Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt, 1999-2004
I've mentioned in a number of these articles over the years that my favorite narrative TV show ever is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet I barely even glanced at its spinoff show, Angel. I think that when it was on the air I caught the pilot and a few of the more heavily-promoted episodes — one from season two and a couple from season five. But whenever I'd find myself talking about Buffy with people over the years, I'd end up saying things like, "And then he moved over to Angel's show and I don't know what happened to him", and "A lot more of her past got filled in on Angel's show but I don't know what it is", so the last time I was casting about for a show to catch up on, Angel finally got the nod.
I anticipate that much of what I'm about to say will be critical, so let me say up front that Angel stacks up favorably against any show I've seen since Buffy went off the air. A hundred and ten episodes, and I ripped right through 'em. So what was the problem the first time around? Something about the tone rubbed me the wrong way: it seemed slow, dour, lacking in the fun characters and sparkling "Buffy-speak" that characterized its parent show. Having now actually watched the whole thing, I will say that Angel's tone is less consistent than that of Buffy — at times it's a fair bit darker (e.g., the "heroes" quite often appoint themselves as executioners not just of soulless monsters but of human beings they've decided need killin'), while at others it's distinctly goofier (e.g., the time Angel gets turned into a felt puppet, or the running joke about a demonic character's heart being located in his ass) — but authorial decisions about tone aren't made in a void. The contrast between Buffy and Angel really starts with the contrast between Buffy and Angel.
One of the two primary themes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is duty; the show takes the Spider-Man mantra that "with great power comes great responsibility" and expands it out into a Hegelian dialectic, like so. Thesis: Buffy is a regular teenage girl who is granted superhuman abilities, but with them comes the duty to routinely risk her life fighting monsters and averting apocalypses. Antithesis: Buffy resents being deprived of the carefree life her "normal" peers seem to enjoy, and frequently rebels against the instructions of her Watcher, sometimes to fight the baddies her way, and sometimes just to run off and have fun. Synthesis: Buffy survives long enough to no longer need a Watcher, transcending both blind obedience and callow rebellion to take apart and refashion the very system by which the powers of the Slayer are meted out. Obviously, this is all in large part an allegory for the adolescent yearning to seize the freedom and power of adulthood without having to make sacrifices for them or suffer the consequences of them (and the fact that the show both rejects the notion that growing up means accepting the establishment, and acknowledges the necessity to go beyond a simplistic cry of "Fuck the establishment!", is a big part of what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer awesome). Just as obviously, a show about Angel is going to have different themes, because he's not an adolescent. He's over 200 years old.
Angel is introduced in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a mysterious figure who knows that Buffy is the Slayer, passes her tips, fights by her side — and is soon revealed as a vampire himself. The difference is that, thanks to a Gypsy curse, his soul has been restored, and now he's attempting to atone for his century-plus of sadism and murder. Buffy and Angel save each other's lives a bunch of times and soon come to see each other as soulmates, which I suppose isn't incredibly hard to believe: in addition to all the mutual life-saving, it's not a huge stretch to posit that they would find each other physically attractive, and as later episodes spell out in more detail, characters in the world of the show tend to be sexually drawn to their supernatural adversaries. The real reason they so quickly come to see each other as soulmates, of course, is that it's necessary to the plot. Midway through season two, Angel becomes Buffy's first lover and experiences "a moment of perfect happiness", which triggers a sneaky clause in his Gypsy curse that removes his soul. He reverts to his persona as the notorious vampire Angelus, murders an important supporting character, and at the end of the season, hatches a plan to suck the world into a hell dimension. The only way to prevent this catastrophe is to either restore his soul before the gateway is opened or else kill him outright. Buffy's friends try the former method while Buffy goes to fight Angel to the death if the restoration spell doesn't work. As it turns out, it does — but after the gateway is open, so that even after Angel's soul is restored, in order to save the world Buffy still has to run him through with her sword and send him to spend an eternity in torment. This moment is a lot more fraught if Angel is Buffy's soulmate than if he's just some guy.
But the Buffy/Angel relationship never did much for me, largely because the Angel half of it is mostly dead weight. This in turn is largely because David Boreanaz shows little indication of being a good actor. He's fine at the main tasks Angel must perform in his early appearances, which are lurking in the shadows and brooding. But he's terrible at playing Angelus. Angelus is supposed to be the epitome of evil, but as portrayed, he just comes off as snide. Actually, no — he comes off like a guy trying too hard to be snide. The pain multiplies when we see him in flashback, as we have to witness Boreanaz trying too hard to be snide in a bad Irish accent. Grueling. In any case, my understanding is that Angel's story was supposed to end with Buffy sacrificing him to save the world; it was the network's idea to spin him off into a show of his own, so he was brought back to spend season three practicing tae bo with Buffy before telling her that she deserved better and packing up for L.A., where Angel picks up the story. The premise of Angel, as established in the pilot, is that Angel is saving random people from vampire attacks and the like, but when not doing that is spending all his time alone in his spartan apartment, often just sitting in the dark staring at nothing. (Some people may consider this a suboptimal lifestyle, and I agree — I prefer not to let foiling vampire attacks cut into my sitting-in-the-dark time.) A half-demon named Doyle shows up and tells Angel that he receives visions from "The Powers That Be" alerting him to people in trouble, and that by connecting with the people Doyle sees in these visions — not just rescuing them from monsters, but actually helping them solve their problems — Angel might find fulfillment rather than mere redemption.
That setup suggests a formula: every week we get a new supernatural mystery, a new guest star in peril, and a new batch of scenes in which said guest star attempts to coax this brooding mystery man out of his shell. And that more or less describes the first season. Angel and a couple of associates open up a detective agency dedicated to "helping the helpless", taking on walk-in clients and seeking out those who appear in the visions, while crossing swords (sometimes literally) with an evil transdimensional law firm called Wolfram & Hart. But over the course of the next three seasons, Angel drifts away from this formula and becomes what the show itself describes as a "turgid supernatural soap opera". The case of the week is elbowed out by a three-year storyline in which Wolfram & Hart resurrects Angel's sire/lover Darla; Angel impregnates her; their son Conor is kidnapped, gets raised in a hell dimension, and returns having aged into his late teens in the blink of an eye; Conor in turn fathers "the Blessed Devourer"; in between all this, characters pair off and break up and pair off and break up, and relatively few of the helpless are helped. The final season shakes up the status quo by putting Angel and his team in charge of Wolfram & Hart, raising the question of whether they can use its resources for good or whether they'll be corrupted in the attempt. What all five seasons have in common is that in all of them Angel turns evil at one point or another.
I suppose this is to be expected. Consider the Marvel Comics character Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans. For the most part, Black Bolt has a pretty generic power set — strength, speed, agility, energy blasts — but with one unusual addition: he must remain totally silent, for his voice has immense destructive power. A whisper can flatten a city and a scream can blow up a planet. It's a more-than-nuclear option that conventional wisdom dictates should be saved for the single moment in the saga of the Marvel Universe when the stakes are highest. Naturally, Black Bolt instead ends up going vocal in practically every appearance. Because come on! He's Black Bolt! This is the thing that he does! And turning evil is the thing that Angel does. Yes, he can put on his regular vamp-face and do vampire things, but that's like Black Bolt punching someone or zapping someone with a power beam. Ho-hum. And yes, the dominant characteristic of Angel's personality is supposed to be that he sits in the dark repenting his past evil deeds and avoids people for fear of hurting them again. But that's like Black Bolt maintaining strict silence — it's hard for it to mean very much without reminders of what he's repressing. Therefore Angel is chemically reverted to Angelus in season one, mystically reverted to Angelus in season four, turns on his friends in season two over Darla, turns on his friends in season three over Conor, and turns on his friends in season five as part of the Wolfram & Hart story arc. And at some point in the process the pendulum stops swinging all the way back. Even when Angel is supposed to be good, he's no longer introverted so much as grouchy. Compare him to Spike, the Buffyverse's other "vampire with a soul who had a star-crossed romance with the Slayer". Spike was reputed as the second-worst vampire of his era, behind Angelus, and even after taking several steps along the path to redemption, is still a swaggering, violent punk with a sarcastic quip for everyone — i.e., exactly the sort of antihero who attracts legions of fans. But when I say Angel is grouchy, I don't mean that he's an acerbic wiseass. I don't even mean that he's a loveable curmudgeon. He's just a sullen dick who constantly runs roughshod over his friends.
Which brings me to the second primary theme of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: friendship. Many episodes make the case that Buffy succeeds where all previous slayers would have failed because she's the first one to have friends helping her. Other episodes go the other way and advance the notion that however close Buffy and her friends might seem, there's no getting around the fact that she's the one with the supernatural calling and they're not. Angel also surrounds its title character with a circle of associates who become a surrogate family, to each other if not necessarily to him. Let's take a look at them:
Doyle: Hangdog half-demon with the aforementioned visions. I was quite pleased when he was killed off less than halfway through the first season. For one, it signaled that this would be one of those shows, now fairly common but significantly less so in 1999, in which anything could happen, including one of the three people in the opening credits being eliminated a few weeks into the show's run. For another, it got rid of a character I found annoying and opened a space for a better one.
In fact, before I get into them individually, let me say a few words about the season one core of Angel, Cordelia, and Wesley. All three of these characters had appeared in season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and none of them were particularly missed when they didn't show up for season four. You had the wooden love interest whose storyline had already wrapped up but who was still derping around; the shallow mean-girl cheerleader whose job was to serve as the antagonist for, not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Buffy the High School Student; and the twit brought in to make Buffy's buttoned-down Watcher look hip by comparison. The idea of building a show around these three is — well, frankly, it's pretty cool. Around the time Buffy took to the airwaves, Marvel Comics went bankrupt, and there was talk that its characters might be sold off, and I remember thinking that it would be a lot of fun to let DC Comics or Disney or someone buy up the big names like Spider-Man and Wolverine and then scoop up the rest for like $1 per property and start a whole new Marvel Universe around all those bit characters like La Espirita and the Blue Shield. So what did end up happening to these Buffy B-listers whose continuing adventures I didn't bother to follow for fifteen years?
Cordelia: It's impressive how the folks behind Angel succeeded in gradually and seamlessly evolving Cordelia from a snippy and slightly airheaded wannabe actress into someone who is completely believable as a genuine hero and the heart of Angel's team. I think that what's especially nifty about this is that there are no dramatic turning points when Cordelia goes, "The scales have fallen from my eyes! Henceforth I shall be pure of thought and deed!" It's more a matter of context. At Sunnydale High, in a show focusing on bright and shiny Buffy and Willow and Xander, Cordelia's catty remarks have the effect of raining on everyone's parade. But in L.A., where you've got Angel and Doyle and Wesley standing around looking like a bunch of bologna sandwiches, Cordelia can act almost exactly the same way, but what comes through is that her remarks are delivered with a broad, gleaming smile that cuts through the general gloom, and they end up seeming less catty and more vivacious. And as she grows disenchanted with the idea of chasing celebrity and more dedicated to the work of fighting evil and helping the helpless, it looks a lot more like following the road to redemption than anything Angel does. (Of course, this arc culminates in season three, and has a weird discordant coda stitched on in season four. But her guest shot in season five is top-notch, encapsulating everything Cordelia brought to the first three seasons of the show.)
Wesley: I'd had a vague notion that he changed over the course of the series, and before I actually watched the episodes I saw some posters on Google Images, and they were quite striking — in the first one he was the same supercilious fop I remembered from Buffy, but then here was a shot of him looking all flinty-eyed with short uncombed hair, a thick growth of stubble, and a big scar. Hardcore Wesley! They made a badass out of the guy from Buffy who was prone to shrieking like a grandmother when the monsters attacked! In this case there actually is a pivotal moment that launches his new persona — namely, the acquisition of the scar — but it doesn't come out of nowhere; even before that, Wesley had become steadily more competent and confident. And given that Wesley's evolution, like Cordelia's, is directed and sure-handed, while Angel's seems like just so much Brownian motion, it ends up feeling kind of strange that Angel is the one the show's named after.
Gunn: Here's a character who shows little sign of being part of a long-term plan. Originally brought on when the writers decided to mark off a "Vampz N The Hood" corner of the Buffyverse, Gunn keeps getting thrown into storylines that don't end up going much of anywhere. You can sort of hear the writers brainstorming ideas for things to do with him. "Come on, he's in the credits! We need to give him some lines!" "Okay, let's throw him into a relationship! We could start with a romantic triangle!" "Cool! That might, like, take some time!" "Now let's magically make him a lawyer!" "Good idea! There are probably a bunch of stories there! (Actual stories TBD.)"
Lorne: As noted at the top, Angel is both darker than Buffy and goofier, and Lorne is a case in point on both counts. He's a green demon with red eyes and horns and an amusingly garish taste in clothing, and he has the power to be able to see people's futures — but only when they sing. And he runs a karaoke bar. Cue Angel shuffling uncomfortably onto the stage and mumbling his way through "Mandy". Goofy! The end of season two is dedicated to a trip to Lorne's home dimension, complete with talking severed heads and demons doing "the dance of shame", where we meet Lorne's bearded mother and Cordelia is coronated as queen and dressed up like Red Sonja. Even goofier! After his little stint as de facto star of the show, Lorne ends up hanging around without much to do — he sort of becomes the Ringo of the group, given one lighthearted showcase episode per season. But look at what happens to him from start to finish. His karaoke bar is shot up, then blown up. He moves into Angel's hotel to crack jokes and call everyone "crumb cake", but specifies that he's not a fighter, and when it's time to go kill some monsters, he's the one who stays behind to look after the baby. This doesn't save him from getting tortured, and watching several of his friends die, and ultimately betraying his peaceful nature by reluctantly agreeing to assassinate someone. Our last image of Lorne, this gentle creature who loved music and lamé suits, is of him disgustedly dropping his murder weapon, and in a voice full of self-loathing, bidding us in the audience a permanent farewell. Dark!
Fred: Manic Pixie Technobabble Girl! Nerd bait incarnate! I have worked on enough projects like this now to know that this is exactly what studios want when they order up a female scientist character: a tiny cutie with glasses who will excitedly gush incomprehensible physics-y sounding dialogue, then blush. (This character is also available in Extra Punky, with a smattering of tattoos and piercings, but Fred is Original Recipe.) More about Fred in a bit.
Conor: Worlds in collision! I wasn't super surprised when Angel's son came back from the hell dimension as a teenager, but I was a little @_@ when that teenager turned out to be Pete Campbell from Mad Men. The dissonance remained disconcerting, because Conor doesn't really register as a much of a character in his own right. He just alternately fights against and alongside Angel and acts sulky. Like father like son, I guess.
Spike: Spike joins the gang in season five, and, well, he's Spike. His appearance on Angel's show actually shows off one of its main flaws: though the Buffy writers initially resisted the impulse to make Spike into Angel redux, they did eventually give in, such that when Spike shows up at Wolfram & Hart and finds that Angel has been busy trying to fulfill the destiny laid out for him in various books of occult lore, he is correct in pointing out that the endless references to "the vampire with a soul" could just as well apply to him. Could apply better to him, actually: Spike fought for his soul, wanting to become truly good, while Angel just had his dropped on him as a punishment for randomly biting the wrong girl. It might not have been the best thing for Spike to have been the one spun off into his own show — he does work better as a complementary piece — but what if the first Buffy spinoff had premiered in 2003 with Wesley and Cordelia starting a demon-fighting outfit with Spike as the vampire muscle? I don't think we'd have missed having Angel in the mix.
Harmony: Hee hee. Harmony started way back in the Sunnydale High days as essentially an extra, one of the rich girls who follows Cordelia around laughing at her jokes. When Cordelia becomes too friendly with Buffy and the Scoobies, Harmony is the one who warns Cordelia that she's putting her popularity at risk. Then Harmony gets vamped, and shows up on both Buffy and Angel as an occasional comedic guest star, as Spike's ditzy girlfriend or as an incompetent gang leader or what have you. She finally becomes a regular in season five as Angel's secretary at Wolfram & Hart, and even gets a fun spotlight episode of her own. What's interesting about Harmony is that she is pretty much the only clue we get as to what this "soul" business is about — what does it mean for a vampire to "have a soul", since they can be amiable and even loving without one? And we see the answer in Harmony. She turns the "mean, crusty character who always ends up doing the right thing" cliché on its head: she's cheerful and friendly, but when push comes to shove, she always does the evil thing.
Illyria: The Buffy cast always skewed female, sometimes wildly so: there were scenes in seasons five and six when Xander would say something, and Buffy and Dawn and Willow and Tara and Anya would glare at him, and he'd mutter something about needing to get some guy friends. The Angel cast flipped the ratio around; there's a scene in season five in which Fred is surrounded by Angel, Wesley, Gunn, Lorne, Spike, and her assistant Knox, the sort of gender demographics you see at Smurf Village. And then as if to underline this, the writers turn her blue. More precisely, they abruptly kill off Fred, and have her body possessed and transformed — blue hair, partially blue skin, giant shining blue eyes — by an ancient demon named Illyria. Now, it's not like Illyria is a character wholly without precedent; the world-conquering superbeing fallen on reduced circumstances has even become something of a standard. (Off the top of my head, take the Demonwolf from Empowered.) Even more of a standard is the "alien/robot/other non-human creature learning human ways" trope, which is virtually all there is to Illyria in the short window between her introduction and the show's cancellation. Nevertheless, I dug her. A manic pixie scribbling equations on the walls is certainly not without appeal, but even more up my alley is the pixie who telepathically converses with plants and waves a hand to open up dimensional portals. Even just the way that Illyria would cock her head and stare at something with those crazy sapphire eyes made me go "yeee, awesome" pretty much every time. But the coolest thing of all, I think, was simply the stunt of having Amy Acker suddenly playing a completely different character. I'd wondered to what extent Fred was a performance and to what extent she was just being herself, so for her to be able to make me think that I was actually looking at a different order of creature, and not just Fred wearing contact lenses, was pretty neat. After all, one of the key flaws of the show was that David Boreanaz couldn't do that.