Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Suffocatingly Good: Of Dark Knights and Dancin' Fools
1. Two images dominate the first season of Angel: The first, from the pre-credits scene of the pilot (later to be caught as the final image in the show's credits) shows our titular hero-- a vampire with a soul who fights for good in order to atone for past sins--staking two vampires and stalking off into the night, his long leather duster swirling behind him. Framed by a dirty, shadow-strewn alley, Angel seems the embodiment of Raymond Chandler's noir detective: "down these streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is not himself tarnished nor afraid....He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry that you ever saw him."
The second, quite different image is distinctively unproud, as Angel (David Boreanaz) imagines himself dancing at a friend's party. Cut to Boreanaz doing...well, the dorkiest dance ever, full of arhythmic arm movements, regrettable hip sways, and a positively Marmaduke-like tongue flapping through his lips. Flashing back to reality, Angel says, completely deadpan, "I don't dance."
Somewhere between those two images-- the first full of epic darkness and danger, the second oozing humorous satire-- lies the tone of this Buffy spinoff, whose complete run has just been released this Halloween week in one monstrously large DVD box/cube. Initially far more "stand-alone" in its episodic structure than Buffy (which would quickly change in the coming years) there's clearly a lot of feeling around going on in its initial year, as co-creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt and their cast try to figure out to dance to the beat of this new song they're playing, desperate to look more like the cool avenger than the dancing fool. It takes about half-a-season, but they eventually find their rhythm, and the end result is brilliant television, and arguably the most underrated thing Joss Whedon ever did.
2. For all of its critical success and cult status, Angel has often been treated like that dorky dancer at the party-- fans smile politely, eke out a wan compliment or two on its behalf, and quickly try to find the cool kids at the TV party (Grey's Anatomy, is that you?). Its network, the late-but-not-lamented WB, never quite knew what to do with the show, changing its airtime several times and eventually canceling the program despite an uptick in ratings. Even fans of Buffy have sometimes treated Angel like the stepkid, the middle child, the Dawn of the Whedonverse (Buffy has the older sister cool cache, while Firefly gets to play the hip martyr). This is a shame, because Angel always offered as much bang for the buck as Buffy (and, in seasons two and three, surpasses its parent in quality).
Count me as one of those who overlooked its salty goodness at first glance. I don't know what it is with me and Joss Whedon shows-- I always seem to come to the party late. I didn't start watching Buffy until its fourth season, and kicked myself for not watching sooner (which is why, like any good cinephile, I bow to the great goodness of DVDs). You'd think I'd have learned my lesson, but no-- I really didn't start watching Angel until its fourth season (Maybe it's fate).
On first glimpse, it was a hard show for me to get a grip on. Watching in Fall 2000 with a group of friends at weekly Buffy viewing parties (during the Slayer's fifth season), Angel (which initially followed Buffy in the WB's Tuesday night lineup) seemed less focused, too superheroic-- and who was that bitchy brunette, and that wimpy British guy? Why was that blonde vampire floating above his bed? And he has a what-- a curse? Pah! I hadn't yet caught up with Buffy's high school years, where Angel made his debut, so character and show were both something of a puzzle to me-- brooding, mopey, somewhat drab. I didn't get it.
3. After reaching a perfect closure to its first, high-school based half, Buffy saw the departure of three seemingly minor figures at the end of season three-- Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), the sarcastic school princess, forced to work as a secretary after her parents were indicted on tax fraud; Wesley (Alexis Denisof), the oafish Watcher who generally caused as much trouble as he prevented; and Angel, Buffy's paramour/arch enemy. All three wind up in LA, where Angel opens a supernatural detective agency and, aided by Cordelia, Wesley, and the mysterious, vision-prone Doyle (Glenn Quinn), fights the demons and lawyers (but I repeat myself) Raymond Chandler never could have dreamed of.
Yes, it sounds goofy. So does Buffy, if you boil it down to a couple of sentences. So doesThe Sopranos. And The Simpsons. And The Prisoner. And The West Wing. And Kid Nation (OK, that last one I'll give you).
It's a truth universally acknowledged that viewers in search of a good TV date would be wise to take plot summaries with a grain of salt. Nearly any show worth watching is going to sound odd in a 100-word-or-less verbal description: a gangster who sees a shrink? A teenager who solves crimes? A drama about public policy? A misanthropic spy kidnapped and sent to a Rousseau-like "Village"? Hearing all this, one's likely to wind up like Bill Cosby's Moses, listening to God describing plans for an ark and responding, "Riiiight."
That's especially true of Joss Whedon's work. Trying to summarize Buffy in conversation makes you sound like a combination mental patient and 12-year-old: "She's a cheerleader, see, but she's also a 'Chosen One,' who fights vampires and stuff, and she has this 'Watcher' father figure guy who's the school librarian, and her friend's a witch, but the other friend..." Good luck even getting to the whole vampire-with-a-soul lover thing before your companion walks away rolling her eyes.
That's because TV, for all its ability to utilize novelistic structures in terms of serialization, depth of character and density of social and aesthetic detail, is not really a literary medium. It's not really about the what, but the how (or, to be more precise, how we get to the what through the how), and Whedon's a master of the how. Buffy and Angel both bristle with color, wit and an adventurous spirit, and a desire to demolish generic boundaries.
It's not about plot, in other words, it's about execution, and in the hands of Whedon and Greenwalt, two of TV's best writers, Angel blossoms in that first season, as Boreanez, Charisma Carpenter, Glenn Quinn and Alexis Denisof all flesh out potentially hazardous stereotypes (Carpenter, in particular, is a comic delight) and help to tell tales of tremendous adventure, horror, humor and grace.
4. Angel is the tale of a vampire, so it made sense that it might need to shed some of its previous show's skin, inhabit a new creative body. It was a spin-off of a Whedon creation, but he quickly turned over the day-to-day production and "showrunning" to David Greenwalt, and it was clear by the end of its first year that Angel would be as much a product of Greenwalt's sensibility as Whedon's. In fact, most of the best episodes of the show were not written or directed by Whedon (the exception being the lovely Red Shoes homage, "Waiting In The Wings"), but by Greenwalt or Tim Minear, who came to the show from The X-Files. Greenwalt's sensibility is no less funny or adventurous than Whedon's, but it's a bit more rueful, less Whedon's occasionally adolescent and ever-so-slightly melodramatic approach than something more wryly middle-aged and comedic (or to put it another way-- Whedon once said his favorite Buffyverse character was Willow, while Greenwalt admitted to a great fondness for Cordelia. In those two choices lies a sense of their aesthetic differences).
Letting Greenwalt have his head on the show was a wonderful idea-- it made the pair the Lennon and McCartney of genre television, each's strenths balancing out the other's weaknesses, and Angel quickly took shape as one of TV's best hours, both epic and intimate in scale. If Buffy was a metaphor for high school and adolescence, Whedon and Greenwalt made it clear that Angel would be about post-collegiate life, when you know more but are still confused and liable to do something really stupid. Concurrent with that risk, they also described Angel's vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, and one of the recurring motifs of the show was the necessity of community to keep one balanced and sane.
For all the value of the first season, it's the second season where things take off (this was true of Buffy, too). The primary leads have all gotten a good grip on their characters and their chemistry, and this allows Whedon to expand the cast, making the tough, funny African-American demon hunter Gunn (August Richards) a regular, while also making the show much darker than in its first, more screwball year. The key to this is Wolfram & Hart, the law firm that acts as Angel's primary nemesis. Greenwalt had previously co-created the cult classic Profit, an audacious, short-lived Fox show centered around a corporate anti-hero played by Adrian Pasdar. Wolfram & Hart was not quite as radical an idea as the company in Profit, simply because they're clearly the villains, rather than our uneasy protagonists, but it's certainly an extension of the sleek, metallic, tongue-in-cheek yuppie satire Greenwalt was playing with on that show (he and Whedon had even discussed bringing Pasdar on as Jim Profit-- he'd be revealed as a "Senior Partner" in the firm-- but could never figure out how to make it work).
This gave Angel an explicit, neo-noir link to those wealthy, connected villains of Chandler or Chinatown, and it also gave us delightfully venal characters like lawyers Lindsay (Christian Kane) and Lilah (Stephanie Romanov), who become rather lovable in spite of themselves. It was also a narrative choice that again reflected the growing maturity of Angel in comparison to Buffy: by making the villain a permanent, virtually unbeatable one-- the dark joke at the center of the program is that all of Angel's work on behalf of the helpless just creates more business for W&H--the viewer was reminded that this show wouldn't be about weekly battles or final victories, but the values of attrition. It would be less about what happened than why, and what it meant to keep moving forward against the odds. By the time the whole gang went to the mythical land of Pylea for a Wizard of Oz-style, four-episode finale (where they picked up another new regular cast member, Amy Acker's fabulous Fred), it was clear the show was in a groove. "You know where I belong?," karaoke demon Lorne asks Angel in the finale. "L.A. You know why? Nobody belongs there. It's the perfect place for guys like us."
5. Season Three of Angel ran contemporaneously with Season Six of its then-estranged sister show Buffy (network politics and Hollywood egos had resulted in a channel shift for the latter, and a "ban" on the cross-over episodes that had fueled both shows' previous two seasons). A quick glance at the tone of both shows suggests it must have been a bummer of a year at their parent company, Mutant Enemy: both are extraordinarily bleak, plunging their characters into dark places and difficult emotional situations that reshape nearly everything viewers had come to expect from each program. I should quickly add that both shows are also superb-- Buffy, in particular, is so powerful, and closes its sixth season with such emotional and thematic finality, that it's hard to view its seventh and final year as anything but a pandering anti-climax (but that's a review for a different time). Angel, on the other hand, was just warming up.
Season Three is a crucial one for Angel, acting as a bridge between the low-key, stand-alone episodes of Seasons One and Two and the intense darkness (and epic narrative) of Season Four. Season Two laid the groundwork for such a shift, by bringing back Angel's old paramour Darla and moving evil law firm Wolfram & Hart to center stage. But it is in Season Three when this new narrative style takes full effect, resulting in what is arguably Angel's best year. Whedon and Greenwalt keep a perfect balance between the intimately personal and the excessively epic, reconfiguring several character relationships, introducing crucial new heroes and villains, and throwing the reader into a storyline of love, family, violence and betrayal worthy of Tony Soprano.
Of course, Tony Soprano never had to encounter a giant demon named Skip; a ballerina under the spell of an eternal dance; a vampire hunter named Holtz; sex-crazed, karaoke-blessing sirens; or a talking plastic hamburger that holds the secrets of a crucial prophecy. All of these elements create a space where the sublime and the ridiculous mingle promiscuously, and to great effect (if reductive histrionics and easy answers are what you're after, there's always Six Feet Under).
All of the writers and directors are at the top of their games here and special mention should also be made of composer Robert Kral's mournful scores (one of the Whedon show's secret weapons has always been its musical talent). By the time the season has ended, our heroes are scattered and physically/emotionally isolated from one another. This state of affairs would act as a metaphor for the creative ups and downs of the fourth season, at once Angel's most ambitious and most difficult.
6. The gossip first (since it's a recurring motif in the fourth season, anyway): rumor has it that Charisma Carpenter scuttled the writers' plans for her character's central role in the fourth season by getting pregant over the summer. By the time the fifth season started, Carpenter-- of central importance to Angel's, and indeed Buffy's, balance of the adventurous and the satiric-- would no longer be on the show.
No one knows for sure what kinds of emotions, pique, or pragmatism were involved in that decision, and all involved have mostly been too professional to comment. Let's just say the show was never as good without her, and at the same time, the flaws of the fourth season make you wonder what the writers' original plans were-- there are so many flashes of brilliance alternating with so many moments of "huh?" that it's a hard season to get a bead on. But the pregnancy was now there, the writers had to work with it, and it become a fascinating symbol of their efforts to birth a new show out of what Whedon has called the fourth year's "24-like" structure.
If season one is jazz (riffing and expanding on the characters and themes of Buffy), season two dark pop and season three a symphony of recurring motifs, then season four of Angel is clearly operatic. Everything is larger than life, overblown, melodramatic, aching and beautiful, and so interconnected that a new viewer would be completely and utterly lost. It really is speaking in its own hermetic language, right down to having new episodes pick up at literally the second where the previous one left off (the whole 22-episode season takes place in about a week or two of story time). Without spoiling the various plotlines, let's just say the narrative was also operatic in form, involving fratricide, matricide and patricide; lover's quandrangles and emotional betrayals; rises and falls of epic proportions; incest (well, kind of); deus ex machinas and magical curses; and violence, violence, violence, all culminating in a final twist that might have been the most brilliant inspiration the show ever had. It closed off one era of the program while offering a great starting point for a new one. It's a shame that all involved fumbled the ball.
7. Scan any number of websites devoted to Joss Whedon, or reviews in magazines and newspapers, and the general consensus seems to be that the fifth season of Angel is easily its finest. Many reasons are cited-- the addition of Spike, Angel's enemy/rival from Buffy; the greater participation by Whedon, by Fall 2003 free of his Buffy/Firefly/Fray duties; or the more episodic structure and greater humor, especially when compared to the operatic intensity of Season Four. I also suspect the praise for Five is enhanced by its martyr status, since the program was suddenly and surprisingly canceled by the WB to make way for a Dark Shadows remake (which, ironically, never aired, although the Frog was kind enough to bless us with The Mountain and One Tree Hill before it folded into the UPN to create the misbegotten CW, all of which suggests Mutant Enemy was lucky to escape the network's clutches when it did).
I don't share in this general opinion-- in fact, I think this is easily Angel's weakest season, even when compared to the hit-and-miss of Season Four. That season's finale set up this final year's narrative conceit-- that, after four years of battling evil law firm Wolfram and Hart, our ragtag heroes would take it over, hoping to battle demonic evil from within the beast's belly. It's a brilliant idea, and an example of the program's ability to constantly challenge itself. Unfortunately, the execution is less interesting than the concept. This season lacks the narrative and tonal complexity of the previous four seasons; it is slow to start, and takes about half the year to figure out how to integrate the heroes into their new environment. Similarly out of place is Spike-- it takes nothing away from James Marsters' considerable talent to suggest he's never really fit into the more noirish and brooding spaces of Angel: despite his vampirism, he's a figure of comedy, not tragedy, and while he has some great moments here (his chemistry with David Boreanaz has always been strong), much of the time he just takes up space, like a fanboy token. In taking up that space, he minimizes screen time for the series regulars the show's worked so hard to develop in previous years: particularly slighted in the first half of the year is Alexis Denisof's Wesley, arguably the most complex and important character in the Angel universe. The show also suffers grievously from the loss of two stalwarts: Charisma Carpenter and David Greenwalt, who left after the third season (he comes back to direct one episode, and it's one of the season's best), to say nothing of Tim Minear, who left during Season Four. Without the biting wit of Cordelia and wry maturity of Greenwalt's writing and direction, the show's more adolescently melodramatic tendencies tend to dominate (particularly disappointing in this regard is "A Hole in the World," whose narrative twist is crucial and yet somehow underwhelming). The WB's business moves don't help: it's clear the writers expected a sixth season, and were forced to rush certan plot points to resolve them by the end of the year.
And yet, there are still any number of reasons to watch. One thing to keep in mind is that "weak" is a relative term, and the standard set by Years 1-4 is quite high. If Season Five lacks the coherence of Three, the rich emotional drive of Two or the scope and ambition of Four, it's still full of good moments. "Smile Time" alone is worth the price of the box, and an example of how good the show can be when firing on all cylinders. "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinquo," writer Jeffrey Bell's tribute to Mexican wrestling (don't ask, just watch) pops like "Band Candy" on Buffy. When David Greenwalt shows up to direct the fabulous inside joke, "The Girl In Question," he offers a smart and stylish resolution to the Buffy/Angel/Spike triangle that's positively Felliniesque. And the return of Cordelia for one ep is not only the season's high point, but might just be among the five best Angel episodes ever. Gunn's journey over the course of the year, while a bit heavy-handed, is moving, and once Denisof is given something to play in the second half of the year, he reminds us of how strange, funny, and crucial Wesley is. Mercedes McNabb is always a delight as ditzy vampire Harmony, a woman who never saw a herd she wouldn't join. Throw in a moving final episode, and this season offers plenty to be proud of, while also cleaning up many of the mistakes of the ludicrous final season of Buffy. It's more than enough to make up for Valley Girl lawyer Eve, a pale shadow of the program's previous femme fatale, Lilah; the murkiness of plot points involving evil lawyer Lindsay and the menacing Senior Partners; the misguided war pastiche "Why We Fight"; and the bewildering use of Lorne, a fabulous character whose journey really ended in the middle of Season Four.
It doesn't give anything away to say that the show ends where it started: in an alley. Alleys are a recurring motif in Whedon's work, and I'm not sure why, beyond their obvious noir resonances. They are a dead end, and yet they nearly always have a regenerative quality in Whedon's work (babies are born, vampires created, evil thwarted). Whedon is a musical comedy geek, and I am reminded of scenes from countless musicals, like The Band Wagon, where stars meet in the alley backstage, to offer up tentative declarations of love, good luck and praise or criticism (this link is most explicit in Season Three, when a baby is born in a rainy alley outside a destroyed karaoke club). The show must go on, even when trapped in a dead end. That makes it the perfect visual metaphor for this conflicted season. Even when facing impossible odds--from fictional villains to real-life network heads--Angel, show and character, find reasons to fight and entertain their audiences.
The result is perhaps best summed up by Raymond Chandler, if we imagine him speaking of television shows: "If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."