The Good: Decent characters, Nice acting, Good stories, Battle stunts
The Bad: Buffy crossover obsession
The Basics: Recommended for anyone who likes drama, as well as science fiction fans, the first season of Angel establishes the series as a powerful story about adult consequences.
If Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a series that acts as candy or some other dessert for science fiction and fantasy fans, its spin-off series Angel is something more substantial, like bread. Some episodes - even in the series' first season - may even be full, nutritious meals. My point here is that Angel does not try to be the light, fluffy, kitschy series that Buffy The Vampire Slayer strives for. If Buffy The Vampire Slayer is an allegory to growing up, then Angel is certainly about living with the consequences of adult decisions.
The first season of Angel finds Angel, a two hundred forty year old vampire, heartbroken and fleeing his human love to L.A. In Los Angeles, he finds himself in the company of Cordelia Chase, a formerly spoiled girl from Sunnydale, and Doyle, a half-demon who has visions sent to him mystically from the forces known solely as The Powers That Be. Doyle has visions of people needing help, sends Angel to help that person and Cordelia tries to figure out how to make money at the whole adventure. The crew is hounded by many villains, but none so powerful as the law firm of Wolfram and Hart, a multidimensional group of lawyers who understand that demons and evil forces surround humans every day. But Angel and his team are not alone; soon they are joined by an ex-Watcher, an expert in the paranormal, named Wesley. And together, they build a team to fight evil.
First of all, the problems with this series. Season one seems obsessed with referencing and featuring incidents and guests from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. While the richness of Angel may be better appreciated by knowing about specific events from Buffy, it often seems to cheapen things as Angel (the series) tries to strike out on its own. So, for example, when both Oz and Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer guest star in the third episode ("In The Dark"), it feels like it is undermining the show's attempts to stand on its own. Moreover, there are two episodes that feature Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy, herself), that seem to be making specific allusions to episodes in the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Perhaps the most refreshing moment of "Sanctuary" is when Angel declares to a very obnoxious Buffy that it (the events in the episode) was never about her and tells her to go back home.
Conversely, the guest appearances by Faith, the slayer gone mad in "Five By Five" and "Sanctuary" fits this series. First, because Wesley is on the show at that point and he was her Watcher (mentor who trains Slayers, for those not acquainted with the Buffyverse), this allows for some good dramatic moments. Second, Faith fits the darker, more sinister and serious angle of Angel. She is essentially a super-powerful psychopath who has done wrong and comes into Los Angeles killing and allies herself with Wolfram and Hart. She is an ideal character to have a meaty, serious role, as opposed to trying to awkwardly fit into the more campy world of Buffy.
Aside from that, there is very little to complain about in the first season. Like every first season, the first season of Angel suffers from some beginners flaws, but less so than almost any other series I have watched, most likely because it is a spin-off. However, there are moments of extreme emotional let downs based on the writers or producers or directors attempting to make something bold and shocking when it is, in fact, obvious to anyone with a brain. Take, for example, the episode "War Zone," wherein the character of Gunn is introduced. Gunn is a man fighting a street war against the vampires in Los Angeles and when the vampires make a commando raid on his lair and kidnap his sister, he is understandably eager to find her. He does track her down and the episode labors for many minutes in a scene between the two of them before it admits that she, too, has been made a vampire. This isn't ruining the plot and the problem is it's not shocking in the episode, either because: 1. the vampires are characterized as completely ruthless and 2. The last time we see her before Gunn meets her in the vampire lair, she is being abducted and about to be bit. Thus, the delay in revealing it and dealing with it is more annoying than suspenseful.
However, that moment is certainly more the exception than the rule in the first season (and beyond) of Angel. The advantage this show has over almost any other first season show is that the bulk of the cast knows exactly what it is doing with its characters. David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter came over from Buffy The Vampire Slayer playing exactly the same characters. The advantage here is that they actors know who their characters are and much of their backstory, so the whole "settling into who we are" period that usually lasts the first five episodes, is gone within the first half hour of Angel. Glenn Quinn, who plays Doyle, is professional and fits right in with the other two, making the starting line-up very easy to watch.
The stories have a bit more depth to them, on the surface, than the episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which is refreshing to an adult audience. So, while some adults might have to consider Buffy a "guilty pleasure," it's impossible to effectively argue that Angel is not an adult show not intended for children. Unlike having to look at the series in a completely different way, as one must do in order to watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer as something other than candy, Angel is working quite obviously on a thematic level with deep meaning. The predominant theme of season one of Angel is the nature of taking personal responsibility for one's actions and asking the question "At what point is redemption possible?" The two themes are never in better explored than in the episode "Somnambulist," wherein Angel, Wesley and Cordelia find themselves hunting a serial killer that Angel created. It is exactly the type of heavy-hitting episode that could not have been effectively pulled off on Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Angel, like the best television, is all about great characters. Here is how season one of Angel looks from a character perspective:
Doyle - A wisecracking half-demon with a secret crush on Cordelia gets some lessons in being a hero,
Wesley - No longer a Watcher, he roams without purpose until taken in by Angel, where he is forced to deal with the consequences of his failure to help Faith,
Cordelia - No longer a completely spoiled brat, she tries to become an actress while helping Angel out. Angel brings out her compassion and humanity and sets her on a road of selfless service helping him,
and Angel - Troubled by his lack of Buffy and the mistakes of his past, Angel sets about to trying to do right in the world. His attempts are an intriguing collection of hits and misses.
The acting in season one is above par for any series, which reflects the adult nature of this show. The nice thing is that the guest stars also seem to be more mature and competent. Eliza Dushku shines as the psychopathic Faith, a guest appearance that feels quite organic and is disturbing. Given the off-camera interviews I've seen with Dushku, it's obvious how well she is able to act as her personality is nothing like that of Faith.
The series regulars are great and there is a wonderful chemistry between stars David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter. Carpenter has the opportunity to spread her acting wings, a welcome change from her playing such a shallow character on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Similarly, Boreanaz illustrates quite consistently that he is more than a good looking guy, that he has the ability to act.
A worthy successor to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and likely in time, like Star Trek Deep Space Nine was by fans of Star Trek to be appreciated quite a bit more than its predecessor. Dark and filled with moments that are actually intriguing or scary, Angel balances amazing fights with rhetoric and character about the nature of redemption and consequences. It's something anyone could use.
For other debut seasons of science fiction or fantasy shows, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Season 1
Heroes - The Complete First Season
Millennium - Season 1
For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2007, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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