Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Angel: Season One
At the close of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's third season, Angel, everyone's favorite vampire with a soul, left Sunnydale to start a new life (and, it seems, show) in Los Angeles. After drifting about and punching some vampires in an aimless, albeit satisfying fashion, he's approached by Doyle, who, with a direct line to the "powers that be," ends up being able to point Angel at those most in need of aid. Before long, Cordelia wanders back into the picture, the three of them have christened and set up Angel Investigations (We Help the Helpless), and the show's off and running.
Though both Buffy and Angel take place in the same world, and though there are a fair few overlaps, Angel differentiates itself from Buffy quickly and surely. First off, the tone here is totally different, dark, urban, and adult, rather than the high school (well, now, college) metaphors and snarky humor that make up much of Buffy. There's still humor here, of course – it's a Joss Whedon show, after all – but it's less prevalent. Less standout hilarious lines is, of course, a sad thing, but the show's atmosphere makes up for it.
The biggest difference between the two, though, is the lead character and, tied with that, their reasons for fighting. Now, each does pit an abnormally powerful individual against the forces of darkness and all that, but Buffy does so in a fashion similar to a super hero concept. She's light, they're dark, she kills them. Angel, however, is noir to the bone, and the show loves to play with the clichés of the genre, right down to the broke white knight detective against the world. Central to that is the fact that Angel is not like Buffy, cast as a savior by fate. Rather, he fights because he chooses to, and, though he's multiple opportunities to step away, to join the system and gain its power or even to be happy and free, he refuses to stop.
The greatest moments of heroism and character in the show, though, come from those around Angel. For the season's first half, the stage is often stolen by Glenn Quinn's Doyle, and it's his climax in Hero that is by far the most powerful and most affecting of the show's heroic moments. Coming soon after his departure is Alexis Denisof's Wesley Wyndam-Price. Now, I know I was rather hard on Wesley in my review of Buffy's third season, where he acted as an amusing but redundant stickler for the rules, but things are a whole different ball game here, and his determination, knowledge, vulnerability, and occasional incompetence are all damn effective.
Of course, while the standard noir hero is just one man fighting impossible odds, he is also intrinsically not just any man. The very fact that he alone refuses to go along with the system serves to differentiate him, making him – whether he be Hammett's Continental Op, Chandler's Marlowe, or any other detective you care to name – something fundamentally separate from those he's fighting for. In Angel, though, our private detective is not the same as those around him save for his determination. Angel is a vampire, as much a creature of supernatural strength and unnatural night as those he slays. For the most part, the show manages to either slide by this or, when it does bring it into the spotlight, play it as a wrathful avenger, a monster kills monsters type deal along the lines of, say, Dan Wells' recent I Am Not a Serial Killer.
At times, though, things are handled far less deftly, namely in the episodes She and War Zone. Angel – who, besides being inhuman, is a rich white man who, despite resolutely failing to charge the vast majority of his clients and having no other apparent source of income, lives in spacious quarters and drives a snazzy car – approaches, in one, oppressed women and, in the other, poor black children forced into a gang to survive the vampires attacking them. Each time, those in the group, at first, and rather reasonably, doubt Angel's ability to help them. And, each time, Angel proves that he can help anyone and everyone, regardless of their problem or situation, boiling the prejudices and difficulties against the groups into handily punchable opponents. The episodes aren't awful, but they both feel oversimplified and leave Angel a white knight with armor so bright and pure that it ends up defying belief, ironically making what could have been the show's grittiest episode (War Zone) into one of its most uncomplicated and superheroesque.
Most episodes, though, fair far better, thriving on the show's darker atmosphere and more adult tone. Many, like I Fall to Pieces and I've Got You Under My Skin, are genuinely creepy, even terrifying, to an extent that I can't remember anything on Buffy being. Others, like the Ring, are simpler but no less effective, while some – such as Eternity and the absolutely stunning Somnambulist – create incredible character arcs and portrayals in just forty minutes.
All of that's not even mentioning Five by Five and Sanctuary, the season's two Faith episodes, taking place immediately after Faith flees from Buffy. These two are made entirely of the rare moments when absolutely everything comes together, humor and tension and terror and more, to make something astounding. Faith, by this point, is utterly insane and utterly deadly, and her every moment is fantastic, but it's the conflicting reactions of Angel and Wesley that make the arc. Angel, the do gooder with the past of atrocities, can let no one go, can never acknowledge that there is a point after which redemption is impossible. Wesley, meanwhile, was brought up under the harsh and specific rules of the Watchers Council, and even that's before what Faith does to him in Five by Five.
From those and other episodes, much of Angel's worldview can be seen here. For him, it's never too late to turn around and redeem oneself – but, at the same time, there's no one harder than those who choose not to. Late in the season, in Blind Date, a member of Wolfram and Hart finds himself beset by moral qualms and wonders whether he should step away from the organization. Angel, after listening to him attempt to whitewash his own actions, shows damn little sympathy:
Lindsey: [We were] dirt poor. No shoes, no toilet, six of us kids in one room. And come flu season it was down to four. I was seven when they took the house. They just came right in and took it. And my daddy's being nice, you know? Joking with the bastards while he signs the deed. So yeah, we had a choice. You got stepped on or you got to stepping. And I swore to myself that I was not gonna be the guy standing there with a stupid grin on my face while my life got dribbled out.
Angel, after pretending to fall asleep: I'm sorry, I nodded off. Did you get to the part where you're evil? (Blind Date)
The organization that Lindsey works for there, the guys in suits that make up the system that Angel and the down and out must fight, are the season's big bad, or would be if the show ever really got around to the supposed center of its plot. The majority of those fantastic one episode arcs build to nothing and, though the shadowy law firm of Wolfram and Heart recurs in the shadows and in an increasingly adversarial way, we never get a glimpse of who they are or what they're trying to do. By the season's end, Wolfram and Heart have decided that Angel's their foe because he's interfering with their operations, but it's not possible to get even the faintest idea of just what he's interfering with or just what they'd be doing if he wasn't around.
In addition, as Wolfram and Hart's made up entirely of humans, with a security system that seems primarily made up of hope that they won't be attacked, it's difficult to see why Angel doesn't just burn the place to the ground. He's even shown to break in with nigh no trouble multiple times, but doesn't bother to destroy his foes, because… huh. Not particularly sure on that one. Besides which, Wolfram and Hart has the same thing. Yeah, they send the occasional super powered hitman after Angel towards the season's close, but why they don't do so with, say, a dozen at once, or why they don't go after those squishy mortals who like to help Angel, is hard to say. Not to mention that their final plan – bringing back a throwaway vampire from Buffy's first season that, yeah, maybe have sired Angel but never did anything interesting or important – is not quite making me quake with terror yet.
But while Wolfram and Hart still need to be explored in far greater depth, the show's got time and seasons yet, and what's here in season one is, for the most part, fantastic. The dark, urban atmosphere that Whedon and co have here birthed is oppressive and gripping, the characters at once flawed and larger than life, the plots at once complex and satisfying. All in all, Angel seems a more than worthy spin off to Buffy.
Standouts: Five by Five, Sanctuary, Somnambulist, Blind Date, Hero