2.2.09

Buffy spin-off Angel

In my opinion, Angel is not as good as Buffy. The latter managed to do something quite extraordinary -- it got better with each season. The writing became tighter, the characters darker, the themes more complicated. By season five, there were no dud episodes. Everything worked like clockwork. Each episode arc possessed dramatic and thematic weight. At the same time, it worked perfectly within the chain of episodes to construct a wider season arc, with its own themes given expression in a climactic finale. For a while, it looked like Angel was going the same way. In the first two seasons, episodes had largely self-contained arcs, quality was pretty consistent, and there was meaty drama and some interesting ideas to be enjoyed. Like Buffy in its infancy, it was still a small-scale show, setting up the rules of the game, and with little thematic unity across a season. However, things take a turn for the worst in the middle of season three, where the season arc completely takes over, and the series starts to suffer from what I like to call ‘continuity clusterfuck’. The twists and turns of the plot, episode by episode, get increasingly convoluted, and put a serious strain on the show’s internal logic. A lot of the time it feels like the writers are making it up as they go along. In the end, after much retconning and lengthy explanation, the story just about hangs together, but you are still left wondering whether the journey was worth it. Season five (the final season) reboots the show somewhat -- coming with a new setting, a new (very popular) cast member, and a return to self-contained episodes. But the tendency towards continuity clusterfuck remains: anyone remember what the deal with Spike’s amulet was? So if the series as a whole had a kinda quality/time graph, it would be u-shaped. The first, second and final seasons being pretty even, and seasons three and four bringing it down.

As for it being a more adult, serious, complex show, I have my doubts. I think Buffy has gone to darker places. Also, for me the idea behind Angel isn’t as elegant as the dynamic that powers Buffy (see note below). There is some confusion over what the show is ultimately about. What is it trying to say? Angel is a vampire who terrorized much of the known world for a century before having his soul restored, and with it a conscience. Racked by remorse and wanting to forget his old life, he travels to the New World. But he remains a loner and a bum -- constantly tempted by a thirst for human blood. After meeting and falling in love with Buffy, he masters himself and becomes committed to fighting the good fight, trying to redeem his evil actions in the process. Redemption is the key theme in Angel’s character -- the drive to reclaim the humanity he lost when he became a vampire. Indeed, at the end of season one he is promised that when he saves enough lives, he will leave the ranks of the undead and become human.

Originally, the show was heavily structured around the noir genre. It’s set in Los Angeles, birthplace of noir, where Angel works as a Private Investigator with the motto ‘helping the helpless’. In a typical episode, he will be informed of a person in dire straits by a vision experienced by his friend Doyle (later Cordelia). Angel helps his client overcome their demons, which in the Buffy universe metaphorically represent the problems and evils of the real world. Often the Angel Investigations team come up against the clients of a demon law firm called Wolfram & Hart, run by amoral humans. A contrast is made between the tiny group of champions defending what’s right, and the soulless, corporate suits perpetuating evil and, through their machinations, bringing about the apocalypse. As the show moves on, it abandons its noir roots and becomes more fantasy based -- focusing less on LA’s demons and more on Angel’s role as a divinely-backed champion of morality in a fallen world. Angel is increasingly depicted as an agent of the god-like ‘Powers That Be’, who send the visions that direct him to the people that need saving. He becomes almost a religious figure. In a climactic episode in season 2, Darla presses a wooden cross into Angel’s chest and cries ‘God doesn’t want you!’, clearly indicating that he is looking for divine forgiveness and a return to God’s grace. In an episode soon afterward, when Angel questions the role the ‘Powers’ have given him, Kate (wearing a crucifix) restores his faith by revealing that he had committed a miracle in saving her. As a vampire, Angel cannot enter a house uninvited, but he needed no invitation to enter Kate’s home when she needed him. The benevolent ‘Powers That Be’ directly intervened in his life to remind him of his divine destiny, and they continue to send visions guiding him on his path of saving souls and fighting evil.

You can see the show becoming very uncomfortable with the somewhat religious tone of season two. It is interesting to note that the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, identifies himself as an atheist and an absurdist, and the goings on in the next three seasons definitely serve to cloud-up this simple theological system. The continuity clusterfuck comes into play. A series of unexpected events start plaguing Angel -- the ‘Powers’ governing his life send him a son, but then they deliver him to his worst enemy. In season four, everyone is being manipulated by a sinister, rather than a benign, force. By season five, Angel has lost his conduit to the ‘Powers’, and doesn’t know whether to trust Their promise to make him human, particularly when Spike (another eligible champion) turns up. Prophesies have come up false, friends have betrayed him, his plans have gone awry. He doesn’t know what to do anymore. Determinism has been replaced by free will -- his destiny swallowed up by the chaos of life. The final episode of the show offers no reward or fulfillment for Angel’s labours. Half his friends have either died or have left him. The rest are pretty beaten up, facing an enormous demon army, with Angel at the van raising his sword and saying ‘Let’s get to work’. There is no divine will in this picture. The heroes left standing are just a ragged bunch of people facing the insurmountable evils of life. But they are brave, determined and tenacious, and will fight to the end to make the world a better place. They are Champions in themselves, not defined by any external force, but by their own freely-chosen actions.

But while there is a profound intelligence working behind the show, and ideas that are sometimes even more complex than those in Buffy, it doesn’t get enough of the little things right. Props to the writers for using the developing continuity clusterfuck as a vehicle for discussing questions of free will, but it still makes for frustrating television. In Buffy, the dialogue is sharper, the characters more rounded and engaging, and (most importantly) the plotting more disciplined. No matter how big the ideas are in Angel (and no matter how cool David Boreanaz is) Buffy still comes up top.

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