The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I start the first season of Joss Whedon’s spinoff series, “Angel.”
There really was nowhere left to go with Angel. After his return in the third season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” he became a tedious extra, left to do little but brood and occasionally fight monsters. He didn’t really have much of a reason to still be there and the writers consistently had to figure out new reasons why Buffy would still stay with him. By the time he realizes that he has to leave Sunnydale late in the season, the writing was already on the wall that we were going to be seeing much less of the character.
Let me say this immediately. Of all the Buffy characters that could possibly have merited a spinoff series, Angel was among the least worthy. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why he was given his own show but even now, it seems like a pity that the honor didn’t go to Spike, the true breakout character of the show. Angel’s broody, quiet, reserved and suppressed. Essentially, he’s a slightly less whiny Buffy. Why would we possibly want that?
The first 5 episodes of “Angel” don’t even try to answer that point. What we have instead are a series of vastly stand alone episodes, setting some pieces together and introducing the major and minor players. Cordelia is thankfully back, giving some actual levity to the darker show and we meet Drunk-Irish McPlot-Device, also known as Doyle, and inevitable love interest, Kate. Whedon’s been long known as a creator who’s able to flesh out characters but everyone new here is little more than an archetype. Its vastly the same problems that I had with Firefly but we’re just starting out here.
What initially sets “Angel” apart from its source material is in style and tone. Moving the show to LA naturally gave the series a noir-ish feel, particularly having Angel and company setting up a detective agency. It leads the whole endeavor to have a more episodic feel. Where Buffy is always hunting and patrolling, running into threats that are intevitably connected to the season’s big bad, “Angel” so far just deals with the women who inevitably come running. Call it sexism, call it a genre homage or call it lazy writing but there sure are plenty of women who are oh so scared of the big bad men in these first few episodes.
The second issue is tone. It was clear from the series premier where Angel stops a rape attempt that rapidly becomes a vampire attack that this was going to be a considerably darker show. From there, the darker, more profane tone shines through. Cordelia thinks that a producer wants to have sex with her. A beaten woman is threatened at gunpoint by her crack addled boyfriend. A vampire torturer reveals that he’s also a pedophile. A boy is sealed inside of a wall by his insane mother. I’m not saying that “Buffy” never got mature, and the fourth season particularly made the show a much smarter more adult series, but Angel feels much more like a show aiming to shock. When its done well, particularly in the hard to remember “Rm w/a Vw,” the more mature content makes for a compelling monster of the week episode but it feels messy in the sex-murder demon worm filled “Lonely Hearts.”
My biggest issue so far is that the cast is just too damn small. Even from the first episode of Buffy, we had Giles, Willow, Xander, Cordelia, Angel and more. Nothing felt too somber just because there were more people to bounce off of. I’m sure, by the end of the season, Angel Investigations will be filled in with more employees but for now, it feels empty and bereft of the character that a full cast can bring.
On its own, I don’t know that these first few episodes would do anything for someone who isn’t already thoroughly into the Buffy-verse. Each is a fairly standard standalone adventure but do nothing to show off what Whedon’s supernatural shows can do well. Surely, its too early to really pass judgement so we’ll have to really just wait and see.
Next Class: We’ve got 6 more issues of “Angel” before the end of the week which will put me at the half way point.