Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Angel (1999-2004)

Angel is the Millenium to Buffy The Vampire Slayer's The X-Files - it's a darker, more mature series with similar themes. In this case, it's not just loosely set in the same universe (remember that Frank Blank got his coda on a post-Millenium episode of The X-Files), but a direct spin-off. Angel (David Boreanaz) - the vampire whose soul was returned to him by a gypsy curse - leaves Sunnydale to seek redemption for the sins of his afterlife by helping innocents in Los Angeles, a city that is overrun with demons, while battling the literally evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, legal defense for all manner of underworld creatures.

I must admit that I was never as excited sitting down to watch an episode of Angel as I was for Buffy, and I may not have been invested in the characters as deeply (although I do like Angel - both his noble-if-at-times-bristly personality, and his quest for redemption), but it's a series that had some really good moments, and is required viewing for anything more than the casual Buffy fan. On the other hand, if you don't go in for the nerdy teen drama aspect of Buffy (though it's a very mature series in its own right), you might still be able to appreciate Angel for its more adult drama and more frequently somber tone.

Following is a more in-depth exploration of each of the series' five seasons. Beware: spoilers abound! I would recommend you not read the following sections until you've seen the corresponding seasons in their entirety.

Season One

Coming on the heels of the first three seasons of Buffy, Angel's first season doesn't feel as raw and unpolished as Buffy's first did, but the show does take its time finding its routine. This isn't helped by the premature departure of Angel's (part) demon sidekick, Doyle (Glenn Quinn), whose telepathic visions of people in danger inspires Angel's quest to help the helpless. Three of the show's main (and original) characters barely even figure into the story until the second or third seasons.

In the beginning, the show does feel kind of like a dumping ground for characters retired from Buffy, with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) showing up (and eventually inheriting Doyle's visions), and then Wesley (Alexis Denisof) (with all his demonological knowledge), who both become central characters in this series (inhabiting larger roles than they ever had on Buffy). Additionally, you have a number of one-off cross-over episodes with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, featuring characters such as Spike (when he was still evil), Oz, Buffy herself, and Faith (Eliza Dushku). The latter fits in well with this show's darker themes, and eventually follows in Angel's footsteps on the quest for redemption.

Season Two

Season two relocates Angel Investigations to their new offices in the Hyperion Hotel. It also introduces lovable and snarky empath demon Lorne (Andy Hallett) (who can read people's auras when they sing karaoke) - who gradually takes over Doyle's role as demon sidekick - and Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), amateur streetwise vampire slayer who gradually becomes a crucial member of Angel's team. It also wraps up the story arc involving police detective Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Röhm), and her conflicted connection with Angel. I was a little disappointed that she just dropped off the show, because I was hoping she would come work with Angel after she got kicked off the force.

The season's conflict is largely about Wolfram & Hart's resurrection of Darla (Julie Benz) - the vampire who sired Angel - in the first season's finale. Some of Angel's best moments are those that dig back into the history of the character, and the hijinks that he and Darla, Drusilla and Spike engaged in throughout previous centuries. Certainly, it's great seeing Drusilla (Juliet Landau) back in action, even if just briefly, and the same could be said of the flashback involving Buffy season one Big Bad, The Master (Mark Metcalf), who I really liked, and wished we could have seen more of in either of these two series.

But where I thought the season was building up to a huge, Darla-centric climax, it instead segues into an iffy three-parter that takes place in an alternate dimension (Lorne's home world). We do, however, get introduced to hot-to-trot Texas physicist Winifred "Fred" Burkle (Amy Acker), who will subsequently become another one of the main characters on the show. Darla's story arc, meanwhile, will reach its emotional conclusion in the middle of the next season.

Season Three

Season three is all about Angel's son (by way of Darla, via a mystical pregnancy, since vampires can't normally give birth), Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), and also ties in with an old villain, Holtz (Keith Szarabajka) who has been brought to the present by a demon. Holtz is an interesting case - and a brilliant choice for the series - because he was one of the victims of Angelus' sadistic brutality. So on the one hand, he's a good man who deserves his vengeance, but because he doesn't understand that Angel has reformed, Holtz is effectively an antagonist. It really brings out the theme of redemption, and forces Angel to look the repercussions of Angelus' acts square in the face.

Holtz wants Angel to suffer the pain of losing a child (as Angelus once inflicted on Holtz), so he kidnaps the infant Connor and raises him in a demon dimension where time flows much swifter than on Earth, so that Connor soon returns as a brooding (and battle-trained) adolescent, influenced by Holtz to hate his father. This culminates in a shocking season finale (and the most harrowing cliffhanger of the series) which finds Angel sealed in a coffin and dropped into the sea by his own son.

But in the meantime, spurred on by a dubious but alarming prophecy, Wesley betrays Angel in an attempt to save Connor. Angel doesn't forgive him, and he gets separated from the group, beginning his transformation into a much darker character. I have to say, the transformation suits him well, and though I enjoyed his antics as the goofy comedic relief, he's a much more fully fledged out character as a result of this dark turn.

Season Four

I have mixed feelings about season four. On the one hand, the show is at its most serial, with an involved plot unfolding over the entire season, without much in the way of filler, or "monsters of the week". It involves the coming apocalypse, spurred on by an intimidating demon referred to as The Beast (Vladimir Kulich, in fantastic makeup) (who at one point succeeds in blotting out the sun - at least over Los Angeles). All the main characters are present and the show is really in its groove. We even get to see Angel temporarily lose his soul and become Angelus again - in an excellent set of scenes that demonstrates Angelus' cruel genius, as he is able to sow discord and cause suffering through mere head games alone, while he is trapped within a cell.

But there's a large focus on the love triangle between Angel, Cordelia, and Connor. In the first place, I've always thought the development of feelings between Angel and Cordelia was kind of cheesy. I mean, it's the obvious choice, in terms of TV drama, but come on - Angel and Cordy? Granted, Cordy has evolved a great deal since her Sunnydale days, now half-demon, receiving visions from The Powers That Be. In the last season, it even looked like she was promoted to the level of Angel (the Heaven kind). I thought they were getting rid of her, and I was surprised but happy at this momentous turn of events. But it all turns out to be a trick.

As for Connor, I got sick of him pretty quick. I guess it shows my prejudice, since the moody teen was my favorite character on Buffy - when she was a girl (Dawn) - but here, it's a boy, and I simply find him annoying. Now, usually, I'd go in for the whole semi-incestuous, making-out-with-my-father's-girlfriend setup, but I guess I just don't care for the characters very much, so the heavy focus on Connor and Cordelia's development in this season counts against it.

Plus, The Beast ultimately turns out not to be The Big Bad, but just a lackey. The real head honcho is, puzzlingly, the Goddess Jasmine (Gina Torres), who desires only world peace. Although she wants to get it by way of turning mankind into pacifist slaves. Always with the show's grey areas. Of course, when Angel and the gang end up stopping this goddess, it's a perfect opportunity to emphasize the protagonists' increasingly ambiguous relationship with apocalypse-mongers Wolfram & Hart, which will be the theme of the next season.

Season Five

In the first season, Wolfram & Hart was a legitimate threat to Angel. It employed two excellent characters - rogue attorney Lindsay McDonald (Christian Kane), with ambiguous loyalties, and sly executive Holland Manners (Sam Anderson). But they both left the show in the second season, and their replacements left much to be desired. After the revelation that the "Home Office" is not Hell like you would think, but just Los Angeles - mindfuck as that is - and that Wolfram & Hart actually wants to keep Angel alive (to exploit him for their own plans), the firm pretty much loses its fangs.

Enter the brilliant twist in the final season - Angel and company are invited to take over the law firm. Much as they scoff at this invitation, they ultimately can't turn down the firm's resources, and resolve to try and change the company from within. Meanwhile, the firm, dancing on the strings of the mysterious "Senior Partners" (surely terrible demons, though we never get a satisfying look at them), similarly plans to corrupt Angel and company and wear down their righteous resolve by surrounding them with so much moral ambiguity. Plus, most of the clients and employees of the firm want to kill Angel, so it's a lot like a fly setting up shop in a spider web. Except that the fly is a seasoned exterminator.

It's an ingenious inversion of the show, and the first half of this season contains a number of clever and fun episodes, as the gang (and the audience) gets used to the new setup, before things start to get more tense, and the stakes get raised, in the second half. In addition to the triumphant and welcome return of Lindsay McDonald as a recurring character, this is also the season where Spike (James Marsters) (having been brought back as a ghost after sacrificing his life for the forces of good in the series final of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) joins the show as a regular character. The interplay between him and Angel - both vampires with a soul now, and both Champions for good; also, both former loves of Buffy - proves to be an abundant well of both humor and dramatic tension.

Additionally, I welcomed the return of Harmony (Mercedes McNab) in the role of Angel's secretary in this season. She's a minor character, but I thought she was a lot of fun when she was Spike's girlfriend on Buffy (before Spike turned good), and she kind of takes over the catty role that Cordelia filled, before she turned all "holy roller". Speaking of Cordelia, I welcomed her nearly total absence in this season (as well as that of Connor) - although she was great in the one episode in which she gets the chance to give her character a final send-off. I guess she's just better in small doses, after all. Same can be said of Connor.

As for the series' finale, I had been warned that the show ends prematurely, and my research verified that the creators had intended to keep the show going for at least one more season (if not even more than that). On the other hand, I think that the creators may have known the show would be ending before they filmed the finale, because the sendoff does have a certain welcome finality to it. There's more story to be told, perhaps (Angel never did get the reward for his redemption that we all thought was coming - although one of the themes in this season was that doing good deeds is its own reward, and that that's all there is to it), and while some characters meet their tragic end, others survive through to the bombastic climax.

But the cliffhanger where the show ends off is perfectly calculated - the survivors facing overwhelming odds in an unprecedented show of power by the Senior Partners, infuriated by the critical blow Angel and his friends have managed to strike against them. You could believe that these are the advancing forces of evil that Angel will finally be unable to defeat, and that this is where his story finally ends. But you could just as easily believe that Angel and his companions will find a way to surmount these odds, as they have in every harrowing situation so far. It's not the infuriating cliffhanger I was fearing (imagine if the show had been canceled after the third season's cliffhanger!). It's a fitting end to the series, given the circumstances, that both feels like a loving farewell to the TV series, while leaving the story open to continuation in other media (comics, for example).

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