Angel’Angel’ 100th episode
By Annabelle Villanueva
Monday 2 February 2004, by Webmaster
When the cast and crew of the WB Network’s ’Angel’ wrapped their debut episode five years ago, series co-creator David Greenwalt leaned toward star David Boreanaz and wryly quipped, "One down, 99 to go!" But the actor had more modest goals. "While we were shooting the first pilot sequence, I wasn’t concerned about getting to 100 episodes," he recalls with a chuckle. "I was more concerned with getting through the night."
Boreanaz need not have worried on either count. Although television spinoffs can be risky propositions — after all, for every hit like NBC’s "Frasier," there’s a train wreck a la ABC’s 1980s entry "Joanie Loves Chachi" — "Angel" has proved a worthy heir to the WB’s "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" since spinning off from the pop-culture juggernaut. As "Angel" celebrates its 100th episode, set to air Wednesday, Buffyverse mastermind Joss Whedon finds the milestone particularly sweet.
"It legitimizes this bastard stepchild of ’Buffy,’" jokes Whedon, the show’s co-creator and executive producer. "Because ’Angel’ has flown under the radar a little bit and isn’t as strictly structured as ’Buffy’ was, we’ve been able to take some really interesting chances. I have an incredible staff, and they work hard to make each episode worth watching."
Like its predecessor, "Angel" uses a heady mix of fantasy, action, horror and hilarious wit to examine all-too-human foibles.
In 1999, Whedon conceived of a spinoff featuring Buffy’s 200-year-old vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend Angel and recruited "Buffy" executive producer Greenwalt as a partner on the project.
They originally developed the show as a noirish monster-of-the-week drama that found Angel (Boreanaz) and his breezy girl Friday, Cordelia Chase (fellow "Buffy" alum Charisma Carpenter), helping other lost souls in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. The brooding bloodsucker’s search for redemption offered an opportunity to tweak the superhero concept, and Whedon knew Boreanaz could sink his teeth into the challenge.
"What’s great about David is that he’s able to subvert the (hero) image very slyly while not taking away its power," Whedon says. "He gives me the necessary anguish but has no problem winking at himself as the big hero, which the show constantly does because my whole career is devoted to subverting that idea. He definitely plays both sides beautifully."
But a problem presented itself a few episodes into the first season: The self-contained detective-plot elements didn’t quite have the emotional pull that the writers had expected. "We found we were more interested in the characters themselves than in the guest star of the week," Whedon says.
In response, he and Greenwalt subtly retooled the series so its story lines focused on sustained arcs featuring core characters — which eventually grew to include vigilante vampire hunter Gunn (J. August Richards), bookish occult expert Wesley (Alexis Denisof), sweet science whiz Fred (Amy Acker) and Lorne (Andy Hallett), the golden-throated, green-skinned owner of a demon karaoke bar. With each subsequent season, "Angel" became more assured in exploring dark emotion, whimsical humor and a portentous mythology, often within the same episode.
"We can go to darker and lighter episodes than you would expect," Whedon says. "That opportunity to be very true to the intensity of these characters’ lives and at the same time free-associate about the world they live in means that the show stays fresh. It differentiated itself (from ’Buffy’) because it was a different world, different characters, a different feel. It’s the same parents, different child."
The dramatic intensity reached a crescendo during Season 4, when the writers conjured a full-blown apocalypse for Los Angeles and Cordelia entered into a creepy affair with Angel’s son before turning evil. Die-hard fans delighted in the ominous, complex action, and several TV critics hailed the series as one of the best on the air. Unfortunately, the acclaim came with a slight wrinkle: The arc was so all-encompassing that casual viewers who tuned in during the middle of the year were nearly unable to figure out what the heck was going on.
"Season 4, we were more linear than (Fox’s) ’24,’" showrunner and executive producer Jeff Bell says. "It wasn’t our intent, but when you tell a story with as much gravity as an apocalypse, you can’t really have stand-alones stuck here and there. When our ’previously on’ (promos) were longer than the episode itself, we knew we were in trouble."
Complicating matters further, after "Buffy" jumped ship to UPN in 2001, "Angel" lost its lead-in and some of its audience, averaging a mere 4.4 million viewers a week. By the 2002-03 campaign, that number dropped to 3.7 million. Not helping matters was the fact that "Angel" had, as Whedon puts it, "danced the schedule dance": The network changed its time slot four times in four years.
"It certainly is a show that has a loyal following, and honestly, I think to some extent, we may have taken advantage of that, knowing that they would follow the show anywhere," the WB president of entertainment Jordan Levin says. "At the same time, it’s a little bit more of a challenge to support a show that has such an impassioned audience simply because once they watch it, they’re not always there for the repeat. Plus, they want storytelling that is open-ended and serialized and has a deep and complex mythology. That makes it very tough to bring a new audience in."
So tough, in fact, that last spring, the WB executives flirted with the idea of canceling "Angel." As "Buffy" wrapped its successful series run in 2003, viewers grimly faced the prospect of losing both their beloved slayer and her former flame. In an effort to convince the network to pick up the spinoff for a another year, the Season 4 finale concluded with Angel and his gang taking over the evil law firm of Wolfram & Hart, a setting that would help support a return to more stand-alone episodes.
"This whole idea of getting the keys to Wolfram & Hart was kind of marvelous but a little scary," says Greenwalt, who continues to consult for the series. "But what a great way to reinvent this show the first year ’Buffy’ isn’t on; it’s almost like starting a new franchise."
The network approved of the concept and hammered out a deal with 20th Century Fox Television to renew the series. As an added show of support, the WB paired "Angel" on Wednesday nights with top-rated drama "Smallville."
"Actions always speak louder than words, and providing our strongest lead-in for a show in its fifth season I think says a lot about our company’s love for ’Angel’ and our appreciation for everything Joss, 20th Television and the two Davids — Greenwalt and Boreanaz — have done for us," Levin says. "What fun to take a show and reinvent it without undermining its core strengths."
Along with more contained episodes, the new season has brought another crucial change: the addition of fan-favorite punk vamp Spike (James Marsters), last seen sacrificing himself to save the world in the "Buffy" finale. Now a ghost of sorts, the delightfully sarcastic anti-hero provides an intriguing foil for Angel: Both vampires have a conscience, and both are desperately in love with Buffy.
"Some people were like, ’Uh-oh, he’s the other vampire with a soul; it’s redundant,’" Whedon says. "But he couldn’t be any more different from Angel. I think of him in a way as the new ingenue. It’s a very intense, contentious situation, and they bring out the worst in each other — but ultimately, it’s one of the strongest and certainly the oldest relationship in Angel’s life."
The changes have helped ease new viewers into the show without alienating loyal Buffyverse aficionados. "Angel" also is performing well in syndication, enjoying triple-digit percentage growth in some markets. Meanwhile, DVD sets of the first and second seasons are selling briskly.
"How remarkable for a show at this point in its life to keep reinventing itself and to appeal to a group of people who, prior to this, weren’t loyal viewers," 20th Century Fox Television president Dana Walden says. "It does very well internationally; it’s done well on DVD. It’s an incredible franchise."
The 100th episode strives to find balance between a stand-alone story and the deeper mythology, with Carpenter returning as Cordelia (the character has been in an offscreen coma since last year’s season finale). "It’s very much a ’Where did we start; where are we going?’ episode," Whedon says. "We want to keep it new-guy-friendly, but an arc will begin to reveal itself toward the end of the season."
Subsequent episodes will include flashbacks to Angel’s time on a World War II submarine and a lighthearted puppet episode that Whedon promises "will have to be seen to be believed." One story development not in the cards is a long-hoped-for visit from Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar); though Gellar has expressed interest in revisiting her signature role, nothing has materialized yet.
"I really don’t know if it will happen — the ball is in her court," Whedon says. "If she wants to come, I have two characters who are in love with her, so it’s not like we’d be lacking for story. However, if she doesn’t come, it’s not like we’re lacking for story, either."
Clearly, Angel has been more than able to make a go of it on his own. Whedon, on the other hand, credits the show’s success to a dedicated team effort: Looking back on 100 episodes, he has noticed that most of his favorite installments are not necessarily those he has written or directed himself.
"My favorite ’Buffy’ episodes tend to be my own, but not so much with ’Angel,’" Whedon says. "When the thing gets bigger than the person who made it, that’s when it becomes art."