History was hedging its bets against Joss Whedon four years ago when he created Angel, the offspring of his phenomenal Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Whedon was one of the few that managed to beat the spin-off curse. Now, as Buffy heads into the homestretch of its seven year run, it's clear that not only is Angel a superior TV show compared to the current incarnation of Buffy, but the child has grown as good as the parent ever was, if not better.
Angel has never received the kind of acclaim or pop-culture buzz Whedon's signature show had received from the very beginning. I had some serious doubts about the spin-off myself: Sarah Michelle Gellar is a true star, her supporting cast was terrific and the Buffy writers had managed to strike a perfect balance of humor and relatively sap-free emotion. David Boreanaz, who played Buffy's vampire boyfriend Angel for three years before launching the new show, was always fairly vanilla on the original. His one chance to shine had been the second half of the second season which he spent as the evil Angelus. It was easily his best work, but the new series was supposed to focus on Angel the hero and up to that point Boreanaz hadn't shown a fraction of the champion's charisma his former leading lady displayed every week.
Angel's first year was a bumpy ride, but surprisingly good. Charisma Carpenter, another Buffy refugee, transformed her Cordelia Chase character from the popular rich girl who tormented the Slayer gang in Sunnydale to a credible hero in her own right. Whedon had promised the new series would be even darker than the original, a tough guarantee to make considering Buffy had already killed her own boyfriend and blew up her high school.
Angel's creator lived up to his word, staging most of the show underground or at night and sharpening the edge on his leading man. This hero didn't have an ancient, sacred calling like the Vampire Slayer to justify his actions. Sure, he was a tortured soul fighting for redemption for two centuries of his own evil, but the old vampire was always lurking just under the surface. When things got messy, Angel spent a lot more time getting vicious and less time navel-gazing about the morality of it all then Buffy usually did..
The comparisons to the original were helped that initial season by Buffy's sudden fourth-year stumble. Since then, the shows have been moving in different directions, with Angel substantially improving every season while Buffy plummeted into last year's embarrassment. Buffy has apparently found its second wind just in time for the end of the series and can still put on a great show, as this year's "Conversations with Dead People" episode proved. But season four of Angel has been the most entertaining collection of network television hours I've seen in years.
The most impressive facet of the show is how Whedon, series co-creator David Greenwalt, and current show producer Jeffrey Bell have managed to break almost every cardinal rule for avoiding bad TV. For instance, the transformation of comic relief characters into genuine heroes. Along with the title character and Cordelia, former Buffy bit-player Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was brought onto Angel. On the old show, Wesley was an uptight, prissy Brit with a girlish scream and a penchant for fainting at the sight of blood. After a couple of years on Angel, Wesley is one of the biggest bad asses in all of primetime. The amazing thing is that the writers and actor Alexis Denisof managed to pull off this goofy-to-gallant makeover in completely convincing fashion. Compare this to the utter disaster of Buffy's Willow becoming the most powerful human on Earth, then trying to destroy it last year. The Buffy writers could have learned a thing or two about subtle character development by watching their sister show.
There don't seem to be any television clichés the writers and producers of Angel aren't willing to twist to their own advantage. Cordelia returned from another dimension earlier this year with amnesia and the result was an episode funnier than just about every sitcom on the air. It wouldn't be a fantasy show without a malevolent super-evil about to destroy the world, only this one's Cordelia's daughter and a hippie free-love guru to boot. There even was a dream episode that featured an inspired "Raiders of the Lost Ark" homage.
The biggest trap any show can fall into is the baby trap. So when it became clear Angel was going to end up a father last season, all sorts of warning bells started clanging off around the TeeVee office. The bells were quickly silenced however, once the mother, an old vampire girlfriend of Angel's, killed herself so the baby could be born. Then just as Angel started getting all sappy about his role as a new father, the boy was kidnapped by dad's pal Wesley and given to an old vampire hunter nemesis to be raised in a demon dimension. Before you could say "Holy crap," the baby reemerged from the other world as a superhuman teenager sworn to kill his father. Family Ties this isn't.
The biggest surprise here may be Boreanaz. While rarely given the kind of big emotional speeches Gellar gets to plow through almost every episode of Buffy these days, Angel's leading man manages to carry the weight of the world just as forcefully, if less verbally. The man has mastered the art and science of brooding, but is truly funny as well. Even better is his ability to go cold blooded, pretty-boy image be damned. A recent story arc had Angel reverting to his evil alter-ego Angelus for a few weeks and Boreanaz made the leap to over-the-top homicidal killer as well as anyone on the small screen this side of Joe Pantoliano.
The supporting cast is excellent as well, despite its enormous proportions. When Whedon expanded Buffy's ensemble to J.Lo-entourage size, it went straight downhill. His recent Firefly failure was probably caused by its lousy Friday night time slot, but its confusing ensemble of 256 main characters didn't help much either. Somehow each Angel character has managed to find his or her own niche, and there are very few times when someone's floating around aimlessly. These writers are every bit as sharp and funny as Buffy's and much less apt to get bogged down in the ponderous us-against-the-world monologues that seem to drag down so many Buffy episodes these days.
The writing continues to improve despite Greenwalt's departure, somehow straddling the thin line between fantastic and ridiculous. Earlier this year a giant demon made of rock visited Earth to block out the sun. On any other show, this recycled Simpsons plot would end up laughable, but with the subsequent turning of Angel to the evil Angelus, the ludicrous mixed perfectly with the dark and violent.
That continuing darkness is the real key to Angel's success. True to his word, Whedon has made this show a brilliant bit of gloom. Angel's son Connor entombed his father at the bottom of the ocean to end last season and this year began with Wesley keeping a woman chained up in his closet. Cordelia, who had an affair with Angel just starting to heat up, slept with his son and ended up giving birth to the demon to end all demons. Several of the fight scenes this year were enough to make John Woo proud, and more intense than anything else you'll see on a broadcast TV network -- 24 included. And what other show would have its leading man, the supposed champion of champions, turn into a murderous monster for month?
This is simply a brand of TV you'll not find anywhere else. While it may not pack the emotional wallop the finest early Buffy episodes, this year's Angel is more fun and better pure entertainment than its parent ever was.