Saturday, 23 March 2019

Angel: Season 1

Having helped Buffy Summers, the Slayer, defeat the evil Mayor and save Sunnydale from destruction, the infamous vampire-with-a-soul Angel has relocated to Los Angeles to open a new front in the war against evil. He rapidly joins forces with former Sunnydale associate Cordelia Chase and newcomer Doyle (a half-demon with visions of people in trouble) to continue the good fight, guided by the mysterious "Powers That Be" and opposed by a supernatural law firm, Wolfram & Hart.

Way back in the day, when it was first announced that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was spinning off Angel into his own series I could only groan. Angel, particularly in his "good" mode, was not the most compelling character on Buffy and if often felt like him hanging around was inhibiting Buffy's character development. As it turned out, I was wrong and the Angel/Buffy relationship was also damaging Angel's own character. Freed from that relationship, Angel quickly becomes a more interesting character in his own show.

It helps, of course, that Buffy has already done the heavy lifting of introducing Angel and establishing his detailed backstory and motivations, so the show is able to jump much more into doing its own thing: establishing Angel as a private detective (!) working in LA, helping the helpless. This slightly goofy premise would be more wince-inducing if the show itself took it seriously. Instead, Angel's semi-Batman antics are roundly mocked (including his early-season use of a Bruce Wayne-style utility belt packed with unlikely gadgets) and drama is mined from both the standard supernatural shenanigans and more mundane concerns, like Angel and his associates needing money to keep going.

The first half of the season has its moments, but also has a lot of monster-of-the-week episodes where Doyle gets a vision, Cordelia does research and Angel kicks backside. This dynamic is fine, but a tad repetitive. We're not in Buffy Season 1 territory of low production values and some dire scripts here, but the show is a far cry from its later, much more compelling self. Things improve markedly in the second half of the season, as Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (from Buffy's third season) joins as a new regular character and J. August Richards' Gunn joins a recurring ally. The dynamics at Wolfram & Hart also become more interesting. Whilst Buffy had a "Big Bad" which changed every season, Angel more realistically has a "Big Bad" that constantly unfolds and develops across its entire five-season run, complete with its own internal machinations and betrayals which makes for some compelling drama.

Still, Angel still feels like it's running with its training wheels on until the two-part story where Faith arrives in LA (after events in Buffy Season 4) to cause even more mayhem. This results in one of the finest fight scenes that either Buffy or Angel ever did, followed by a remarkably powerful story of redemption that will unfold across the next three seasons. Combined with Wesley levelling up as a badass (after being tortured by Faith for hours knocks some of the Giles-ness out of him) and Wolfram & Hart becoming a much more threatening enemy in the genuinely surprising season finale, Angel's first season goes out on a high, paving the way for the superior second year.

Angel's first season (***½) takes a little whilst to get going, but once it does it kicks into high gear and never looks back, becoming a worthy companion to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in some respects (such as general episode consistency) its superior. It is available now as part of the complete series boxed set (UK, USA).

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