Spinning off from the events of Buffy’s third season, Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt took Buffy’s vampire boyfriend away from Sunndyale, at the peak of the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s central relationship no less, and off to the city of Los Angeles to work as a private detective, helping those in need with the help of Cordelia and new sidekick Doyle, whose visions from the “Powers That Be” pave the way for new adventures.
That was the plan and it was that show for a good chunk of the first season. Intended to be a more anthology style series with stand alone tales in comparison to the more serialised Buffy, for the first half of the season at least, Angel, much like the first season of The X-Files, sees a plethora of mysteries for our heroes to solve, some great, some good and some merely okay.
The first big change comes nine episodes in when Glenn Quinn’s Doyle is killed off to make way for Alexis Denisof’s Wesley. The late Glenn Quinn was a wonderful addition to the Buffy-verse and his loss from the show was truly felt, and the idea of Wesley, who wasn’t that popular to begin with on Buffy, was not a pleasing one. At first, anyway.
Before we knew it, Angel started to become just that little bit more serialised, culminating in an epic two parter where rogue slayer Faith shows up after having caused no end of trouble the previous week on Buffy, while Wolfram and Hart, the mysterious law firm who appear in fantastic pilot episode City Of, took on a more prominent role, effectively becoming a Big Bad who had it in for our vampire with a soul.
There is always a sense of surprise amongst critics when they write about Angel. Many will admit that it was more than equal in terms of quality and will write things along the lines of “a surprisingly more consistent show than the one it spun-off from”.
Lasting for five seasons, Angel frequently felt as if it was in the shadow of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, at least in terms of commercial success. Whilst in danger of cancellation during the course of its later seasons, the show amassed high critical standing, an adoring cult fandom, and a brilliant run of episodes. Whilst many have argued over which is better, the truth is both shows are classics and complement each other very well and it can be superb fun to binge watch both shows by dipping in and out of each one a few episodes at a time, especially where crossovers are involved.
Although, if I had to pick, I would have to say my heart was stolen just that little bit more by the gang at Angel Investigations.
Where Buffy started as a series about being a teenager and turned into one about the hard journey to being an adult, Angel on the other hand was about adulthood from the beginning. Angel and Cordelia have left the small town for life in the big city, and with it comes stories and ideas on how hard that life is. Becoming a private detective, Angel almost immediately finds himself challenging the big boys and girls at Wolfram and Hart and frequently at loggerheads with the LAPD.
Having bitten Buffy, at her request, to save himself from being poisoned, our hero finds himself fighting a taste of addiction, a metaphor that is handled adroitly and more subtly than when Buffy would try something similar in its sixth season.
The series debuted on The WB and was paired up with Buffy for the first two seasons, but when Buffy moved to UPN due to FOX’s dispute with The WB over money, Angel was on his own, but whilst Buffy fell into the despair and doldrums of its sixth season, Angel went from strength to strength in its third, boasting some of its best story arcs and stand alone episodes. The journey there is worth it too. The first season is very enjoyable, the second ups the ante considerably with both a “Dark Angel” arc and then a late season trip to an alternate dimension that brings a lot of humour to the show, but the third was masterful.
With David Greenwalt as showrunner, and with frequently great work from Tim Minear, Angel always felt like it was under the radar and very underrated, but it built up a superb body of work for the DVD and streaming generations, with its mix of fun stand alone tales and intense ongoing story arcs.
The fourth season saw the series drop the ball somewhat, the Angel equivalent of Buffy’s sixth season; Greenwalt left when his contract with FOX was up, whilst Minear left to go write for Firefly (writing that show’s best ever episode whilst he was at it). The show ended up making several questionable story telling decisions and in the shape of Connor, played by Vincent Kartheiser, ended up giving birth to one of the most hateful television characters in years.
Thankfully a change in direction in season five saw the show find its footing again and went back to the season one style of mixing stand alones and shorter arcs, many of which were fantastic. It gave us Smile Time, arguably the best ever episode of the show, as well as the devastatingly brilliant A Hole in the World/Shells two-parter that saw the loss of a key character, and subsequent replacement, in very dramatic circumstances and which saw superb work from the entire cast, but most notably Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof.
With a wonderful leading man in the shape of David Boreanaz, the show surrounded him with a wonderful ensemble, many of whom were not the same character as they were when it started. Like Buffy, Angel took great joy in developing its characters over the years, none more so than Wesley who went from a buffoonish-English gent to a suave, tough guy with the greatest stubble in the history of television, whilst J.August Richards’ development from the streetwise Gunn to slick lawyer and its tragic ramifications must surely make Richards the most underappreciated actor on television.
As the show went on it gained showstealing talent like Amy Acker and the late Andy Hackett, and for its final season, its one and only year after Buffy finished, it gained James Marsters who formed a formidable, sometimes antagonistic, but frequently hilarious, double act with Boreanaz.
Then there was Charisma Carpenter. Cordelia was at times a very unlikable person on Buffy, but if you track her character from Buffy pilot Welcome to the Hellmouth to Angel’s third season finale Tomorrow, you’re laying witness to one of the greatest character developments in all of television. From unsympathetic mean girl to a lovable one, and eventually to the compassionate heart of the show’s core group, whilst being a cool bad-ass along with it, Carpenter’s portrayal was vivid, incredible and truly memorable. Plot developments in season four which felt like a character assassination is a large reason why the season is viewed in a less than favourable light and there was really nowhere to go but write her out of the series. Explained away as being corrupted by the eventual “Big Bad” of the season (a wasted Gina Torres), it still felt as if the show had thrown away a character that we all loved and cared about for the sake of some very nonsensical plot twists.
Redemption followed in the 100th episode You’re Welcome and the sight and sounds of how the character really ought to be was pleasing and brilliant. Her chemistry with Boreanaz was wonderful and their relationship was one to cheer for. It goes without saying that a Joss show never makes thing easy, but the destination in season four cannot help but leave a nasty taste in the mouth, especially coming after three seasons of wonderful, rich character development, and a will they/won’t they relationship that snuck up on the audience without us even realising it.
Fourth season aside, Angel is fantasy television at its best. Superb character development, some brilliantly stylish action sequences, and one of the best casts on television, which is obvious since this is a Joss show, once that epic Darling Violetta theme music kicks in, you know you’re in for one of the greats with this one.
AIRDATE: October 1999-May 2004
NUMBER OF SEASONS: Five
NOTABLE WRITERS: Joss Whedon (of course), David Greenwalt, Mere Smith, Steven S.DeKnight, Drew Goddard, Jeffrey Bell, Jane Espenson (sadly only two episodes, but they are hilarious), Shawn Ryan, but the main stand out was always Tim Minear who had such a clear grasp on the show and the characters that there is not one bad episode credited to him. His second season episode Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been is a masterpiece that demands to be seen.
NOTABLE DIRECTORS: Of all Joss’ shows, this is the one he directed the least off, but the ones he did, as always, stand out, but thankfully this was a show that frequently allowed some of its writers to direct too with many episodes credited to Greenwalt, Minear, DeKnight and Bell along with usual Mutant Enemy directors James Contner, Marita Grabiak and Vern Gillum.
BEST SEASON: Honourable mention must go to season five which was a real return to form after the mess of the fourth, but it has to be season three. One of the most brilliantly constructed seasons of television ever, twist and twist, turn after turn, some truly excellent stand alone episodes, a fantastic story arc at the centre of it, and an amazing cliffhanger filled finale that guarantees you’ll be going straight to the fourth season.
WORST SEASON: Fourth. Let’s move on shall we.
BEST EPISODE: Waiting in the Wings is brilliant. I love Waiting in the Wings, but I have to go with Smile Time. Such a blazingly unique hour of television, suffice to say I don’t want to say too much for anyone who hasn’t seen it but it’s one of the funniest episodes of television in history.