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BUFFY REBORN: Slayer is Full of Life-And Song by Matt Roush of TV Guide

When a TV character returns from the dead, it's usually a sign of creative desperation: an insipid twist on a daytime or prime-time soap (like Bobby on Dallas) or a sentimental haunting for schmaltzy (Providence) or phonily artsy (Six Feet Under) effect.

Whereas on the magnificently inspired Buffy the Vampire Slayer which has graduated from guilty pleasure to flat-out triumph this season (UPN, Tuesdays, 8 P.M./ET) the heroine's resurrection from the grave has had profound ramifications for the slayer and her "Scooby gang" of demon fighters.

"The thing about magic, there's always consequences," warns vampire Spike (the marvelously moody James Marsters), who has become Buffy's living-dead soul mate. So when witchy Willow (the deceptively adorable Alyson Hannigan) casts a harrowing spell to bring Buffy back, little does anyone suspect she is being dragged from a blissful afterlife.

In a powerful scene that ranks with the best writing of any show this season and delivered with austere agony by the remarkable Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy reveals to Spike, "Wherever I was, I was happy.... I think I was in heaven, and now I'm not. I was torn out of there, pulled out by my friends. Everything here is hard and bright and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch this is hell."

Then came the landmark musical episode, a wildly ambitious, sensationally entertaining and unexpectedly moving experiment in form by the show's gifted creator Joss Whedon. He not only wrote the exceedingly clever music and lyrics, ranging from pop rock and ballads to intricate show-tune pastiches, he directed this pivotal hour in which dark thoughts are revealed in song, each perfectly suited to character. (Among the standouts: Anthony Stewart Head, whose departing Giles will be missed.)

Though a bereft Buffy sings of "Going Through the Motions" while dispatching graveyard demons in an opening anthem, no one is coasting this year. "Give me something to sing about," she pleads in a climactic number then, as she and Spike passionately kiss at the final curtain, Buffy gives fans something to swoon about.

At moments I could have sworn I'd died and gone to TV heaven.

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