I’ve been binge watching the late 90s-early 2000s TV show Angel since some time in November. I was always a fan, and so seeing it show up on my Hulu after all these years of being Angel-free (but not Joss Whedon free) was really exciting! It was one of my two favorite shows back in high school (along with Smallville). Back then, I started watching Angel – which, if you didn’t know is the amazing spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – somewhere around season 3-ish (there are five in total), and watched a bunch of the early season 1 reruns on late night TNT in college. It used to help me sleep.
So, watching this show in such quick succession over the past few months and as an adult is really, really interesting. I definitely see why I like(d) the show, but I can see the whole thing with fresh eyes. And by watching so much of the show so quickly, I can draw connections between storylines and arcs and characters much more easily than I could when watching the show week by week, with summer breaks between seasons.
This post is just a bunch of observations I’ve had about the show over the past few months. Things I’ve noticed in this latest binge-watching expedition. Currently, I’m writing this while a few episodes in to season 5 (the final season), but I do remember what happens in the rest of the season, so I do sort of have the wide-ranging perspective of the entire show from beginning to end. However, comma, my knowledge of Buffy is spotty. I know, I know… But if you know me, then you know I love a good spinoff.
By the way, for those who don’t know… Angel is a series about the redemption of a vampire – Buffy’s first love – who’s been cursed with a soul. The character, Angel, runs a small paranormal private investigator firm in LA with the help of his human friends Cordelia, Wesley, Charles Gunn, Fred, and (an empath demon diva) Lorne. In the first half of season 1, the loveable half-demon Doyle acts as Angel’s most trusted confidant and sort of guide. He dies and Wesley (the third Buffy character, after Angel and Cordelia, to move over) comes in and stays for the rest of the series. They go on adventures to “help the helpless” (as they actually say sometimes) with supernatural problems while the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart (WRH) puts up obstacles at every step in their path. Eventually, the gang ends up running Wolfram & Hart thus enabling them to use their newfound positions to take out evil at the root. Oh, and Angel is a nearly 300 year old vampire whose curse is that he cannot experience true happiness (i.e. sexual climax) for fear that he’ll lose his soul and revert to his savage ways as Angelus.
So here are some observations:
TECH: It’s really interesting to see the changes in technology over the course of the show. The series ran from 1999 to 2004, and as you would expect, showcases all the huge tech advances of the Y2K era. The move away from landlines and pay phones. The gradual shift to laptops (in season 5) from desktops (in season 1-3). One episode even comments on how quickly an online search engine works to find information as compared to Wesley’s sifting through his old rare books. The quality of computer graphics and videos changes greatly. You can see the development of cell phones and their eventual ubiquity. File organizing changes too. Cordelia organizes things in the early seasons with papers in an actual file cabinet, but as the show goes on, files become more digitally oriented.
FASHION: The fashion developments. Oh, the fashion. Leather pants are in vogue (maybe) in season 1… by season 5, that’s ancient history. Thank God.
NARRATIVE: The move in season 3 away from the serialized “monster of the week” format towards larger arc narratives. The final episode, in my opinion, of this early format is the ballet episode in season 3 (ep. 13). This is where Angel and Cordelia really hit it off and marks a huge shift in their relationship. He comes to terms with his feelings for her, and she kind of does for him too. But before they’re able to do anything about it, Groo (Cordelia’s otherworldly boyfriend – long story) comes back to claim his “princess”! From here until the end of the season, while there are some “monster of the week” episodes, the show moves into arcs. The focus is on Angel’s relationship with the baby (since he has to focus on something other than his attraction to Cordy) and Wesley’s kidnapping of that baby. Several episodes later, after Connor goes away, they try to get back to their old “helping the helpless” ways, but it never really works as the show moves toward the newer arc format. However, they sort of get back to it in season 5 when they’re in charge of WRH.
PERFORMANCE: The acting of David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, an Alexis Denisof over the course of the show, and the writing of their characters (Angel, Cordelia, and Wesley) gets better and better as the show goes on (save for s4 Cordy). Although the show is only 5 seasons (four for Cordelia), it feels much longer. The characters in particular seem to age gracefully over the series. Wesley especially.
CHARACTER: Fred’s character also grows in spectacular ways. But her losing the horrid Texas accent in season 3/4 was kind of odd. I mean, I’m glad Amy Acker dropped it. But why was it there in the first place?
PLOT: SO many plots revolve around sexual assault, especially in monster of the week episodes in early seasons. Demons rape and impregnate Cordelia, like, at least twice. Not to mention Doyle giving her the visions without permission through a kiss. And the show makes a joke about this stuff. Not cool. But to look at things in a different way, you might say that Angel is a vampire/sci-fi version of SVU.
STEREOTYPES: The major female characters are pretty much just objectified all the way up to the beginning of season 4 when Fred and Gunn have to hold down the fort in the absence of Angel (who Connor imprisoned in a box and dropped in the ocean), Wesley (who’s been abandoned by the team for his role in kidnapping Connor), Lorne (who’s gone to Vegas), and Cordy (who’s been transported to the higher plane). Fred truly becomes a badass and more than Cordelia ever was. I’ll say that Lilah (the WRH lawyer), who is a major antagonist on the show, is perhaps the most nuanced female character. But she’s written as self-centered and, of course, in league with the forces of evil.
ICKY: The Connor-Cordelia thing in season 4 was and still is very disturbing. Sure she’s amnesic, but he’s just a hair over 16 and she totally admits to being attracted to him. And when she returns from her hiatus, she does seem to have some sense of how to be human in the world. She has language and understands human sociability. So she knows what she is doing, even if she doesn’t know who she is. The only thing stopping her going all in with Connor is the idea that in her past-Cordelia life, she had some strong affection for Angel. Not the near-statuatory tape stuff. I mean, she leans into it even after learning that she used to change his diapers. When she see his baby photo, she thinks that she and Angel are Connor’s parents! It’s bad weird. Sure, it’s a demon inhabiting Cordelia (again). But come on. This is not how you do Cordelia justice on the show.
ICKY AGAIN: Angel’s curse is that he can’t have sex. That’s what the show boils down to. That’s why he can’t be “happy”, meaning that happiness is all tied up with sexual fulfillment. He walks about sulking and brooding because he’s sexually frustrated. That’s the narrative anyway. It’s all about him resisting his urges to the point where we the viewers actually want him to let off a little steam, or to go all in with Cordelia… knowing full well what that could mean (him losing his soul and releasing the tortuous Angelus out into the world again). Male fantasies abound here, folks.
ANGST: Connor is consistently annoying. When he isn’t crying for attention, he’s smirking in the creepiest way about how he snagged (shagged) an older woman and one-upped everyone else. All the teenage angst is so bad. And overcooked. I’m so glad he was basically written out of the show at the end of season 4. Too bad Cordelia was too.
NEWNESS: Spike (in season 5, which takes place after the finale of Buffy) is the best thing that happened to the show when it needed it the most, post-Cordelia. It makes things sort of lighthearted again, which was sorely missed after the early seasons.
CHARACTER: Charles Gunn has some of the best development. Especially as he continues throughout much of the seasons to have to confront his past relationships and his decision to join with Angel. Talk about being black and choosing to live in a white man’s world. His old friends see him as a sellout. He thinks being with Angel and doing good in the world will absolve him from his past commitments and obligations, and he realizes it doesn’t and it will cost him his life (see 03×18). It’s a constant struggle for him.
LONG SIGH: Masculinity reigns supreme in this show, folks. Male gaze, check. Damsels in distress, i.e. women who need male saviors, check. Women in uselessly skimpy clothes, check (remember Gwen?). Overthinking or unthinking women (Fred vs. Cordy) who answer to and support men’s goals, check. Women who demean each other when they’re standing in the way of men, check. Same sex female attraction, check (I’m referring in particular to that Willow and Fred moment in season 4 that was like Joss Whedon’s wildest fantasy). The one independent woman who happens to be an overly violent antihero guest star, check. Cute nerdy girl who is attracted and sexually available to all the main male characters in the show (Fred is attracted to Angel, first, then dates Gunn, and falls for Wesley, and is Attracted to Spike), check. It’s pretty sickening and annoying.
LONGER SIGH: Oh, and the only significant black woman on the show was the main villain of season 4 (Jasmine), and in actuality a hideous monster deity who charmed people with her beauty.
RETRO: Why are all the cars so old?? This is 90s Los Angeles, not the 50s or the 80s for that matter. We don’t get new cars until like season 5 when they get access to resources at WRH.
CLEVER: When they “bought” the hotel, they should’ve put in one of the human’s names. That way, no unwelcomed vampires would be able to enter as long as one of them is still alive. I learned this little trick from The Originals (the other spinoff I love). Hmmm. Does that mean Angelus can’t enter, or is he welcomed wherever Angel is?
PRINCIPLES: I had my students (in a class on immortality) do a comparative study of vampire traits across different vampire TV shows and films. It’s interesting to see what makes a vampire a vampire in the Buffyverse, and how the show Angel develops the concept. The vampires in Angel/Buffy are a lot different than vampires in The Vampire Diaries universe, Charlaine Harris’s True Blood, the Twilight series, Blade (the first major Marvel comic movie, btw), and the Anne Rice novels/films. Here, they’re demons who can, like Spike, Drusilla, Darla, and Angel, wear human faces. But in many ways, the Buffyverse vampires are the most traditional take on vampires. They’re susceptible to crucifixes and sunlight, can be killed by decapitation or wooden stakes/bullets in the heart, need blood to survive. They don’t sparkle. They don’t often fall in love with humans (unlike in all those other representations) – in fact, they can’t fall in love at all. They are completely emotionless creatures (ref. Darla’s comments about having a baby in season 3).
LINGERING: What ever happened to Detective Kate? I know she lost her job. And she blamed Angel for everything: her father, her job, lying to her, charming her. They had a thing. I shipped them! Smh.
CHARACTER: Lorne is a great character. He never really has any character development, not anything meaningful. He is who he is and the team benefits from his unchanging, jubilant nature.