Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Angel — Season 4



**warning contains spoilers**

You know the thing that made me love "Buffy" and "Angel" the most? It wasn't just the strong female characters, the emotional resonance, the relatable quality of even the most supernatural of characters, or the pop culture-laced wit; it was for a very simple reason- they were both just so damn good. Even the weakest episodes of each could outclass just about every other show on TV, and the writers managed to make even the lesser episodes worth watching.

After I ran through Season 3 for the first time, I was so insanely high on this show that it couldn't possibly let me down. In retrospect that season suffered from a great deal of empty tension and had a severe problem with episode consistency, but at the time it managed to gleefully misdirect from its problems and, apart from its terrible letdown of a finale, was one of my favorite seasons of either show. But nothing could prepare me for the shock of what was in store.

Season 4 starts things off by magnificently fixing everything that was wrong with the previous season's finale. "Tomorrow" had been chock full of interesting developments, but threw them together so sloppily that it played like the most generic episode of TV that Mutant Enemy had ever put out. "Deep Down" brings it back from the abyss (in some cases quite literally) by firmly establishing Wesley's new attitude, bringing back Angel from the briny deep, and laying out Connor's plan for all to see. It was the darkest episode since "Sleep Tight," if not season two's existential nightmare "Reprise."

Then we hit the skids almost immediately. "Ground State" introduces Gwen, a bizarre combination of the X-Men Rogue and Storm (anyone who touches her skin gets fried), who works as a expert thief. It's fun enough filler, but nothing of note happens other than setting Gwen up as a possible love interest for Angel. "The House Always Wins" is one of the all-time worst episodes of the series; it points out that gambling is risky and can ruin lives, all with metaphors about as subtle as the neon lights of the casinos. It could have been so interesting too; Lorne's dream had always been to perform at Vegas, and to see that dream so thoroughly perverted could have set up a killer character arc. Instead, he gets rescued and is exactly the same as he always was.

Things begin to get back on track with the superb episode "Spin the Bottle," a wholly irreverent standalone that came about simply because Joss wanted to see the old bumbling Wesley again. The result is the second funniest of the series (after "Smile Time") and one of the funniest in the Buffyverse.

"Spin the Bottle" marks the start of an incredible run that rivals anything Mutant Enemy's ever done. "Apocalypse Nowish" introduces the Beast, an unstoppable creature who brings with him all sorts of plagues. We sense immediately that he is not the brains in charge of the operation, however, which serves the story much better (remember how lame Adam was when left to his own thought-processes?).

Not half as sinister as the writers.

The best development of the Beast arc? The return of Angelus. Oh, it's been a long time coming indeed, and Boreanaz looks like he's been waiting for it too. Mix the Beast's rampage at Wolfram & Hart with the unleashing of the greatest villain in the Buffyverse and you've got a cocktail for success. Things couldn't get any better right? WRONG. Enter Faith, sprung from prison by Wesley to save Angel from turning permanently evil. Faith's reapperance cements the journey of her arc, proving that she, like Angel, has learned to live with her sins and to live a life of goodness not to redeem herself but because it's the right thing to do. Faith would go from here back to Sunnydale to make peace with "Buffy" in some of the better moments of that show's final season, but this is the true payoff of her character.

The Beast/Angelus arc is such a long, consistent arc that I got the feeling that "Angel" is on top of the world and that anywhere the story went from here was going to be epic. I was wrong Dead wrong. "Angel" goes from great to bad so fast it makes your head spin.

Thank Christ for Faith.

Signs of trouble were present even in the excellence of the middle arc. Connor, who was such an interesting character in the third season, is destroyed. Last season, he came back from Qu'or Toth after a few weeks suddenly a full-grown teenager brainwashed against his father by Holtz, who used Connor as his avenue for revenge; upon his return Connor adamantly hated Angel but retained his father's moral code. Even when he locked Angel in a crate and threw him into the ocean, you pitied him.

Not so in Season 4. Instead of the complex, tortured character who promised so much, the writers lock Vincent Kartheiser into playing Connor as a one-note, insufferably annoying bitch who pushes emo teenage angst so far into the red it leaves you begging for someone to hand him a razor and a copy of "The Virgin Suicides." After Angel proves beyond shadow of a doubt his love for his son no matter what he did, Connor hates him more than ever, just because. At every turn he tries to convince everyone to kill Angelus not because he's evil, but because he just doesn't like his dad.

Compounding Connor's descent is the utter destruction of Cordelia. Cordy's arc was certainly one of the more surprising of the show. She had started her journey at the very start of Buffy as a vain, stereotypical valley girl and matured into a more intelligent yet no less biting character by the time she left Sunnydale impoverished by her father's illegal business practices. When she arrived in Los Angeles, Cordy still had that crazy dream of becoming a star, but came into her own. She went from a bitch to a caring, almost motherly individual, and while her acension in the Season 3 finale was so insulting and stupid that it defies reason, it was a nice touch for her.

Then Cordelia returns, possessed by a higher power. She manipulates Connor into sleeping with her in order to impregnate her so the higher power can be born into a body of its own. She takes Angel's bottled soul to keep Angelus around. She stabs Lilah. Finally, when you couldn't possibly be any more outraged with the treatment of her character. Cordy gives birth to Jasmine and slips into a coma.


Even screencaps of this piss me off.

If the undercurrent ruination of two major characters wasn't bad enough, the Jasmine arc is enough to tip things over the edge into downright badness. It all starts with "Inside Out,"{ an episode that so fearlessly tackles a range of philosophical questions and features such great acting all around that it never hit me at first that it set up the worst development of this or any other show in the Whedonverse. Jasmine's appearance is the result of her tampering with all of the events of the show to make possible her birth; everything that moved the characters forward, led to emotional and thematic breakthroughs was all predestined. I must admit a bias against predestination; it is the philosophy that resulted when real logic collided with Bible logic, and I think it's the stupidest concept in the world. It also has no place in a show, because it strips events of their importance and resonance.

It also doesn't help that Jasmine is perhaps the worst major villain I have ever seen in a TV show. A goddess, she inspires tranquility in all who gaze upon her. Unless some of her blood mixes with yours, that is. If so, you look at her and see not a beautiful goddess but a rotting, maggot-infested corpse. I don't know why either. Oh, and Jasmine eats people, who consider it an honor to be feasted upon by her.

Eventually the Fang Gang all snap out of it and fight Jasmine and kill her fairly easily. Yet for some reason it takes them four episodes to do so. Four. Looooooooonnnnnnnnnnnggggggg. Episodes. I just watched this three days ago and I can't remember anything about this arc that would necessitate more than two episodes. Then again, I wish it had never happened at all. Part of me thinks that the writers used Jasmine as a placeholder for the writers, much as the Trio in Buffy's sixth season represented the more nitpicking fans.

But don't count out Tim Minear, who swoops in after an entire season away to write one last episode for the show he made so great. His season finale, "Home," is every bit as redeeming as "Restless" was for Buffy's own weak fourth season. Lilah returns as a ghost and deliciously turns Angel Investigations' victory on them; by killing Jasmine, they effectively ending the possibility for world peace. Ergo, the Senior Partners were so impressed that they offer Angel and co. the L.A. branch of Wolfram & Hart.

"Home" rights so many wrongs it looks like Minear kept tabs on everything that went wrong and found a way to twist almost all of it into a positive. Giving Angel the keys to Evil on Earth is just about the most interesting thing he could have done, and it makes the fight against Jasmine darkly ironic. The fact that Angel agrees on the condition that everyone's memory is erased so Connor can live with a normal family and have a happy life calls to mind the agonizing finale of the early classic "I Will Remember You," and it reinforces his heroism.

Despite this incredible end note and the promise it contains, Angel Season 4 is unbelievably frustrating and even moreso on a repeat viewing. It continues to push forward Wesley's arc, and it FINALLY develops Fred and Gunn and splits up their initially promising but ultimately banal relationship. However, Angel remains stagnant (apart from the re-emergence of Angelus) and the utter bungling of both Cordelia and Connor is unforgivable. The saddest thing about those two is that both get one episode's worth of attention in the fifth season ("You're Welcome" for Cordy and "Origin" for Connor), and both of those episodes fix just about all the problems that an entire season piled upon them, which tells me that all this could have been avoided. I understand that Charisma Carpenter's pregnancy threw the writers off a bit, but this was the best solution?

The operatic tone of the season is a bold new direction for the show, and the Beast arc still ranks among my favorites, and it's got enough to make the season worth owning. But this is the first and only season of Whedonverse TV that has not only failed to entertain me over the course of more than one episode but has actively put me off. I was reluctant to watch the final season after this, but thankfully the fifth season more than redeems the show and stands as the best season of TV that Mutant Enemy has ever produced.

11 comments:

  1. Season 4 suffers from what I like to call 'continuity clusterfuck'. The season arc completely takes over the plot, twists pile up onto each other, and you get the feeling that the writers have no idea where the whole thing is going. Steven S. DeKnight had the unenviable task of sorting out two seasons' worth of mess in one episode (4.17 'Inside Out'). He does an amazing job. But still. Turns out Jasmine conspired to get Darla pregnant, then sent her son Connor to hell, then got him back, sent Cordelia to heaven, then got her back, so that they could have sex, and so Jasmine could be born... Huh?

    This is pretty much why I prefer Buffy to Angel. Although Angel uses all this craziness to say something quite interesting about determinism, divine intervention and free will. Its thematic strength doesn't make up for the failure to deliver on the nuts and bolts plot/character/dialogue front.

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  2. Check out this for a more pretentious version of the above:

    http://dollhousehothouse.blogspot.com/2009/02/buffy-spin-off-angel.html

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  3. For some reason, I interpreted Season 4 as political- the depiction of an old order (perceived as corrupt) being torn down and replaced by a new order (perceived as being ideal). It seems to be something similar to something like the Iranian Revolution, or the French Revolution, or even the bringing down of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Whenever an older order perceived to be corrupt is torn down, it is followed by chaos and anarchy. Often, ordinary people are even more terrified by the state of disorder during this time than life under the old order. I felt the beast and the blotting out of the sun, allowing creatures of the night free reign, represented that chaos.

    The wiping out of WR&H seemed to symbolize striking out against perceived centers of corruption by revolutionaries. Cordelia and Connor seemed to represent two types of revolutionaries- with Cordelia as a visionary and Connor as a foot soldier (with his difficult past, something like the poor, tribal, uneducated men that may have supported the Taliban or the Iranian Revolution because they have never seen anything better). Cordelia was martyred for the cause. Jasmine at the end represented the new, supposedly ideal, order.

    Most religious idealogies subscribe to the concept of predestination- meaning that their superiority and supremacy is part of God's plan (e.g. Iranian revolutionaries once they seized control of Iran or the Taliban while they ruled Afghanistan). Most of the claims that Jasmine's arrival was planned or predestined came from Skip or Jasmine herself, who seem to be representing a religious idealogy. The "free will" gang in Angel in the end chose to oppose her, so I think the show leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether he or she buys into "predestination" or "free will."

    It is interesting that it is Jasmine's intention to make the world a better place- this is generally the intention of religious or ideological revolutionaries. But, the show demonstrates that there is always a cost to making the world a better place through this type of approach- whether it is the giving up of freedom of choice, private ownership, personal privacy, etc..

    Sorry for the long comment...

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  4. I rewatched the first few episodes of this season.(Yes, I've seen it before) I remembered really liking the first episode, and I liked it even more this time.
    The second episode was ok. I thought it had a little bit of nice developement for Fred and Gunn's relationship, and Gwen was a decent enough character. (And she doesn't die. That's right, Joss actually doesn't kill a character on this show. I feel sorry for him.)
    I skipped the 3rd episode, which was about Lorne and Vegas or some shit like that, because I knew it wasn't exactly your favorite episode and I should probably stay away from it. If you ask me, they should've ended Lorne's story with season 3. In the next two seasons, he does nothing but occasionally be a plot device and an unfunny comic relief.
    The fourth episode.(The one where Lilah uses Wesley, and Lorne is actually important, so of course it should stand out in your memory!), and yeah, it was ok.
    The main problem with this season is the same as the rest of the show. For one thing, the series doesn't go anywhere. It stays the same in the first episode as it does in the last.
    It's about a guy that can never have a girlfriend but pointlessly tries to anyway, is really moody, and hopelessly tries to redeem himself(even though he can never redeem himself, according to him) because of things he wasn't responisble for. Oh, and good things never happen, only bad things. Oh, and everyone has to die at some point. Even though I don't believe that losing your soul would make you a different person.(Technically, it doesn't make sense for vampires to have no soul and want to kill people, because if you have no soul, wouldn't you not even want to be evil?) But in the series, when someone loses their soul, they become a different person and have no control over it.(unless they're a contrived vampire, like oh, Spike in Buffy seasons 4-6) Angel had no control of what Angelus did, and if did, he wouldn't have done of those things. And yet he always blames himself, when he never learns that they weren't his fault. One of the best lines the latest season of a show that I like went something like this; "No matter what we do, sometimes we have no control over losing people that we care about. Sometimes we want to blame ourselves so we can make sense out of it.) This line can easily apply to Angel. You would think that the show would end with him finally realizing that, but the fact that he doesn't is freakin ridiculous. I know I'll make this post too big if I don't stop, so I'll continue this in another post.

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  5. The main problem with this show is that it's too dark. Whedon was trying to make this darker and more mature than Buffy, and he suceeds in doing it. Making the show more mature than Buffy was is one of those thank god-ish things, but making it darker? No. Buffy was dark enough, you said it yourself. The only way to make the show darker than Buffy would be to have nothing but bad things happpening and no reward or chance of a happy future, you know, everything being hopeless, and everyone dying, and that's exactly what Whedon does with the show.
    It's almost immature. I can understand Whedon for what he was trying to do, but when he was making the show, he should've realised that it was a mistake and changed things in the second or third season.
    That being said, this show does have character developement. (If character developement is bad things constantly happening to the characters.)
    Wesley was the only character that actually worked with it. With the rest, it didn't feel realistic. The characters end up being so hopeless that when a writer makes a happy episode, it feels contrived.
    The problem with Angel(the character) is that other than having a moody personallity where at some point in every season he's like "I love everything. No wait, I hate everything! Wait a minute, no I don't.", he doesn't develope.
    In "City of", he goes from being a depressed, hopeless(what a suprise) vampire with a soul that keeps fighting endless vampires and demends while everyone around him dies, to being a depressed, hopeless(are you suprised yet?) vampire with a soul that keeps fighting endless vampires and demends while everyone around him dies, but now cares about people. Isn't that what the episode was about? My question is: so what? It doesn't change him, or make his life(if you can call it that) any better or easier, nor does it do such to anyone else around him. So what's the point? I'll continue this in the next post.

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  6. In Not Fade Away(granted, it's a great episode), Joss flawlessly shows everything that the series was saying. The fight doesn't ever end, no matter who dies, and everything sucks. The question is, how does that apply to us? No, a more important question: Why do you need to make an entire series(or most of one) off of that one meaning? One episode would be fine, but if you make a five-season show that can be completely summed up in one sentence, you're making a crappy show.
    *Spoilers*
    And what's the deal with eveyone dying? How's THAT realistic? Sure, the main characters can last four or five seasons because they feel like it, but they all have to die at the end. What about Gunn's pointless fate in the last episode.
    I bet Joss was thinking, "Uh-oh, this is the end and Gunn is still alive. I better make him mortally wounded!"
    I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon. In fact, I wish I haven't watched any of his shows because his writing's so good that I'm starting to not enjoy many other shows and movies as much. That should show that he has some freakin talent.
    Of the four shows that he's made, Firefly was the only one that didn't depress me.(Serenity did), but I can't deny Buffy's greatness, even within it's flaws, and I've forced myself to accept that Dollhouse is just another LOST, only good.
    One of the things about this show was that there were about 20 episodes that I thought were actually realistic.(City of, Reprise, Guise will be Guise, Darla, Redefinition, Lullaby, Somnambulist, Hero, I Will Remember You, Five by Five, You're Welcome, A Hole in The World, and Not Fade Away, to name most of them. Oh, and She. DEFINATILY She.) And those episodes are better than anything on any show. It's like The Body, only 20 episodes. The problem is that there's just not enough of them.
    The dark themes in the series are over-the-top, to put it simply. It didn't need to be darker than Buffy, and the fact that it is is what really hurts the show to me.
    I wish I could love it, and sometimes I try my best to love it, but I can't. That's pretty much my opinion of the show.
    (And just for the sake of saying it to piss you off, I actually didn't have much of a problem with Connor and Cordelia screwing eachother. Cordelia(or whoever the hell the demend-whatever was) was just trying to get in bed with Connor from the start, so you gotta be impressed with how elaborat she was. I knew that Angel and Cordelia's relationship wouldn't have a happy ending, so I was just waiting for Cordelia to die anyway. And they couldn't kill her in this season, otherwise the seventh season of Buffy would have to deal with it. And Connor...well, the guy's gone through Book's special hell. Just think about all the bad things that have happened to him. He doesn't even have much of an understanding of women. It makes perfect sense for him to fall in love with this woman and want to bang it off.
    Plus, I give them credit for having the sexiest newborn babie I've ever seen.)

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  7. Vampires are not evil simply because they have no soul, they are evil because they lose their own soul and a demon resides in them. Remember on Pylea when Angel tries to go vamp and turns into some strange monster that tore people apart? That was his full demon unleashed.

    As for the show being dark, there are moments of happiness, none of them lasting and none allowed to last as long as they did in Buffy. But this is the story of a man responsible for unspeakable crimes, crimes that spanned over a century, and it's all about his struggle to live with himself. It's a show about guilt, the crippling, destructive nature of it: Angel feels guilty for his actions, Gunn for leaving the streets to work with (no, for) someone who was technically his enemy, Wesley had shame instilled in him by his abusive father. Hell, even Doyle felt ashamed of his half-demon heritage. The two people who weren't hampered by guilt, the major women, had hangups of their own: Fred bore the scars of her time on Pylea, and Cordelia suffered the indignity of her life falling apart (while still on Buffy), losing all of her family's money and giving up on college to desperately pursue an acting career to make money quickly.

    These were all people individually fated to die ignominious deaths, but together they found a certain solace in each other. Yes, people died and it was sad, but Joss' skill is to make us care about these deaths, because we'd become a part of this screwy family too. But without these people to mourn Angel would have been a sloppy, soulful vamp who would have gotten staked in a supernatural equivalent of a barroom brawl one day and that'd be the end of that. With a group of tormented people relying on each other they could slowly piece together their lives, to the point that they could go on when someone fell. Not Fade Away isn't hopeless; sure, it looks like they're all going to die, but at last Angel realizes that he has made an impact on the world, having dealt a blow against evil even if it means little in the end and even reconnecting with his son. We also see definitively that some part of Fred remains in Illyria. Not Fade Away shows a group of individuals who would never have fought the battle they do when we first met them (and that includes Illyria, introduced only a few episodes prior); it's a testament of their commitment to each other and the moral fortitude they gained with each other's help. Is it as uplifting as Buffy's end? Hell no. But it's absolutely right for the series and gives these characters a glimmer of fire even at the end (what you would call ending where it started I would call "coming full circle").

    Anyway, I'll probably revisit these reviews, since they're old and I hadn't worked out a proper format yet for TV reviews. Plus, my writing's improved over the last year and I've noticed new things in Buffy and Angel to boot. I imagine I'll incorporate some of this into them.

    Oh, and I get alerts when people comment, so you don't need to waste time writing in newer posts for me to check out older ones.

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  8. I didn't know that, but even if I did, you reply to like, 10% of peoples' posts. I just wanted to say that I really wanted you to read mine.
    And I wasn't going to do what I said I was if you didn't read the review. God, after reading your hysterical review of Twilight, I had misguided hopes that you would appreciate my cruel, dark sense of humor that cleary demonstrates the asshole that I am.(Though you already know that, don't you?)
    I understand what you are saying, but it just doesn't make much sense for us to need to watch these characters' pain. You're right that maybe they made a difference, but the writing only allows us to consider that idea in the final episode.
    I just feel like the series spent too long with a meaning could be explained in one episode. And besides, the show could've been about these things without being super-dark and basically nothing good happening.
    And you do know I was joking about She, right?

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  9. I assumed it was a joke, because no one in their right mind could adore She.

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  10. I'm really enjoying your Angel/Buffy reviews, and of course I understand that we all have our own opinions and tastes, but I'm repeatedly floored by your love of season five of Angel. I thought that was the single worst season of either show and the utter destruction of the entire concept of the series.

    It infuriates me how they ruined my favorite TV character of all-time, Spike, by essentially erasing all of the character development he went through in season seven of Buffy and regressed him to season four Spike (which was enjoyable at the time but appropriately over) who is little more than the wacky neighbor who swoops in for no reason, delivers a predictable joke to annoy the protagonist, and then either disappears or stands around for no reason with nothing to do.

    I was utterly heartbroken and thoroughly disgusted by the disservice done to each of the characters (aside from Fred who really comes into her own) and especially Angel by taking away his edge (and absolutely everything that made him interesting, until the very last few episodes) and turning him into the equivalent of the perpetually grumpy old man sending back soup in a restaurant.

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  11. I wish Faith had returned in season 5 instead of Spike, just imagine Faith/Wesley as a couple!okay maybe that's a bit weird butbi would love that!

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