Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Spinoffs never do seem to work, do they? No wonder; most of them just take the most memorable supporting character place them in a wacky new location, and have them try to be the exact same character they were, only now as the lead. The problem? Supporting characters can be over the top because they do not have all the screen time, but when you throw, say, Kramer into a show of his own you get nothing but Kramer being Kramer all the time and it drives you nuts.
Thus, when Angel left Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the end of its thirds season after practically making the show a hit, I was nervous. I first watched this concurrently with Buffy, swapping out seasons of both, going from Buffy S4 to this, etc., and immediately had my fears put to rest. While I believe Buffy is the show that will define Joss Whedon, and was more consistent, I found myself prefering its sister show. On a first watch, I thought Angel S1 was good, but overall uninteresting, lacking a strong enough arc to keep me engaged. While that view still somewhat applies, I found myself liking it a whole lot more on a second viewing.
In one of the most assured pilots I've ever seen, "City Of" establishes David Boreanaz as a much more mature actor and a viable leading man, as well as introducing the overreaching theme of the season: connection. Angel left Sunnydale because he was afraid, afraid of his relationship with Buffy and how it could cause him to revert to Angelus again. In Los Angelos, Angel finds himself alone, and that's how he likes it; he wants to kill as many demons as he can before someone finally gets to him, and he'll finally be free. But that all changes over the course of the pilot. When he fails to protect a young woman, he realizes that he's ultimately useless fighting this battle alone. The friendships he forges with Cordelia and the newcomer Doyle give him an actual link to the world from which he was trying to cut himself off, and gave him something to fight for beyond the quixotic "take as many as you can with you" philosophy he adhered to.
"City Of" leads to a number of strong standalone episodes that waste no time setting up Angel as a unique show and one capable of standing on its own merits. They also proved to be deeply metaphorical (even compared to Buffy): "Lonely Hearts," for example, works as a superb allegory for singles who move from one night stand to one night stand foolishly believing they'll ever find "the one" that way. Also, episodes like "In The Dark" and "Rm W/ a Vu" are just great fun that also cram in some surprising development.
But the season really kicks into high gear in the double punch to the gut that is "I Will Remember You" and "Hero." The former brings Buffy in for what so easily could have become a boring, "hey look kids!" crossover; instead, it's the most affecting moment in the Buffy/Angel relationship since "Becoming, Pt. 2." After fighting a demon with regenerative powers, Angel suddenly finds he's human again, and he and Buffy can finally be happy together without fear of Angelus (or the sun, of course). But bad things are coming, and Angel realizes that he needs his vampire strength to fight them, and gives up his newfound life, something made all the more painful by the fact that no one will remember his humanity but him. The last scene before the time wipe is heart-wrenching: Buffy tearfully repeats, almost pleads "I won't forget, I won't forget" until she suddenly does. It's the final nail in the coffin of their relationship and it's a beautiful send-off.
"Hero," on the other hand, proves just how different and unpredictable this show was going to be. In it, we see the first glimpse of how Angel's daily grind against evil actually results in major changes; Doyle is so inspired by his boss' selflessness that he gives his own life in what may be the most shocking death in the Buffyverse simply because it happened so soon after the show started. "Hero" marks the turning point of the show from some fun standalones to a much bigger purpose. It goes into deep territory and, even when the episodes are just average, delivers enough character advancement or pure entertainment that they're worth it.
Except, of course, "She." "She" is the kind of episode that is not only bad on a surface level, but infuritating upon further examination. In it, a demon named Jhiera (played by Bai Ling, which spells trouble from the start) must protect her humanoid female demons against savage males. Why? Because they have something called the Ko, and the males remove their Ko because it causes pure chaos. In case you can't tell, this all stands for the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, which is certainly horrifying, but how does this apply to the characters? What makes this show and its parent work is that it tackles every day issues with the supernatural; this on the other hand, plays like "a very special episode of," something Joss always set out to combat. It's boring, preachy (does anyone disagree that the practice is wrong and horrifying anyway?), and useless to the show.
Still, things end in style for the season with two awesome mini-arcs, one involving the return of Faith, and the other presenting us with Angel's destiny, or at least a part of it. "Five By Five" and "Sanctuary" show a Faith acting out even more than usual because she wants to simply self-destruct, and Angel must do what he can to save her. Faith's breakdown at the end of "Five By Five" is one of the best moments in either show. "Blind Date" and "To Shanshu in L.A.," on the other hand, break Angel out of his funk by proving that he is destined to be a hero and to regain his humanity. It brilliantly sets up the Angel of the second season who, for a while, will be much more filled with confidence and vigor until Wolfram & Hart pull the rug from underneath him.
So what are we left with? Out of 22 episodes, I'd say about 13 are either enjoyable, great, or classic. It seems to clash between being entertaining and lacking a real narrative to make the whole season seem worth the time, even though it's so good so often. It does wonders for moving Cordelia forward from the materialistic "bitch" (as she refers to herself gleefully in one episode) of Buffy to a more compassionate, caring individual. It also reintroduces Wesley and starts moving him away from the bumbling fool of Buffy S3, although he really doesn't begin to turn into a strong character in season 2, and he REALLY goes through a transformation in season 3. Season 2 would explore the themes of Angel in a much deeper, infinitely darker way, but this is a hell of a strong season, and it blows every other spinoff out of the water from the start.
One of the best pilots I've ever seen. It establishes its themes, begins to move both Angel and Cordelia away from their Buffy personas into more fleshed out characters, and it features one of the show's most badass moments at the end. Also, it sets up its affinity for strong metaphor with its main plot that clearly represents the L.A. moguls who use up wannabe actresses for their pleasure and toss them aside. An incredible start.
I Will Remember You
Angel's sudden life lends to a cheesy (yet totally believable) reunion for Buffy and Angel and even though we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, nothing can prepare you for that ending. Angel wouldn't make such a big sacrifice again until "Home" at the end of season 4.
Many would become inspired by Angel's personal struggle against evil, and Doyle was the one who started the ball rolling. The Nazi allusions that the Monsters of the Week conjure up are cheap, but they cannot bring down so wonderful an episode.
I wish Penn had lasted for a mini-arc of his own, but even in this standalone he brings up so much of Angel's past and confronts him with the horrors he can never really atone for that it's hard to believe it can all fit in one episode.
I've Got You Under My Skin
What better foil for a vampire with a soul than a human without one? What starts out as a fun Exorcist parody stuffs in a number of marvelous twists and turns. There are precious few truly standalone episodes in the series (i.e. ones that don't even push forward the characters very much or at all), but this is definitely my favorite.
This is the first, and certainly not the last, episode to shed light into Angel's actual guilt of being Angelus. We've seen that he feels guilt and know why, but we never see him really try to come to terms with the horrors he committed until now.
"Five By Five" has the incredible breakdown, but "Sanctuary" spread out everything over the whole episode. It puts Faith firmly on the road to redemption and features an alternately deep and hysterical insight into the difficulties of "how it works," only to find out that the "it" in question was actually a microwave and not an existential question. Also, Angel's pained outburst at Buffy lets her know that it's over (keep in mid she forgot most of IWRY and doesn't share Angel's pain) and firmly separates not only those two but their shows as well.
To Shanshu in L.A.
"Hero" started shifting Angel, but it was "To Shanshu" that busted the thing wide open, allowing for the personal fights against evil of Season 2, 3, and 5 and, for better or worse, the epic borderline opera of season 4.
I Fall to Pieces
The stalking metaphors are very interesting indeed, but they belong in a better episode. The suspense of the stalking gave way to unintentional hilarity when you saw how the guy was supernatural.
Ugh, "sex is bad," part...what, 4? I like the message to be careful with sex, but at this point it looks like all the writers have hangups. I did like seeing Ken Marino, though.
Possibly the worst episode of the entire series. Insulting to the audience and it doesn't fit into the show's M.O.
Fight Club, now with demons! This starts kind of promising but is just sort of pointless. Although, when Scott William Winters' character dies I like to shout "How do you like THEM apples?"