Supernatural and Sanctuary tackle the Big Bads

For someone who has been to hell and back, Dean Winchester is looking mighty fine.

When last we saw the self-proclaimed smart brother, he was being dragged down into the devil's lair after selling his soul to save his brother Sam. Chest ripped open by the hounds of hell, things weren't looking good for our boy. Jump forward four months, and he's clawing through a pine box before digging his way out of a grave. He emerges with a big, red handprint on his shoulder marking his savage rescue from Hades' halls -- and we viewers have more than a few questions about how he escaped and why he can't remember much about his days down under.

Supernatural pops back up on the CW schedule on Thursday (9 p.m.), right after the series premiere of Smallville. Brothers Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) team up to fight the forces of evil, with their trusty hunter pal and closest-thing-to-a-father-since-dad-was-offed-by-a-demon Bobby (Jim Beaver).

Who snatched Dean from his living nightmare and why makes for one of the best episodes ever from this always-entertaining series embarking on its fourth season. There's no doubt that while the writers' strike hurt a lot of people, it seems to have rejuvenated some series that could have been heading for a major slump. After last season, fans might have been wondering if Dean's tumble down to the dark side could signal the beginning of the end of this series.

Instead, it sets up what may be one of the greatest seasons ever for Supernatural.. First out of the box is a terrific episode written by creator Eric Kripke and directed by Kim Manners (who directed The X-Files).

There are three key plot points the CW has begged reviewers not to reveal, and those points are addressed quite nicely in the not-to-be-missed season opener. But we can tell you that there's a new man in the boys' life who will change the course of their adventures in a major way. Castiel (Mischa Collins) is a hottie, and by that I mean he'll burn the eyes right out of your head.

Sometimes there's a fine line between good and evil, and that's the territory Dean and Sam explore this season. Can a demon be saved? Can an atheist believe in God? Can a supernatural being be good and yet allow evil to run amuck?

And there's a reason why the second, nail-biting episode is titled "Are You There God? It's Me, Dean Winchester." Strap on those seatbelts. It's going to be thrill ride.

While Supernatural has some cool special effects,the new series Sanctuary, which airs October 3 (9 p.m.) on the SciFi Channel, takes it to a whole new level with green screen sets and a production that comes out of Sin City and 300.

The technology allows the sets to take on a hyper-reality feel, but there's also a slight disconnect with the actors. Some reactions seem more stilted than with the more easy-going vibe out of Supernatural. The two-hour premiere looks promising, yet doesn't have that instant connect that Supernatural had from day one with relatable characters and snappy dialogue.

Sanctuary has a concept and a style that takes front-and-center priority. We would have liked a little more personality to the characters, which may evolve later after the shiny wears off of the new tech toys.

This series started out more than a year ago as internet webisodes, where we were introduced to Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Topping), a scientist modeled after Jack the Ripper. The 157-year-old doctor operates Sanctuary with the help of her new recruit Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), while her tough, beautiful daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) and tech whiz Henry (Ryan Robbins) dedicate their lives to studying and protecting odd and terrifying creatures that lurk in the shadows.

Some monsters are hideous, others look like everyday people though they may be the most dangerous of all. Case in point is Magnus' nemesis John Druitt played by Christopher Heyerdahl (Stargate Atlantis).

The script was a pilot written by Damian Kindler who wrote for Stargate eight years ago before he and writing partner Martin Wood decided to take it to the internet.

"(We wanted) to explore ways to shoot it," Kindler says. "It was decided that we would start with just some R&D on the web, build an audience, build a technical shooting style."

Topping says the challenge for the actors was working on this new kind of set.

"It's just getting your head around the idea of being inside a totally virtual set," Topping says. "We talked to our director and our vis effects team, and we often have renderings that we can look at before we actually step onto the stage, so you get an idea of the scope."

Kindler says the close to four million people who saw it on the web won't be getting a rehash. We disagree. The webisodes were fuller and richer than this two-hour premiere.

"(The webisodes) really kind of cut our teeth on how we'd like to try to shoot it," Kindler says. "The series on television is a complete overhaul, like a re-boot of the concept. Even though it has the same cast and the same concept, it's much broader in scope and deeper and the characters are more dimensional. I think it's far more accessible to a wider audience."

Kindler must mean the episodes following the premiere, which is a trimmed-down version of the webisodes already online. A few of the minor characters have been recast for the series and quite a few tweaks have been made. And the premiere actually offers less, especially in the back story between Magnus and Druitt.

The webisodes were much more impressive than this two-hour premiere, which doesn't bode well for the remainder of the 13-episode season.