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A Touch of Evil

Good bad guys are hard to find. Heroes are easy -- it's creating a truly ingenious villain that separates standout TV dramas from run-of-the-mill. Joss Whedon's two supernatural series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, are prime examples of what happens when evil becomes merely mischievous.

Now in its second season, Angel is the Buffy spin-off that follows the adventures of the title character as he battles demons and other malevolent forces in Los Angeles. From the beginning, Whedon promised Angel would be darker than Buffy. Considering Buffy's plot lines included Angel being sent to hell thanks to Buffy's impaling him, it was hard to believe the new show could live up to that guarantee. Now, after an uneven first season, the show has hit its stride and is easily the bleakest show on TV. Call me warped and disturbed, but now that Angel makes Chris Carter's old Millennium look like Laugh-In, it has settled firmly into my prime-time top five.

It's all thanks to the bad guy or, in this case, group of bad guys. Last year, viewers were introduced to Wolfram & Hart, a law firm that specialized in supernatural clients. This year, the company's role has been expanded so that it is now the bureaucratic overlord of all chaos and mayhem in Southern California. As if just being lawyers wasn't evil enough already, these are lawyers that bill $400 an hour for sacrificing goats.

The secret to great bad guys isn't how many people they kill or lives they destroy, it's what they do to the hero. In Angel's case, Wolfram & Hart turned the champion of the innocent into TV's best anti-hero this side of Tony Soprano. Whedon hasn't revealed if Wolfram & Hart merely works for Satan or if he's the head guy, but destroying the firm and its connections has become Angel's Quixote-style windmill.

As a result of the lawyers, Angel has fired his partners without explanation, driven a cop to attempt suicide, discovered Earth really is Hell, and set fire to both his former girlfriend and his vampire daughter. In one of the series' most pivotal moments, Angel locked 20 of the lawyers in a wine cellar with a couple of vampires who left all but two of the humans slaughtered.

When the evil is forceful enough to blur the line between hero and vigilante, to change a champion of the innocent into a gunslinger who believes the ends justify the means, you've got yourself some fine television.

Of course in last week's episode, Angel had an "epiphany" and decided to go back to being goofy and huggable, thereby ruining all the show had achieved the past couple months. Oh well, I guess it was unrealistic to expect a real long-term anti-hero on any network that isn't HBO.

The situation at Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't quite as sunny. Although still one of the all-time greats, Buffy has hit some rocky patches these past two seasons. Whether it's because Whedon is spending time on Angel or just the inevitable middle-age doldrums, Buffy has had more than its fair share of mediocre efforts -- including last year's bloated "Initiative" plot line, the ridiculous, pretentious season finale and an episode this season that featured Buffy learning about love from a talking blow-up doll.

Sure, there are still flashes of the typical Buffy brilliance -- last week's episode "The Body" had as powerful an opening half-hour as you will ever see on network television. Emma Caulfield's Anya is terrific comic relief, and the fictional planet's most mind-numbingly boring human, Riley Finn, is finally out of the picture. Most importantly, Spike is once again a regular -- which has turned out to be as much a curse as blessing.

Spike is William the Bloody, a notorious vampire with a nasty reputation second only to that of Angel in his evil days. Spike, played by the unbelievably smooth James Marsters, was the main villain during Buffy's second season and easily the coolest bad guy in recent television history. After being defeated by Buffy, Spike disappeared for a year only to return in a limited role last year.

The problem was that "The Big Bad," as Spike likes to call himself, was rendered impotent by government scientists. Suddenly the best evil character in prime time was demoted to comic relief. Yes, he was damned funny, but the situation was pathetic.

Spike's return has cast a spotlight on Buffy's biggest problem the last couple seasons: a total lack of decent evil. The main villains from the first three years of Buffy -- super-powerful vampire The Master, Spike (with his girlfriend Drusilla), and Sunnydale's Mayor-turned-giant-snake-demon -- were ne'er-do-wells that would make any British soccer hooligan proud. With sidekicks like Bad Angel in season two and the psychotic vampire slayer Faith in season three, Buffy was constantly facing bad guys cooler than herself.

Last season introduced viewers to Adam, a demon cyborg created by the government's Initiative program as a prototype for some kind of super-soldier. Adam turned on his creators and ran amok trying to fashion yet another Armageddon. Sure, he was strong and ruthless and relatively invincible, but Adam also had the charisma of a cow. This guy could have spent 15 minutes clubbing baby seals to death and the audience would have been yawning the whole time.

It's hard to pinpoint the problem with Adam. Was the actor playing the part terminally dull? Did the writers get bored with him? Or did that Roger Corman-style makeup just render him too silly to be truly evil? I'm guessing it was a combination of all three.

This year's "Big Bad," a goddess named Glory, doesn't have the same costume problems, seeing how her getup is nothing but a red cocktail dress. She's a lot better looking than Adam as well, but looks don't equal charisma, and there's virtually no evil twinkle in her eye. Glory eats via a pretty cool brain sucking trick, but she's so bland that even the victims must think it's some kind of geeky practical joke.

Here's a so-called goddess that should be more powerful than all Buffy's previous enemies combined. Yet instead of wiping out the Slayer, her friends and family with a snap of her fingers, Glory can only walk away empty-handed and whine about her bad luck. She's not so much a Wrathful God of Chaos as she is the God of Bratty Debutantes Shoe Shopping at Nordstrom When They're Out of Size Six Pumps.

In the mean time, Spike is sitting on the bench, drowning in self-pity. While continuing as comic relief, his role has expanded to include uneasy ally and Buffy stalker. A pathetic and creepy infatuation with the woman he has sworn to kill is no fate for so royal a dark prince.

It doesn't have to be this way. Earlier this season, Buffy devoted an entire episode to Spike's origin and his killing of two previous Slayers. It was an instant classic, and featured perhaps the greatest single scene in the show's tenure: Spike describing his last Slayer kill with the help of a flashback while showing Buffy that she, like all her predecessors, harbors a secret death wish.

It was an absolutely electric five minutes and showcased a tension between Spike and Buffy that could never be equaled by Glory or Adam on their most despicable days. Marsters has evil down cold and the chemistry between himself and Sarah Michelle Gellar wasn't so much white hat-black hat as it was two assassins lining each other up in their sights. That kind of intensity used to be the rule on Buffy. These days, the most intense thing about Glory is her hair.

I don't know what the future holds for Spike and Wolfram & Hart. All we can do is hope that Spike returns to form and they both live long and dangerous lives, wreaking havoc and slaughtering the innocent. After all, who else are we going to root for... the good guys?


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