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Fall '99: "Angel"

I should have more faith in Joss Whedon.

Whedon, the Hollywood screenwriter who floored us by converting his screenplay for the flop film Buffy the Vampire Slayer into arguably the best hour-long series on TV, could've said no to The WB when it came to his asking for a Buffy spin-off series. Or he could've taken the money and created a lame series that he immediately handed off to his minions, thereby dooming it to failure.

Oh, he took The WB's money all right. But instead of laughing all the way to the bank, he's created a series that yet again twists superhero conventions in countless clever ways, but with a different sensibility than Buffy. He's created Angel, and to my great surprise, I'm really glad he did.

The decision to build a series around Angel (David Boreanaz), Buffy's pretty but personality-impaired vampire boyfriend, seemed dubious at best. But Whedon's no dope: he knew that Angel didn't have to be a brooding, painful figure -- he could be a brooding, painful figure with a sense of irony. And he must've had great confidence in Boreanaz's ability to move from a supporting role into the spotlight -- confidence that was well-placed. Boreanaz, who was always serviceable on Buffy but never one of the brightest lights in that show's crackerjack ensemble, has come into his own in Angel.

Angel, you see, is a vampire Batman, a tortured soul who lurks in the darkness, helping people in need because he can't help himself. But Whedon's smart enough to know that Angel is barely a half-step away from the Caped Crusader -- and so he peppers his show with countless mocking references to the Dark Knight. And Angel himself is amusingly aware of how people react to his schtick.

This series may be darker than Buffy (that's what happens when your lead character bursts into flame when standing in direct sunlight), but it's got Buffy's sense of humor, and that's a blessing. Because the show's subject matter could certainly be considered a downer: Angel battles forces of darkness in L.A., a city that's certainly got its fair share of evil. A good percentage of the first episodes have involved damsels in distress: battered women troubled by mean men who turn out to be freaks with detachable body parts or controlling devils. You know, the usual.

For Angel to really succeed on its own, and not as an adjunct to Buffy, the stories will have to get a little bit better. One episode, which featured a creature which jumped from body to body (killing its host) during copulation, offered a solid blend of X-Files freak action that bodes well.

The show will also need to embrace the limitations of its premise, however. Already they're chafing against Angel's inability to get around during the daytime -- he inexplicably appears in various buildings around L.A. during the day (and there's no way he's getting there using the sewers -- it's a big city). He stands in well-lit rooms, apparently because only direct sunlight harms him. You tell me: if a ray of sunshine would put you down for the count, would you hang out in any place where the jerk of a single curtain would end it all? Of course not.

No, Angel will hit on all cylinders when it completely embraces its dark side: Angel is a night-only kind of guy, and all the action should go on at night. Let Angel's Girl Friday Cordelia (Buffy import Charisma Carpenter) do the legwork during the day -- it'll give the show even more of a Moonlighting vibe than it already has.

In fact, if there's any place Angel hits a false note, it's his unlikely relationship with Cordelia and their so-called "business", Angel Investigations. Angel a private eye? I'd prefer a Batcave, but I suppose they need to find some way to make ends meet. You'd think that after two hundred years on this planet, Angel would've invested prudently and would have some sort of nest egg saved up, even if it wasn't Bruce Wayne-sized.

The only thing that sugar-coats the private-eye premise is Whedon's acceptance that it's a expedient way to have the show happen, and that it is silly. It's a part of the show that's not taken particularly seriously, and that's a relief. It couldn't really stand up to scrutiny otherwise.

So is Angel as good as Buffy? Not a chance. But it's a show with potential, and a spin-off that really has a chance to emerge from the shadow of its big sister. For those who find Buffy a little too light and silly, perhaps Angel will fit the bill. For fans of Buffy, Angel won't offer you more of the same -- but that's not such a bad thing.


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