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Take one part Harry Potter, one part CSI, mix in mumbo-jumbo and a dash of Buffy and you've got the Sci-Fi network's intriguing, though ultimately disappointing, The Dresden Files (Sunday 9:45 p.m., Xtra HOT).
The pilot for the series, based on novels by Jim Bishop, is spellbinding at first, but ends up as just another TV conjuring trick; cool enough to draw us in, but never really memorable.
We are introduced to the young Harry Dresden, traveling with his second-rate magician dad and not exactly sure how his mother - whose framed picture hovers in the background in case we forget what she looks like - was killed.
The young Harry's afraid he's got monsters in his closet, so Dad gives him his late Mom's "shield bracelet."
"When I was a kid," says Harry-the-adult in one of the show's many voiceovers, "my father told me there was no such thing as monsters. As I got older, I had to wonder whether he was lying to me - or just wrong."
APPARENTLY THE shield bracelet also functions as a babe magnet, because suddenly we're in the present, the same bracelet is on Harry's wrist, and he's in bed with a waitress in his Chicago apartment. And while he can't use his magic to open the trunk of his car, he does have a secret laboratory in his building's basement. The digs are also shared by Bob, a resident spirit who lives in a skull - obviously a low-rent district - and who used to work for Harry's nefarious Uncle Justin. But evil Justin killed Harry's dad before the lad helped put an end to him. Bob knows tons about magic spells and other cool stuff, but has lost his powers ever since Justin's demise. So he hangs out in Harry's basement, advising him.
You see, Harry's a wizard, a 30ish Harry Potter (gee, what a coincidence... they have the same first name!) who likes babes, occasionally advises the police, and does the wizard thing for a living.
No wonder then that a young boy offers him $5,000 to help him, claiming monsters are after him. Harry initially tells the kid to scram and use the money for college.
But Bob, who knows children ("Where there are kids, there's snot" was our favorite line of the entire show), sets Harry straight. "You were once a frightened boy, and now a frightened boy has come to you," he says, our first inkling that the Bad Script Spirit has targeted this show. Next we get some mumbo-jumbo about a "high council" which must be consulted, some raven-like folks who are looking after the boy, and a dead body the cops have found with the skin stripped off. "There's a pretty short list of things that can do that," explains Harry, "a list of one - a skin walker."
It turns out that the skin walker, now "dressed" as the boy's lovely school teacher, really just wants his magic powers. Before you can say PTA, the skin walker/teacher is after him, with Harry consulting Bob on what to do, interspersed with returns to Harry's childhood for more explanations of his gift, which Uncle Justin had wanted to harness.
"Who you are - what you can do - you keep it to yourself, all right?" says Dad. Sure, says his son.
Yada, yada, yada - after the parallels between Harry's life as a youngster and his client's begin to overpower the script, the Skin Walker shows up at Harry's place and they engage in a little S&M before Harry figures out a way to outfox the foxy demon and the little boy is saved.
Too bad the producers didn't just stick with the magic, instead of dissolving into gooey Harry the Good stuff. "You gotta promise me you won't tell anyone about" your gift, Harry tells the boy, echoing his own father's message to him. "It's like Superman."
Well, no... you don't get to wear those tights and there are no phone booths involved. But being a wizard is way cool, and this show just doesn't do justice to its subject matter, even if it does try to seem portentious with silly go-to-black-and-white moments at each tense commercial break.
It's sappy effects like that which probably explain why, though initially commanding a loyal following, this show's ratings soon went poof, leaving its fans holding the bag after just one season.
While star Paul Blackthorne (24) is pretty good throughout, the rest of the cast isn't exactly magical. Give HOT credit for trying to pull a ratings rabbit out of a hat, but wizard fans are best advised to skip the trip to Chicago and stick with Hogwarts alumni.