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From SFX Magazine November 2003
AngelWhere ANGEL Dares To Tread
Transcribed by Setje from Spoiler Crypt Yahoo Group
Saturday 11 October 2003
Where ANGEL Dares To Tread
There are some huge changes on the way in Angel’s fifth season. Ed Gross talks to the guys who’ve shaken things up - Joss Whedon, Tim Minear & Jeffrey Bell
After considerable debate over whether or not the WB would renew Joss Whedon’s Angel for a fifth season, the network not only gave the go-ahead for 22 more adventures, but then showed the ultimate sign of corporate support by moving its top hit, Smallville, to serve as Angel’s lead-in. Hurrah ! Things are looking good for the new season…
"The debate about whether or not it came back was a money thing," explains Whedon. "The junior executives at the network really cared about the show. But when you get up to the world of (president) Jamie Kellner, it’s about numbers. I was told that they would fight for the show and fight for a lead-in that makes sense. For them to take their biggest honking hit and put it in front of Angel is a vote of confidence, and it shows that where it counts amongst the creative-execs, it isn’t about money ; it’s about programming, and I appreciate that."
The fans and the media were immediately abuzz upon hearing the news … but Angel executive producer Jeffrey Bell isn’t so sure it was the right thing to do.
"We’re very different from Smallville," Bell says, matter of factly. "We’re Batman, not Superman. We are in the dark. Smallville is a very well done, soapy, high school melodrama and we are a more adult show.
We are a darker show and there’s not a whole lot of piney love going on.
There’s some pining, but not a lot. They have a really simple, clean metaphor and ours is a little darker. And there’s now way we can hold the Smallville lead-in, but I would love for many new fans to discover us, because I think we’re a very cool show."
There are between three and four million fans of Angel that would tend to agree with him, as they’ve followed the series each time the network has moved the show since it began four seasons ago. It’s that quality that has kept the show on the air even after the WB became concerned that the series wasn’t as big a hit as it should have been ; that is was failing to connect with a more mainstream audience.
"Which isn’t easy," Bell admits. "I maintain that we’re the weirdest show on television. We have a vampire with a soul, and we’re not camp. People see a rubber mask and think that it’s funny and that it’s camp, and it’s not. We think it’s the opposite of that - really mythic emotion, but couched in bizarre terms. We’re weird meat. That’s not for everyone. We love being the way we are and I don’t think you’re going to see us going out of our way to be more conventional. We’re going to continue to try and tell really captivating stories in a bizarre way, but hopefully not in a way that is indecipherable, which I think the fourth season became."
And therein lies the problem.
"During this last season, of which I’m very proud, at one point we were like, ’Are we making 24 ? The events of the episodes seemed to happen in a two-week period. It played this one dramatic arc," Whedon explains. "We all came out saying we had to shake up the paradigm. You need the internal dynamic, but at the same time, you need a show where if nobody’s ever seen it, they can turn it on and not be so aught up in the mythos that they’re lost."
"Last year," adds Bell, "we knew we wanted to deal with the Apocalypse. We had been talking about one for three years and it felt like it was time that we should have one. But when we started, I don’t think we had any idea that the show was going to be as serialised as it became. Entertainment Weekly, which loves us, decided to list what was good and what was bad about the show. They had all these things that were good and what was bad was that if you haven’t watched from the beginning, it’s like coming in at page 262 of a Stephen King novel. I thought that was an accurate criticism.
"I think If you were inside the umbrella," he continues, "it was the most emotionally satisfying year we’ve ever had. But if you were outside of it, it was kind of cool and interesting, but the response was, ’I don’t know what the Hell is going on, so I’m going to go and watch The Bachelor.’ It was serialised even for us. We were more linear than 24 last year. We picked up seconds after we left off on a number of occasions and that really wasn’t our intention. What we found out is that when you’re telling stories like that, and you tell a standalone episode that doesn’t address it, people say, ’How can you do that ? There’s an Apocalypse going on !’
"I’m really proud of last year and think they’re really wonderful stories, but I do understand the criticisms. So our big job this year is to try and tell the stories as standalones and yet maintain the emotional lives of our characters in a way that Joss’s fans expect."
The first stage of that task was set in the season four finale, "Home". Having defeated the goddess Jasmine and more or less ended perfect bliss in the world, Angel and company were approached by the late Lilah Morgan of Wolfram & Hart, informing them that the firm was leaving Los Angeles, and bequeathing their building and internal structure to our heroes as a "thank you" present for stopping Jasmine. At first resistant to the idea, every member of the team ultimately agrees, believing that they will be able to use the resources of the firm to help the helpless in a way that was impossible before because of a lack of resources.
Former executive producer Tim Minear, who has left the series to work on Fox’s Wonderfalls, wrote and directed "Home", and, in conjunction with Whedon and Bell, set up a scenario that would return the show back to its first season roots with a more standalone approach to storytelling. In fact, the network’s request for season five was, "Standalone. Standalone. Standalone."
"It’s very easy when you start getting ’arcy’ to have things begin to blur together," offers Minear, using blatant Buffy-speak.
"The mythology starts to get very rich, which is good. But it also starts to get very convoluted at some level. If the characters are only starting to make references to the show, then it starts to have no meaning beyond that. The art is then not relating to real life in any way, it’s only relating to itself. When a show gets that arcy, it’s easy for that to happen. That’s why we constantly have to change the show. Also, unlike Buffy where the metaphor is very clear - the stages of growing up - Angel does not have a metaphor. It’s a melodrama about men and women with a supernatural element."
As he sees it, the need is there to do mini-novels for television. "We had some continuing stories in season one," Minear reflects, "Which started to edge toward serialisation is season two. In season three, we threw in a couple of standalone episodes and a few that were standalone but blatantly serviced the arc. My feeling is we became more successful when we said, ’Fuck it, it’s a novel.’ People don’t want to read a short story in the middle of a novel. They want to get to the next chapter of the big story, and I think that Angel is most successful when it’s just balls-out operatic melodrama. But now we’re changing the show significantly. People won’t feel like they’re coming into the middle of something."
For Bell, this change in direction is coming at the perfect time, as in his mind there would be no way to make the show any larger or more epic than it was in season four. Part of this, however, has to do with the economic reality that there simply isn’t the same amount of money to go around anymore, as cast and crew were given raises while the show’s budget remained the same.
"What we can do is tell really emotionally compelling stories that involve our characters, and we can do that in standalone stories," says Bell. "But Wesley still pines for Fred. That hasn’t gone away, so that emotional line is still there. Our characters still have their relationships. The big question for us this year is we are now telling stories from within Wolfram & Hart, our evil law firm. Our big arc really is : what the Hell are we doing here ? Why do they have us here ? We don’t feel corrupted, but have we been corrupted ? That’s something we’ll touch on that will, thematically, be in a lot of the episodes. It will also allow us to tell stories a little more scale in terms of the kinds of clients we deal with."
Although in many ways the approach to year five will be a throwback to the show’s first season, Bell feels that the difference is that back then the characters didn’t resonate the way that they do now. "It’s really trying to balance those standalone stories and keeping the emotional lives of our characters front and centre in a way that we didn’t that year. That’s really going to be our challenge," he says.
Whedon emphasises the framework of the series is so different at this stage that the standalone stories will resonate more and not just be a monster-of-the-week format.
"We have people we care about who have complex relationships and we feel we can go back to monster of the week because now we have an internal dynamic that will make it mean more than just a simple case," he says. "Some of it involves not having someone sit down and have to watch a nine-minute ’Previously on Angel.’"
In terms of the characters, there will indeed be a lot to watch in year five. For starters, written out of the show is Angel’s moody, miserable and violent son, Connor. A the end of season four, Angel came up with a solution to the boy’s eternal unhappiness : in exchange for taking up the new position at Wolfram & Hart, he got them to warp reality so that nobody remembers who Connor is (except for his dad). Connor was then placed within a big familyj, to live out his life from now onwards as a genuinely happy young man. It’s amazing what you can do with a law firm and a bit of magic…
"We were trying to be true to his character," notes Bell.
"As such, we didn’t give him a break and ultimately realised there was no way to bring him into normal society, thus Angel’s sacrificial decision at the end of the year, which I found really emotional. That was the perfect payoff for that character, I would actually love to bring Vincent Kartheiser back this year to have a scene where a parent shows up and says, ’Something’s wrong with our son. He’s very strong." And have Connor there, but nobody knows who he is except Angel. I think we can have some fun with that character without all the baggage. I hope it’s something we’re actually able to do."
More shocking than Kartheiser’s departure was Charisma Carpenter’s farewell to the show, after playing Cordelia Chase non-stop since the first episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, continuing the role for the first four years of Angel. Considering that she was a mainstay since day one, her departure from the show stunned many, though according to Bell it’s natural progression for her character’s arc.
"If you look at her character, she really went through an amazingly remarkable arc," he notes, with considerable understatement. "She came in as this very self-absorbed cheerleader and wannabe actress, and grew in depth and character and became a love interest for Angel. And as people who watch a lot of television will tell you, it’s always more interesting if they don’t quite get together but have the feelings. She kept growing stronger and then there was this whole paranormal thing happening with her that ended with her going away at the end of season three, coming back last year and we were excited to think, ’Cordelia’s the bad guy, or the thing inside Cordelia is the bad guy.’
"So we were talking about Angelus, and that Faith was going to show up, and we were holding up sparkly things to the fans, when we knew that Cordelia was going to kill Lilah. Also, Charisma was pregnant last year and trying to make that work with her pregnancy was tricky. I think we managed to do it and brought Gina Torres in (as Jasmine). But I think at the end of the season, when we were really needing the Big Bad to battle, Charisma was having a baby, so Gina came in and that worked out real nicely. We couldn’t get Charisma back at the end of the season in a meaningful way, so we’ll have to find a way to do that this year, thought she won’t be in many episodes.
"So, both Connor and Cordelia had really wonderful arcs and those arcs kind of came to conclusions. Now, especially within Wolfram & Hart, we’re looking at a different sort of paradigm."
Part of that paradigm will be the addition of James Marsters’s vampire, Spike, to the cast. Spike, who will appear in all 22 episodes of Angel’s fifth season, was last seen in Sunnydale sacrificing himself to save the world (who’d have thought it ?). His addition to the series was a coup that helped assure that Angel would get its fifth year from the network ; that, and the promise of occasional guest appearances from other Buffy cast members (including, hopefully, Sarah Michelle Gellar).
"We’re all excited James is a part of the show," observes Bell. "I think he’s a really good actor and an interesting character.
Throwing him into the mix will only help. He died a glorious death at the end of Buffy, a truly heroic death, and we don’t want to short-change that. What we’re going to find, we feel - and we’ll find out if the fans agree or not - is an honest way to deal with that which doesn’t diminish what he did and allows him to come back in a meaningful way, that we suspect will grow and change as the season goes along." Notes Whedon, "What Spike will bring to the show is what he brings, which is a little anarchy and a blond. Two things that we need. He’s the guy to confront everybody all the time over what they’re doing. You can’t have your characters constantly going, ’What are we doing in this evil law firm ? Make mine black with no sugar.’ Eventually you’ll start to think that they’re patsies or idiots. You need that voice, and to me Spike is that voice to start with. There’s a lot more to do than that, but when I think of it initially, he’s the guy who’s really bridling against what’s going on."
Unfortunately, the key to Angel’s longevity will all boil down to ratings. The real question, of course, is whether or not all of these changes will actually make a difference. Will shifting to standalone stories really have an impact on the number of people watching the series, in the way that the WB is hoping for ? One could argue that the fanbase is the fanbase and that for a show going into its fifth season, the odds are against finding a new, expanded audience. But Bell sees it differently.
"There is precedent," he smiles. "I cite Law & Order versus the American people. Law & Order did not become a hit until it was sold into syndication. It was eiring several times a day and suddenly in season six it took off. The fact that coming this Fall Angel will also be in syndication will help us. More exposure always helps."