. Townsend (Charlize Theron's significant other), seems to smile more often than in the original version, which may be a reaction to criticism of his earlier cold demeanor.

A future episode, "The Five People You Meet in Hell," sent for review about a manipulative Charles Manson wannabe who turns good citizens into murderers by reciting the phrase "you know what you have to do," is intensely involving and has a great twist.

It is pointless to compare this version to the 1974-75 one-year wonder that starred Darren McGavin and was one of the inspirations for Chris Carter's "The X-Files." After all, the majority of people in the age 18 through 49 demographic that ABC is seeking weren't born when McGavin was on the trail of vampires, werewolves, aliens and unexplained phenomena. Spotnitz isn't running away from the original, even digitally dropping McGavin in one scene in the pilot, paying homage to the old series.

In tonight's opener, Kolchak has left a Las Vegas newspaper to cover crime for the Los Angeles Beacon. The first assignment he takes on has remarkable similarities to an unsolved case involving his beautiful dead wife.

He was suspected of killing her years ago because she was found mauled after a car accident in which he survived. He originally claimed that an animal attacked, which landed him in a psychiatric hospital. An FBI agent believed he did it, but there wasn't any evidence.

Naturally, or is it supernaturally, he is drawn to a case in which a husband is accused of murdering his pregnant wife. Unfortunately, the story belongs to the newspaper's current crime reporter, Perri Reed (the beautiful Gabrielle Union).

Kolchak's reporting instincts are so impressive that a suspicious and competitive Reed decides to investigate him, which complicates their relationship and the show's dynamic. In a few weeks, Reed illogically is putting her life in Kolchak's hands.

But logic isn't the strong suit of "Night Stalker." Its creepiness, its twists, its darkness, its photography (especially in a scene inside a cave) are the primary attractions.

On the down side, it is another of this fall's series that focus on women in jeopardy and the disturbing trend of having them become victims of bizarre crimes. But at least the violence is mostly off-camera, which means the scares are in the viewers' imaginations.

So far, the minds of Western New Yorkers don't seem that interested in all the sci-fi and supernatural series on the menu. ABC's "Invasion" benefited from the "Lost" lead-in and got the best sampling and the Jennifer Love Hewitt series, "Ghost Whisperer," had a decent opening on WIVB-TV. But NBC's "Surface" lost 25 percent of its audience in its second week, "Threshold" on CBS has had a weak opening and WB's scary "Supernatural" can't get arrested in a horrific time slot.

The simplicity of "Night Stalker," which has a manageable regular cast of four regulars that includes Cotter Smith as Kolchak's supportive boss and Eric Jungmann as an ambitious photographer is one of the show's strengths. Ignore the earlier buzz. You know what you have to do. Watch it.

***

It won't be easy for "Stalker" to scare up many viewers here opposite "CSI," which had an incredible 26.3 rating on WIVB-TV for its season premiere. Unfortunately for fans of WB's emotional "Everwood" (9 tonight, WUTV), it has moved opposite CBS' megahit as well.

Hasn't Ephram (Gregory Smith), his dad Andy (Treat Williams) and everyone else suffered enough? Tonight's premiere picks up months after last season left off, when Andy shocked next door neighbor and close friend Nina (Stephanie Niznik) by declaring his love for her just as she was about to move in with her romantic boyfriend Jake (Scott Wolf).

Meanwhile, Andy and his young daughter, Delia (Vivien Cardone), are wondering what's up with Ephram, who was so angry at his father's meddling in life-altering decisions that he gave up his promising music career and fled to Europe searching for answers.

Then there's the matter of Ephram's beautiful former girlfriend, Amy (Emily Van Camp), who sacrificed her freshman year at Princeton to stay home and take care of her cancer-stricken mother Rose (Merrilyn Gann).

Thankfully there is also some comic relief in the opening two episodes, which illustrate how difficult it can be for people to share their true feelings even -- check that, especially -- with their closest friends and lovers. Sometimes, that means adults act like high school kids and college kids have to behave like adults.

As always, "Everwood" delivers some poignant moments that may move viewers to tears even when they know what's coming. If WB keeps the series on Thursday, it probably won't be able to survive for too long. So enjoy the moments left.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

Night Stalker
9 tonight, WKBW
Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Everwood
9 tonight, WUTV
Rating: 3 and half stars out of 4

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