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Attack of the TV teens

She often feels burdened by conflicting demands. She keeps secrets from her mother. She goes to a high school perched atop the mouth of hell.

She is the heroine of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a WB midseason replacement last spring that in its first full season has blossomed into a critical and cult favorite. (More than 320 Web sites are devoted to her every aspect.)

Buffy is bad news for vampires. She's the only hope of the living, nearly all of whom are oblivious to their own peril and to the useful extermination service Buffy provides. And she looks great in her prom dress.

Buffy, who is played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is television's most stylish female hand-to-hand fighter since Diana Rigg played Emma Peel on The Avengers three decades ago. She tosses the evil ones around, then dispatches them with a sharp stick, unless she uses her crossbow instead. The world is saved until 9 p.m. the next Monday (in Tampa Bay, on WWWB-Ch. 32). But she never gets to go to the dance.

Buffy is a television teenager, a member of a venerable line that stretches back to Junior and Babs on The Life of Riley and includes the smarmy Eddie Haskell of Leave It to Beaver, the irrepressible Ricky Nelson, Dobie Gillis and his proto-freak pal Maynard G. Krebs, Patty Duke and her identical cousin, the Fonz, much of the Partridge family, the precocious physician Doogie Howser, some of the Beverly Hills 90210 cast and Steve Urkel.

Buffy's life is more intense than her predecessors'. In her uniquely warped way, she is an attempt to reflect the experience of teenagers' lives today.

Buffy is part of an unprotected generation, one that must live with its elders' insecurities as well as its own. She rubs shoulders with monsters, and like many of her peers, she is sometimes suspected of being a monster herself. She's powerful, responsible, scary to know and perpetually at risk.

There are, of course, some ways in which Buffy is like her forebears. She lives through perennial television teenager plots. Will she get the cookies baked for parent-teacher night? Will her male friend Xander stop lusting after the wrong women and realize that their female friend Willow is the salt of the Earth? And just where are things going with Angel, the object of her affections?

This show, though, has some odd twists. The woman who seduces Xander turns out to be a giant praying mantis, determined to bite off his head. Angel's a vampire. And these teenage television stories keep getting interrupted by scenes of supernatural mayhem and occult ickiness. Being a teenager used to be the stuff of comedies. Now it's a horror show.

"Wait till you have a job," her mother says when Buffy complains that she's stressed out. Her mother doesn't know that her daughter has been chosen as the only person on Earth who can hold off the vampire menace.

"I have a job," Buffy murmurs. Her mother doesn't understand. Hardly anybody understands.

There's nothing new about teenagers feeling misunderstood, but there is something contemporary about Buffy's weariness. Today, teenagers are working longer hours, often half-time or more, and more girls are working than ever before, though perhaps at jobs less dangerous or interesting than Buffy's.

Her mother works, too, which is characteristic of more than 60 percent of American families with children. Her parents are divorced. Only a few friends help Buffy face her demons.

In contrast to My So-Called Life, the much-admired, self-consciously realistic ABC series, which was canceled but turns up in reruns on MTV, Buffy is (one hopes) a fantasy. But in its scary-jokey way, it ends up dealing with some of the same themes, although its vision is a good deal darker.

At a time when news stories and broadcasts about teenagers tend to emphasize violent crime, teenage pregnancy and drugs _ all problems that statistics suggest are lessening _ entertainment series provide another perspective. They have to please young viewers and mirror their lives.

Most series show young people who are highly responsible, independent and hard-working and who sometimes wish they could have a little more fun. That may be just as close to the truth.

The "aspiring teen' dollar

Television and the phenomenon of teenagers are about the same age. Both were invented just before World War II and burst onto the scene shortly after. Both are devices to create markets and sell things. Television is one way children learn how to be teenagers.

Most television teenagers have been actors in their 20s, pretending to be 17 for the amusement of 11-year-olds. "In 10 years, I'll be 27," a character on the UPN series Clueless remarked in a recent episode. "Almost old enough to play a teenager on television."

Marketers call these younger viewers "aspiring teens." They watch more television than real teenagers, because they have more time. They're actually looking forward to being teenagers, while those of high school age are inclined to view teenagerhood as a predicament they long to escape.

These preteens are part of a demographic bulge that represents a lot of buying power, now and in a few years. Teenagers and preteenagers today spend a significant amount of their families' money. They go to the supermarket to shop for their overworked parents. They pick out much of their own clothing.

With their status as loyal viewers and consumers, young people are probably granted more status and respect on television than in any other arena of American life.

Straddle morality, hipness

The precocious juvenile is one of television's oldest comic devices, but ever since Father Knows Best, television also has made sure that there were lessons for the young people to learn as well. Beavis and Butt-head aside, television's teenagers long have reflected a tricky balance between morality and just enough coolness to make the characters believable to young people.

This formula still applies. The title character of Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch has magic powers, but the plots almost always involve a struggle to achieve self-control. The title character of Moesha is a brainy, beautiful, highly responsible African-American role model who sides with rappers against her snobbish prep school classmates.

Even Buffy teaches subtle lessons about the usefulness of knowledge, technological savvy, friendship and resourcefulness.

"We're always very strict about what we have learned from a given episode," says Joss Whedon, creator and executive producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "We're not very strict about feeding it to the viewer. The characters have experiences from which they learn. If people in the audience don't get it, that's okay; they probably had fun."

Whedon, a third-generation television writer whose grandfather wrote about teenagers in scripts for The Donna Reed Show, says he conceived Buffy as a role model. "She's a hero in the strict sense, a leader," he says. "She may be as confused as anyone else, but she instinctively manages to do the right thing anyway."

Sabrina, of Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch, who last season learned on her 16th birthday that she was a witch, discovered this season, on her 17th birthday, that she needed a license to practice her craft. Failing the test during the season opener, she was sent to a quasi-military boot camp. When she finally passed the test, she looked at the license and discovered that it was only a learner's permit, portending a full season of new tests.

"When you're a witch, you can wreak horror in people's lives," says Paula Hall, executive producer of Sabrina and the mother of Melissa Joan Hart, who plays the title role. "You can do the same when you take the wheel of the car. We're not trying to hit anyone over the head with this, but the message is that power brings responsibilities."

Thomas Hine, author of The Total Package and Populuxe, is writing a history of the American teenager.