Nikita, Vampire Diaries

Who knew the little CW network could become such a player in Thursday's overcrowded TV battleground? All it took were a couple of hot vampires. (Something not lost on HBO these days, either.) Tonight's major TV event: the return of the addictively twisty The Vampire Diaries for its second season of "Bite me, Twilight" supernatural-romance angst. As a bonus, the newest version of the Nikita franchise immediately follows, and it's well worth your time, too. (I'll miss Supernatural on Thursdays, but it will help fill the void on Fridays now that Syfy is turning to wrestling.)

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But first, Vampire, packing what seems a season's worth of garish incident into the season premiere, much of the (bloody) juice springing from Nina Dobrev's effective dual star turn as good girl/fangfan Elena and her lookalike Big Bad vamp Katherine, who's returned to Mystic Falls to work all kinds of evil mojo. Or, as Damon puts it in what has already become one of the most-quoted lines from the episode: "Doppelganger high jinks ensued."

Do they ever. Dobrev is making the most of this opportunity, and it's fun to guess along with everyone else which Nina is which whenever she shows up. As Damon says, somewhat admiringly, "She certainly knows how to make an entrance." (Does Damon sniff competition as the show's supreme scene-stealer? He should.) As Katherine mixes it up memorably with the tormented Salvatore brothers (both of whom who she rendered undead back in the antebellum day), the battle lines are drawn pitting vamp against vamp, vamp against witch — Bonnie is getting much more assertive this season — and so on, with all mortals in their violent orbit on alert. This is the sort of show where "never say die" is written into the mythology — a good thing for several of the opening hour's apparent victims.

I don't know how much longer The Vampire Diaries can keep churning stories at this feverish rate, but if this is your sort of guilty pleasure, you'd be crazy not to bite.

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And here's how I described Nikita in the current Fall Preview issue of TV Guide Magazine: "Cherchez — and beware — la femme. The fugitive assassin has lost none of her allure in this riveting rethinking of a paranoid action classic."

To elaborate: Nikita, not NBC's more heavily hyped Undercovers, is this season's successor to Alias and 24 if you're seeking intense, emotionally driven spy action. (Undercovers could develop into something more interesting than its fluffy/glossy pilot indicates, but that's another story.) The third iteration of the La Femme Nikita story — initially an indie French cult movie, then a successful USA Network series for five seasons — proves that the premise, like its new grim and gorgeous star Maggie Q, has legs to die for. Sometimes literally.

In this cunningly rethought version, we encounter Nikita three years after she escaped "The Division," this show's SD6-like shadow agency that trains wayward youths into becoming covert government assassins. Shades of Sydney Bristow, this Nikita ("Don't call me Nikki") has a tragic romantic past that fuels her revenge tactics as she vows to bring Division to its knees while making others pay who once did her wrong. Her vendetta brings her face to face with her former handler (with the presumed former sexual tension) known as Michael, here enacted by ER's Shane West with a bit too callow and boyish a demeanor. He's the ineffectual P to Maggie's steely Q, and it hardly seems a fair fight. (Adding some gravitas to the executive suite: 24's Xander Berkeley as Division's big boss, albeit named Percy, and O.C. siren Melinda Clarke as the alluring Amanda, who insists to a new recruit, "You don't have to be hard to survive." Though it probably helps.)

Nikita is a truly kickass action figure as she dispenses justice dispassionately, lone wolf style, often in glamorously revealing costumes. On the job, she is simultaneously hot and cold, a fetchingly enigmatic combination for such a lethal weapon.

In the show's most intriguing twist, Nikita's revenge story is intercut with the initiation to Division of Alex, a young hellion (not to be confused with the CW's Hellcats) played with a suitably fierce perpetual glower by Lyndsy Fonseca. As we watch her go through the paces of this military "charm school," it's like Nikita: The Next Generation.

I need another new hour of Thursday TV to watch like I need a kick in the head. (In this time period alone, I'm already committed to Fringe and Grey's Anatomy, and classic CSI remains a tough habit to break.) But if I had to choose between this and watching Michael Scott take a final lap around the tired Office halls of Dunder Mifflin on NBC — its dreadful companion comedy Outsourced isn't even an option — I'm leaning toward the drop-dead-deadly assassin.

The Vampire Diaries premieres Thursday at 8/7c, and Nikita at 9/8c, on the CW.

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