In the dead of winter, the WB network (search) is welcoming back its only hit new drama of the season, "Summerland." (search)

The show, which aired briefly last summer, is about a California fashion designer (Lori Loughlin (search)) who inherits her sister's country bumpkin kids after their parents are killed. But it has unexpectedly become the most important new show of the 2004-05 season for the network.

Buzz surrounding the series is being fueled further by the sudden pop-music fame of one of its stars, Jesse McCartney, 17, who plays angst-ridden teen Bradin Westerly, one of the three Kansas kids who find themselves suddenly orphaned and living in southern California.

"I think they actually kind of played off of each other," says McCartney of the popularity surrounding "Summerland" and his debut album "Beautiful Soul." Since his record debuted last fall, it's sold more than 260,000 copies and is topping the airplay rotation on Z100.

"Having the show on the air before the record came out was huge," he says. "It was almost a free promotion for the album. It got my face out there and let people know who I am.

"Now people can put a face with the name because they've seen the show," says McCartney, who grew up along the Hudson River in the village of Ardsley, N.Y., and moved to Los Angeles about eight months ago to work.

"With the album doing pretty good, those who see me on TV or hear me singing on the radio can say, 'Isn't that the kid from "Summerland?" ' " he says. "It's kind of like they both feed off of each other — let's just say it's very cool."

"I'm thrilled," laughs "Summerland" executive producer Remi Aubuchon. "I hope it helps Jesse's singing career, too, but it really helps our show."

Aubuchon says that McCartney wasn't cast because of his pop-idol potential. "But we knew there was something special about him."

"Summerland" is hugely important to the WB for another reason: The network's two other major new dramas this season, "The Mountain" and "Jack & Bobby," flopped, turning the success of "Summerland" into one of the lone new bright spots on the youth-skewing network's aging schedule.

The network is re-airing the series' short first season — just 13 episodes — starting Jan. 16. The new season debuts on Feb. 28.

"I think it was a huge surprise to the network that we did as well as we did last summer," says Aubuchon. "Now I'm starting to believe that the audience was ready for a show like ours, and you can see with the success of 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Lost' that people were looking for more character-driven dramas, and I think we were actually the first to pop out like that."