Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Angel (complete series)

I started watching Angel via my roommate's DVD sets back in 2006, slowly progressing through Season 1 and even more slowly working my way through Season 2 making it as far as the end of the second disc before abandoning the series, not picking it up again until March of this year when the full run was uploaded to Netflix.

I found the first season a slog to get through, and my original impression still holds true. It's the difference between Buffy's serialized nature and the episodic format Angel adopted for the first season and a half of its existence. Where I left off in the second series - episode 8 - for my lengthy gap in viewership, was actually just the beginning of the first overreaching story arc culminating the return of Darla, now human with a soul, and the impact that has on Angel. It was the Darla arc that actually turned me around and got me invested in the show, as it showed some real depth to Angel's prophetic mission, framed in the context of his past as represented by his old lover. It was that arc that really started to build Angel into a Wolverine-like character, an old warrior, still not that bright despite his age, with a hell of a lot of inner turmoil and demons to escape. Much brooding abounds.

I was sad to see Elisabeth Rohm's departure from the show in the second season as "the cop who knows what's going on" but she got a good (if unresolved) sendoff. Meanwhile, I welcomed Andy Hallett's increasing presence as "the Host", later given a name: "Lorne, as in green". Hallett was such a wonderful character actor and an exceptionally bright presence, I was sad to learn he passed away shortly after the show had wrapped for good. There was a fun Buffy throw-back episode where Cordelia's old friend Harmony comes to visit, Cordy unaware at first that she had turned into a vampire. It's a cute one-off which had a surprise payoff for season 5. As well, Lindsey, pretty much Angel's chief nemesis of the series to that point, made a sudden and surprising departure towards the end of the season, more surprising in that he teamed up with Angel before vacating Wolfram and Hart for good, allowing Layla to step up as Angel's new rival.

By the end of the second season, the Wolfram and Hart angle had started to play itself out in tedious repetition. I knew in advance there was a payoff in season five, but there was a lot of treading water between those seasons. About the best aspect to come of W&H was Angel's answer to "what do you do when a bloodthirsty vampire winds up in the middle of a room full of lawyers" (lock the doors) which was one of the darkest and most powerful moments on the show.

While there was the "Darla" arc, it wasn't all pervasive, and the actual second season closed with a three-part story taking place in Pylea, Lorne's demonic homeworld, and while a complete tonal shift for the show, venturing into sword-and-sorcery light-fantasy, it was a welcome diversion.

The third season welcomed Fred and Lorne to the show as regulars, giving it a much needed jolt of energy and vibrancy. The noticeable pattern for Angel's seasons started to appear as they all open with three or more stand-alone episodes before they wade into a larger story arc, and the third, fourth and fifth seasons all seemed to be broken into two tangibly different (though not wholly unconnected) arcs. The third season featured the return of Darla, pregnant, culminating in her death and the birth of Angel's son, Conner. Suddenly, Angel's a father, which changed everything about his character immediately. Even if he had a mission before, he now had purpose, and even joy (though not ultimate happiness, naturally). But it wasn't to last. Culminating in Wesley's "betrayal" and the loss of Conner, that segued into Conner's return from the hell dimension, now a teenager and a powerful warrior, raised by Angel's old time-displaced adversary Holtz. The third season found the characters continually shaken-up, thoroughly exciting, but almost to its own detriment.

Wesley's arc, the choices he makes, and the shunning he receives is the best of the show's entire run, and his character's progression into a quasi-mercenary in the fourth season is ridiculously entertaining. Cordelia and Angel engage in a romantic wooing in the third season, which just gave me the wiggins (to borrow a Willow-ism), that was mercifully twice interrupted, first by the return of Cordy's romantic interest from Pylea, the Groosalugg, and then by the intervention of The Powers That Be. Cordy's growth as a character this season, however, was terrific, shedding much of her willful ignorance and ditziness, learning to fight, confronting her powers and taking on the matriarch role of the group (having gained a taste of royalty in Pylea, I suppose). There's a wooing of Fred from both Gunn and Wesley which was rather awkwardly executed, but thanks to Fred, Gunn finally came into his own late in the season.

And then there's Conner. Baby Conner worked well for the show, culminating in the big Team Holtz, Wolfram & Hart and Angel showdown, a solid sequence, if hampered by budgetary concerns. Conner's return as a violent, angry, emotional teen, however, made it hard to like the show frequently through the close of the third and all of the fourth season. Conner was a prat... petulant, whiny, aggressive, and irrational. Much of his motivation throughout the show seemed to be simply to serve as dramatic foil, getting in the way of Angel and company and contributing very little. Angel's love for his son, even though he had no part in seeing him raised, was never called into doubt however, and it was a great aspect given to the main character, differentiating him again from most other vampires in pop culture. Conner's presence, petulance and actions also led to some interesting scenes, such as the final sequence of Season 3 (the best cliffhanger of the series) and Angel's tough love speech at the start of season 4.

It's almost too bad that Season 4 starts where it did (with Angel and Cordy missing, Wes out of the picture, Lorne in Vegas, and Connor, Gunn, and Fred keeping Angel Investigations going) and they didn't manage to get a couple of Angel-less Angel episodes in between the seasons, as building on Connor's secret, Wesley's and the Angel Investigations mutually exclusive frantic searches for Angel and Cordy would have had some nice character moments.

Season 4, as it stood, wound up being at equal times some of the best and some of the worst episodes and story ideas of the Series. Lorne-in-Vegas was a fun sidebar, as was amnesiac Cordy, though the latter wore thin quickly. The big nasty demon raining hellfire upon LA had its moments but that aspect overall was hindered by budget restrictions. The tenth episode of the season, "Awakenings" is arguably the series' best, as Angel Investigations needs to bring Angelus out of Angel in order to find the solution to defeating the big demon they're facing. Subsequent episodes featuring Angelus were a blast, as the neither Buffy nor Angel is ever as scary as when Angelus is loose.

Season Four had another re-teaming of Angel and Faith, which solidified a rather great partnership between vamp and slayer, redeeming the Faith character in a way that Buffy didn't really have the opportunity to, given Buffy and Faith's slayer rivalry. Also, the season introduced Gwen, a Black Lightning-meets-Black Cat super-powered super-thief who gives Angel a bit of a kickstart, and later reemerges for a team-up with Gunn. Gunn and Fred hit the rocks after a tense visit to Fred's past, and Wesley, well, as I said, he just kicks ass.

But Conner was ever a dour presence on the season, and Cordelia eventually started to weigh things down too. Conner, as antagonistic as ever, at least had dramatic purpose, while Cordy just seemed to be in the way. Behind the scenes, I heard, Charisma Carpenter got pregnant, didn't tell anyone until it was too late and the final third of the season had to be rewritten to accommodate. Cordy turning out to be the string-puller of the first big bad of the season was a bit of a stretch, but giving birth to the second big bad, Jasmine, was rather incredulous.

Jasmine was an interesting idea for a super villain, entrapping a legion of followers just by looking at her, but the storytelling, mired in Cordy's coma and Conner's rebellion, was a tedious slog to get through. As many "game changers" as there were in Angel throughout it's run (Doyle's death, Wesley's betrayal, Conner), none were as big for the format of the show as the finale to Season 4, when Team Angel accepted the deal to run Wolfram & Hart, L.A. Branch.

This led direct into season five, the strongest of the series, and most even throughout, in spite of its unexpected cancellation and premature endgame. Out went Cordy, in came Harmony and Spike, a particularly brilliant and and highly enjoyable trade-off I have to say. Season 5 thrived on the dynamic between Spike and Angel, the former having regained his soul in the final season of Buffy, and saving the world by sacrificing himself at the end of that series. His return wasn't much of a surprise watching so many years after the fact, but how he returned, and how he felt about returning (especially as a ghost) was fitfully entertaining.

There was so much going on with Angel in season five: dealing with his Connor issues; taking over Wolfram and Hart and the concessions that come with it; and confronting the prophecy of a "vampire with a soul" which, now that Spike's around, may no longer be referring to him. It was some meaty fodder for David Boreanez to play with. All this emotional turmoil kind of threw the character all over the map, but it was quite entertaining to watch, the apex of which found Angel transformed into a "wee little puppet man" in the series highlight "Smile Time".

Spike's return meant his story wound up overshadowing many of the other characters' prominence in the show. Lorne, now the head of Wolfram & Hart's Entertainment Division was scarcely seen and rarely in any meaningful capacity when he was. He did have a fantastic moment in the finale, though. Gunn had a terrific transformation with the company pumping a library's worth of legal knowledge into his brain as an "upgrade", making him their top attorney. But how that affected him, and how the other's saw him didn't come into play too much, and it was only during the "Fred/Illyria" story that it was highlighted (but obviously overshadowed). Fred, as my wife likes to say, got screwed over royally, leading me to proclaim that Angel (the show, not the character) hates women. Layla, Cordy, Fred... I was just waiting for Harmony to get dusted in the finale to complete the circle. And yet, I thought the transition from Fred to Illyria was exceptionally well handled, and I'm only disappointed that they didn't have more time to explore her character as a depowered old god in the modern world, and Wesley's love/hate relationship as her mentor.

Wesley, after his radical transformation in the fourth season, was sort of back to typical Wyndom-Price form after Angel's mind-wipe, but the Fred/Illyria story gave Alexis Denisof some real meat to work with (despite really not enjoying the whole Wes-Fred romance angle at all as far back as Season 3 (although I did enjoy the Layla gag in Season 4 where she does her Fred impression for him). As well, the episode where Wesley's dad comes for a visit is easily a high point of many highs in the character's arc, and I would have like to have seen his daddy issues explored further.

Angel got a "Season Six" sort of in comic book form, however I've had a bit of difficulty deducing which of the collected trades comprise "season six", as well, the art on all the IDW Angel and Spike books are quite horrendous. The Angel license has transferred to Dark Horse who will be starting an "Angel/Faith" series later this year.

Favourite Episodes:
Season 1: Five by Five, Sanctuary
Season 2: The Trial, Disharmony, Dead End
Season 3: Carpe Noctem, Lullaby, Sleep Tight, Tomorrow
Season 4: Deep Down, The House Always Wins, Awakening, Release
Season 5: The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco, Lineage, Harm's Way, Smile Time, You're Welcome, Underneath, Origin, The Girl In Question, Not Fade Away
Episode Guide @