Jay Ryan and Kristin Kreuk Jay Ryan and Kristin Kreuk

As exciting game-changers go, the only shows currently surpassing The CW's The Vampire Diaries in their new seasons are Showtime's Sunday blockbusters, the Emmy-winning Homeland (which just won't stop with the jaw-dropping twists) and the back-on-its-game Dexter (finally breaking new ground with Deb's realization of her brother's true identity). After several seasons of treading bloody water with increasingly convoluted plotting that didn't really move the show's core characters forward, Diaries has at last taken the leap in its fourth season (Thursday at 8/7c), turning its leading lady (Nina Dobrev as the tormented Elena) into the most reluctant of vampires, sending shock waves of guilt, anger and worry through the entire Mystic Falls supernatural brain trust.

"I was ready to die. I was supposed to die!" Elena cries upon waking to her new sur-reality, which includes the necessity of feeding to survive. Not an easy prospect for someone of whom it is said her "compassion is her Achilles' heel." This dilemma puts those hovering lovesick Salvatore brothers on yet another collision course over the love of their afterlives. Damon (the indispensable Ian Somerhalder) is, as usual, all petulant frustration and annoyed eye-flashing asides — he's especially amusing next week, as he and eternal worrywart Stefan (Paul Wesley) scrap over how best to supply the new recruit with blood. Stefan is, as ever, Elena's stalwart protector and sympathizing soulmate, guiding her through giddy mood swings while conspiring with witchy Bonnie (Kat Graham) to find a dangerously magical end-run around Elena's unwilling transition to the other side.

Upping the ante as the season kicks into high melodrama: increased pressure on Mystic Falls' various supes — werewolf-vamp hybrids, witches, etc. — and their human collaborators by a violent mob of vengeful Town Council members, who are in such frenzied take-prisoner mode you almost expect them to start waving torches around the village. (Fire does, however, play a part in what happens next.) The first two episodes feel like the rebirth of a recharged series, with Dobrev taking the reins with gusto as she emotes, suffers, hungers and satiates her bloodlust in various surprising ways. Meanwhile, this being The CW, it's not all heartbreak and carnage, as one couple delights in the prospect of "hot, happy vampire sex." Next week, the debate is about whether "grief sex" is healthy or selfish. How can you not embrace a show where a character concedes, regarding Mystic's insanely high body count, "If we stopped having sex every time somebody died in this town, we'd explode." Now the question looms: When are these randy kids ever going to graduate FROM HIGH SCHOOL???

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FROM CULT TO CRUD: One of my fondest early memories on the TV beat was covering the passionate pre-Internet fandom for CBS' late-'80s Friday night cult classic — imagine, a cult classic on CBS — Beauty and the Beast, a romantic fantasy with crime-drama elements (this being CBS, then as now), starring Linda Hamilton as a scrappy D.A. drawn to the furry and forlorn Vincent (Ron Perlman), who lived beneath the streets of Manhattan like a brooding superhero hybrid of Heathcliff and The Lion King. It lasted three seasons (only two with Hamilton), casting a moody and haunting spell that few who succumbed have ever forgot.

For reasons known only to the most craven of TV gods, The CW has decided to desecrate the memory of this unique series with a miscast, misbegotten reboot, also titled Beauty and the Beast (9/8c), though it might as well be called "Barbie and the Buff." Smallville's Kristin Kreuk has all the authority of a Hooters trainee as the new Cat Chandler, a preposterously unconvincing metropolitan police detective still haunted by the murder of her mother some time ago, during which she first glimpsed the mysterious crusader who takes beastly aim at her enemies. Her Vincent has none of the creature-of-legend tragic-poetic aura of Perlman's "beast." As played by woodenly handsome Jay Ryan (who could pass for Thomas Gibson's younger brother), he might as well live among the beautiful denizens of 90210 if not for a noticeable scar on his cheek — and the fact that when he gets riled, he temporarily morphs into a Junior Hulk rage monster.

But "you're not a monster," Cat comforts him, after the forensics on her latest generic murder case turn up Vincent's peculiar "cross-species DNA," the result of genetic super-soldier experimentation during his Afghan War service following 9/11. (Yes, this show even manages to cheapen that tragedy.) Will it surprise you to learn that Vincent's condition is somehow tied to the circumstances of Cat's mother's death? If it does, then maybe the labored and laughable antics of this cult wannabe will somehow satisfy your cravings. (In the pilot's kickiest moment, during a violent fight on a subway platform, blood spatters on the camera lens. What do they think this is, Spartacus?) I suggest anyone with a taste for this sort of story get their hands on the DVDs of the original series' first seasons. The original Beast was a beauty. This one's a bust.

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