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Angel Season One (1999)
Created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt
review by Christopher Geary
This is the first spin-off series from Whedon's astonishingly successful TV show, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. It stars David Boreanaz as the titular hero, a vampire cursed with a soul - the result of a gypsy spell, who now works as an unlicensed private investigator and security consultant in the nocturnal wonderland of Los Angeles. His secretary and confidant is Cordelia (engagingly played by ironically named Charisma Carpenter), the rehabilitated but nonetheless ambitious teen bitch from Buffy's high school daze. Initially, Cordy seems to be nothing more than an emotionally vacuous, wannabe actress - but that's all part of her airhead comic relief appeal. Later, the character matures considerably to female lead status.
The format, if not the style or momentum of Angel, is resolutely standard US crime drama - with episodic cases of problem solving and risk-taking, character-driven subplots and seasonal story-arcs. The style is firmly grounded in noir chic, action comedy and terror genre riffs, while a brisk pace is set by time-lapse shots and jagged editing cuts. If Buffy engages the audience that remembers Scooby Doo, then Angel surely follows in the heroic vigilante footsteps of The Equalizer - as Angel is a reformed killer in search of redemption, dedicated to 'helping the helpless' on the nightmare streets of L.A., and Whedon and Greenwalt couldn't have evoked this 'fallen angel' makes good scenario any plainer than with Darling Violetta's cello-rock theme, which is perfectly attuned to the material. There are also key references to comicbook dark avengers such as Batman.
Aired on terrestrial TV by Channel 4 in a 6pm timeslot, Angel was frequently censored for its 'violent' scenes but, even so, the adults-only certificate stuck on this release by the BBFC is patently ridiculous. Yes, there are ugly monsters and kung fu and lots of sudden deaths, but like its forerunner, Buffy, Angel features very little blood, as its vampires and beasties often turn to CGI dust with the first stab of a ceremonial dagger or wooden stake. So why exclude kids from enjoying this fun show? Perhaps it's the glamour of evil. Paganism, mongrel mythology, fake folklore, and the worship of demons get equal credence here as the holier side of spirituality, and conservative moralists may find this aspect troubling.
An element that works surprisingly well on narrative and satirical levels is the identification of law firm Wolfram & Hart as Angel's principal recurring enemy. Their legal execs broker deals with devilry, while representing the supernatural realm by defending transparently evil clients caught in the justice system. Other regular characters include half-demon half-Irishman, Doyle (Glenn Quinn), who receives psychic visions from the Powers That Be, to inform Angel when a mortal soul is in jeopardy and needs saving; and replacement sidekick Wesley (Alexis Denisof), another character transplanted from Buffy surplus stock.
Inevitably, several Angel stories rehash ideas from genre media. In the second episode, Lonely Heart, there's an eviscerating parasite of human hosts that hangs around singles' bars to pick up victims for post-coital body swapping (see The Hidden, and at least two episodes of The X-Files). This early story also introduces a distrustful relationship between Angel and blonde cop, Kate (Elisabeth Rohm). I Fall To Pieces borrows its eyeball spy-camera from The Brother From Another Planet; its crawling severed hands are a bog-standard horror device, and a reclusive guru as stock expositional character grants this episode yet another cheesy moment. I've Got You Under My Skin is about a possessed child in need of an exorcism, but features a good twist ending.
Some of the best Angel episodes are crossover stories. In The Dark guest stars vampire Spike (James Marsters) and musician Oz (Seth Green) from Buffy, while Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) visits L.A. for I Will Remember You and Sanctuary - which concludes the story of bad-girl, Faith (Eliza Dushku), the vampire slayer wanted for murder, begun in various episodes of Buffy.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that Angel's 240-years of undead past history is explored in episodes like Somnambulist (has Angel become a sleepwalking serial killer?), and The Prodigal, which reveals Angel's origin as an Irish vampire. Time skimming between historical and modern periods recalls the flashbacks common to Highlander, and this adds a potentially intriguing layer of backstory material to the Angel saga.
previously published in VideoVista #34
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