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"Angel" Tv Series - Popmatters.com Review

Monday 11 April 2011, by Webmaster

While the character Angel, the vampire with a soul, was introduced in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN, 1997-2003), the origins of the TV series Angel (WB, 1999-2004) stem from Season Two of Buffy when Angel loses his soul after experiencing one moment of perfect happiness when sleeping with Buffy (“Surprise” / “Innocence” 2.13/14). At this moment, Angel’s deliciously sadistic and cruel alter-ego, Angelus, emerges and no one would ever be able to look at Angel in quite the same way again. This character transformation served both to showcase David Boreanaz’s acting ability—he is never better than when he plays Angelus (except maybe when he is a puppet)—and the underlying complexity of Angel, a vampire cursed with a soul, haunted by his past actions and looking for atonement. This brief glimpse of Angelus made Angel’s struggle with his literal inner demon all the more tangible and moving.

It was while shooting Season Two that Joss Whedon approached Buffy co-producer David Greenwalt and David Boreanaz about potentially spinning Angel off into his own series. Angel would stay on Buffy for a third season, the point of which was to build to his and Buffy’s painful breakup and Angel’s departure for Los Angeles.

In creating a spin-off from Buffy, Whedon and Greenwalt had to consider how to construct a new series that was distinct in its own right. Their desire was to aim Angel at a slightly older audience and to achieve this, they broke away from Buffy’s high school location, sunny atmosphere and bright colours. In contrast, Angel draws upon the legacy of film noir associated with Los Angeles by filming primarily at night in typically noir-style locations such as seedy bars, night clubs, back alleys, and sewers. This may seem like an obvious move for a series based around a vampire who cannot go out in the day, but compare the visual style of Angel with more recent vampire series such as Moonlight and Vampire Diaries and you will see the difference. While these shows come up with narrative means of shooting during the day, Angel is primarily shot at night (until its fifth season when budget cuts made it necessary to shoot during the day and so UV-resistant windows were introduced). As a result, Whedon and Greenwalt, through their highly skilled Directors of Photography Herb Davis and Ross Berryman, match the show’s brooding and existential storyline and themes with what Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery describe as repeated “moments of beautiful dark” (2005, 225). The cinematography on Angel emphasizes deep shadows, expressionist lighting, and isolated compositions. This Noir legacy is never more apparent than in the opening montage of bright urban lights of Los Angeles accompanied by the following voiceover:

Los Angeles. You see it at night and it shines. A beacon. People are drawn to it. People and other things. They come for all sorts of reasons. My reason? No surprise there. It started with a girl. (“City Of” 1.1)

With this opening, Angel both acknowledges its association with Buffy but also transforms Angel from a teenage girl’s first love into a Noir detective, losing himself in LA to escape the pain of the past. A past that includes Buffy but also, as the series would go on to explore, a long history of obsession, sadism, and violence. Angel’s path to redemption was just beginning.

It is the theme of redemption through action that came to define the series, first through Angel and then the family he builds around him: Doyle, Cordelia Chase, Wesley Wyndam-Price, Faith, Charles Gunn, Lorne, Winifred “Fred” Burkle, Connor, Illyria, and finally Spike—resurrected from his fiery death on Buffy to appear in Angel’s final season. Each of these characters is damaged in one form or another, looking to find redemption for past failings by “helping the helpless” one soul at a time. They are also looking to make sense of who they are and how they fit into the world around them. While Buffy offered insight into the pains of growing up, Angel explored the painful challenges of adulthood. But that was just the start for Angel. There is no one way to read Angel.

Over the five seasons, Angel offered its audience countless moments of aesthetic pleasure [the Angel theme and credits give the show a brooding sensibility while the action scenes offer kinetic energy], provocative storylines [two vampires give birth to a human baby], transgressive representation of gender [vampires Darla and Drusilla go on a shopping spree], heartbreaking moments [Fred’s and Wesley’s death scenes], great comedy [Wesley fantasizing about dancing the ballet with Fred], and televisual innovation [Angel as a puppet, anyone?]. The following discussion will highlight some significant ways of approaching Angel, but they aren’t the only ways. The more you watch Angel the more there is to discover and this is just the beginning.

While Angel began as film noir detective series, with a touch of Batman thrown in for good measure—particularly through the repeated shots of Angel standing on high overlooking the city not to mention his use of Batman-style gadgets (“City Of”)—the show increasingly demonstrated a playful engagement with genre which is characteristic of Joss Whedon’s work. The series infused into its noir matrix conventions of horror as in the Dawn of the Dead style episode when all of the staff of evil law firm, and Angel’s primary nemesis, Wolfram & Hart are killed by The Beast and then rise again as zombies (“Habeas Corpses” 4:8 ). Later in one of the show’s most graphic episodes, Spike staves off being pulled into hell as he is haunted by the ghosts of Wolfram & Hart who threaten him with physical dismemberment and mutilation (“Hellbound” 5:4). In “Billy”, Wesley becomes infected with demon blood that brings forth “a primordial misogyny” inherent in men (3.6) and stalks Fred through the corridors of their hotel office, The Hyperion, calling to mind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Wesley’s quiet reserve and twisted humour as he taunts Fred makes this one of the most disturbing and frightening episodes of the series.

Horror is, however, just the beginning of the show’s genre hybridity. The introduction of Caritas, a demon karaoke bar in Season Two brought the musical into the mix with repeated episodes featuring cast members singing in order to receive guidance from the bar’s empathic Host, eventually known as Lorne. Memorable renditions include: Wesley, Gunn, and Cordelia singing “We are the Champions”; Darla’s femme fatale rendition of “Ill Wind”; Fred ironically choosing to sing “Crazy” as she recovers from her five-year ordeal as a slave in a demon dimension; and of course no one will ever forget Angel’s painful version of “Mandy”—which was so wonderfully comic in its badness that they repeated it over the episode’s end credits and it has become a signature tune associated with the show.

The Season Three storyline focusing upon the return of a now pregnant Darla and the birth of her and Angel’s son Connor is pure family melodrama, culminating in Darla’s self-sacrifice in the alley behind Caritas (“Lullaby” 3:15). Cradled in Fred’s lap as Angel watches helplessly and the rain pours down, Darla tells Angel that this baby is the “one good thing they did together” before staking herself in the heart, bursting into dust and leaving a wailing human(ish) baby behind. This scene brings Darla and Angel’s relationship full circle as its alley setting is designed deliberately to echo Darla’s transformation of the human Liam into the vampiric Angelus and it reminds us that no-matter how evil a character can be, on Angel everyone is capable of tenderness, self-sacrifice, and redemption through action. It is one of the most beautifully staged and moving moments in the series.

More than any genre, however, Angel is at its best when it mixes comedy within its horror/Noir aesthetic. These can be isolated moments designed to undercut the brooding quality to the show such as Angel’s horrified vision of himself dancing at Cordelia’s house party, before declaring “I don’t dance” (“She” 1:13) or Doyle in “City Of” working up the courage to drive through Russell Winters’s main gates in order to rescue Angel, only to have the car bounce back on impact as Doyle responds “Good gate.” Comedy is also used more broadly in certain episodes to deconstruct notions of masculinity and heroism. In “Guise will be Guise” (2.6) Angel goes to see a swami in order to help him control his growing obsession with his sire Darla, while Wesley poses as Angel when Cordelia is threatened by gangsters. Wesley’s masquerade serves as a parody of Angel’s affected mannerisms, as he dons Angel’s iconic black coat and sweeps confidently into the office only to stumble at the entrance. At the same time Angel’s self-image comes under direct comic attack when meeting the swami who questions Angel’s choice of clothes, car, and hair product: “Don’t get me wrong, if you are out there fighting ultimate evil. You’re gonna want something with hold.” If “Guise Will Be Guise” serves as a critique of the image of the superhero, then the comedy episode “Smile Time” (5.14) where Angel, our superhero, is turned into a puppet, completely shatters it. In this episode, Angel must suffer the indignities of being described as “cute” by Fred, called a “wee-little puppet man” by Spike and being almost eaten alive by his would-be girlfriend, Nina. These comedy episodes don’t undermine Angel’s actions or his position as a hero, but do challenge the traditional image of the hero, replacing it with an all too human vision of heroism, replete with insecurities, weaknesses and self-doubt.

As such comedy episodes demonstrate, one of the primary preoccupations of Angel is its focus upon the shifting representation of masculinity. David Greenwalt makes this clear in a statement that is fast becoming the calling card of the series, “Buffy is about how hard it is to be a woman and Angel is about how hard it is to be a man” (cited by Nazzaro, 2002, 158). In trying to show how “hard it is to be a man,” however, the series raises questions about what it means to be a man and it does this not only through the characterization of Angel but also the men who surround him: Doyle, Wesley, Gunn, Lorne, Lindsey, Connor, and Spike. Each of these men offer distinct representations of masculinity that if taken alone might be considered stereotypical (Connor the annoying teenage boy, Gunn the black gang member, Lorne the camp nightclub host, Wesley the uptight British intellectual), but when considered together offer a complex image of modern masculinity. More importantly, the serial nature of Angel’s storytelling allows these characters to grow and evolve, never offering one image of masculinity but rather presenting masculinity constantly in transformation and evolution.

This is nowhere more apparent then in the characterization of Wesley who, between his first appearance on Buffy and his death on Angel in “Never Fade Away” (5.22), undergoes the most dramatic character development of any character in the Buffy/Angelverse (except possibly for Cordelia). This is highlighted in the aforementioned “Billy,” where Wesley undergoes a crisis of masculinity that serves as a key pivot point for his transformation from buffoonish sidekick to dark and brooding anti-hero. This is an episode that overtly and controversially addresses gender issues and is described by writers Tim Minear and Jeff Bell as “widely acclaimed and much loathed” (DVD commentary). They further state that those who hated the episode either hated it because “it was accused of being anti-woman, or it’s accused of being anti-man.” Presumably much of the criticism levelled at the episode for being anti-man comes from the suggestion that misogyny is inherent in men rather than learned social behavior. The “anti-woman” sentiment is based upon the fact that the episode features strong images of violence against women including Wolfram & Hart lawyer Lilah Morgan being graphically beating by colleague Gavin Park and Fred’s physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Wesley in the third and fourth acts of the episode, drawing upon the generic trope of the “woman in peril.” The episode, like Buffy however, also works along the lines of much postmodern horror as it knowingly subverts the classic conventions of the genre that present women as victims by having the women save themselves. Cordelia takes it upon herself to hunt Billy—the demon whose blood incites masculine aggression—and it is Lilah who shoots and destroys him. Furthermore, in true final girl fashion, Fred saves herself from Wesley through her own ingenuity and mechanical mindedness—she builds a trap for him that knocks him out until Billy’s affect has worn off—and in so doing she also saves Wesley. This is all a very familiar aspect of modern horror.

The episode also introduces another discourse, this time about masculinity, into the gender dynamic of modern horror. What is significant is the manner in which the episode is deliberately ambiguous about the nature of Billy’s affect on men. Lilah may describe this affect as bringing out a “primordial misogyny,” an interpretation supported by Angel who equally describes Billy’s affect as bringing out “hatred and anger” from his victims, but Fred specifically tells Wesley that “it wasn’t something in you Wesley. It was something that was done to you.” It is therefore unclear whether Billy’s touch changed the men or brought out something innate within them and this ambiguity is central to the episode. It raises questions about masculinity rather than answers them. Furthermore, the implication of the episode is that it is Wesley who is victimized by Billy. His body is penetrated by Billy’s blood and he is transformed from his usually gentle persona into a violent attacker against his will. As a result, at the end of the episode it is Wesley who is traumatized by the preceding events as opposed to Fred.

When Fred comes to his apartment to encourage him to come back to work, he is presented as sitting alone in his dark apartment, isolated and cut off from the rest of the team as he stares at the wall. When he answers the door he can’t face Fred and averts his eyes where possible. The episode ends with him breaking down, unable to contain his emotions. What this scene demonstrates is that he is not simply traumatized by the invasion of his body/personality by Billy but by the questions the experience has raised about who he is, telling Fred, “I don’t know what kind of man I am anymore.” Wesley, the gentle buffoon who has gradually been learning how to become a commanding leader, has had violent, masculine aggression forced upon or out of him. Either way for the sensitive “new man,” this is a horrible violation and causes Wesley to question his identity.

Wesley is not the only man on Angel to question is identity. Gunn undergoes an equally traumatic and unsettling crisis of identity throughout the series as he seeks to understand his place within the gender and class dynamics of Angel Investigations, seeing himself as having little to offer but muscle and as a result risks losing his soul to Wolfram & Hart in order to improve his position. W&H lawyer Lindsey McDonald becomes the epitome of damaged masculinity struggling with his own identity in “Dead End” when he questions the paternal hold that W&H have over him and then later comes back to reassert his authority over both W&H and Angel. Lorne is initially scarred by Fred’s death (as they all are) and then finally and ultimately damaged by Angel’s request that he be the one to shoot Lindsey in “Not Fade Away”. Like Wesley in “Billy” Lorne suffers for having violent aggression forced upon him and out of him through this act. He tells Angel that “he’ll do this last thing for you… for us… but then I’m out.”

The last we see of Lorne (until the Angel After the Fall comics, that is) is Lorne leaving the murder scene in uncharacteristically Noir-style leather coat with the departing line “goodnight folks.” Finally, Connor is initially the most damaged of all the characters, born of two vampires and raised in a hell dimension, but ironically is the only one that seems to find some form of reconciliation to his identity when he is first given false memories of an alternative normal life which later collapse forcing his new and old memories to co-exist. As a result, he is able to reconcile his action and new man existence and find the peace that the others never find. Through all of these multiple struggles with identity, Angel raises exploratory questions about the nature of masculinity. It doesn’t try to answer them. The questioning is what matters.

To conclude, Angel explores the problems of being an adult in an increasingly complicated and morally ambiguous world. It does not suggest that these problems are solvable, any more than discourses around masculinity can be easily reconciled. Instead Angel simply highlights the importance of trying. As Angel tells Connor, “We live as if the world were as it should be to show it what it can be” (“Deep Down” 4.1). The final moments of the series are a testament to this philosophy, as the remaining members of Angel Investigations face, in yet another rainy dark alley, the demonic hordes unleashed by Wolfram & Hart. When asked about his plan, Angel responds: “Well personally, I kinda want to slay the dragon. Let’s go to work”—to cut to black with Angel in mid-swing. What matters is not what happens to Angel and his team but simply that they keep fighting.