Seeing What Sticks in Season One
June 24th, 2010
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If Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s first season was demonized adolescence, then Angel’s first season is very much a demonized take on the struggles facing twenty-somethings (or two-hundred-and-twenty-somethings) as they negotiate life on their own. As Angel continues to search for its identity as a series, it largely presents situations which tap into Angel’s primary characterization: loneliness defines who Angel is, especially after having left Buffy behind, and so he logically meets people and associates with people who are, to some degree, like him.
I spent some time on Twitter discussing how much these episodes remind me of a supernatural Burn Notice, and this inherent loneliness is part of it. On that (quite good) show, for those Buffy fans who don’t have a penchant for USA Network series, Michael Westen is a former CIA agent who is “burned,” blacklisted and dropped in his former hometown to fend for himself. He reconnects with two former associates (one male, one female, who play comic relief to his straight man) who are themselves lone wolves, and together they form a strong team dynamic which is nonetheless fed by each character’s loneliness (as they have nothing else to go home to, so why not dole out some vigilante justice?). Michael, like Angel, does have a past: his family is still in Miami, but he cut them out of his life a long time previous, and a lot of the show is Michael helping others and connecting with them in part to redeem himself for some of the things he did in the past.
My point isn’t to suggest that Angel and Burn Notice are the same series, but rather that there is something distinctly human about Angel’s first season to this point. While Buffy’s first season felt like it was having fun with high school cliches, Angel feels like it’s applying the supernatural to the “real world,” free from the liminal space of higher education and able to look a bit deeper at parts of life that Buffy hasn’t been able to touch, free to escape the confines of one space to try various different types of storylines in its search for its own identity.
The result is a show that I would very much want to watch, if not yet a great show worthy of intense discussion.
“I Fall to Pieces” is a creepy, creepy story: the notion of a character who is able to sever his limbs and then use them to become an effective and terrifying stalker is unnerving in a way I’m fairly certain is intentional, and the episode largely doesn’t go anywhere in particular with the idea beyond the obvious. There’s a stalker, he stalks a young woman, and Angel becomes the white knight who saves the day. If anything, the episode is one which explicitly warns the viewer that these kinds of episodes aren’t going to turn into something more: by having Cordelia and Doyle force Angel into charging for his services, it means that there aren’t those lingering feelings of responsibility at the end of each case. This doesn’t mean, of course, that those cases won’t have a collective impact on Angel, or Cordelia, or Doyle, but it does mean that the show will sometimes just put a demonic twist onto a traditional private investigation plot.
And while I think that’s fine so long as the stories are somewhat inspired, there are limits to how effective those episodes can be. For example, “Sense & Sensitivity” is perhaps the weakest episode of the series thus far, primarily because of the fact that it feels as if it has no connection with Angel, Cordelia or Doyle. Not every story needs to be about those characters (as I’ll get to with “Rm w/a Vu” and “Bachelor Party”), but it does need to feel like it involves them in some way. While I don’t think Elisabeth Rohm is a terrible actress by any means, Kate isn’t an interesting-enough character for us to follow her as the primary protagonist in the episode, especially when she is surrounded by non-characters for most of the running time. Combine with the fact that you’ve got three separate antagonists to develop (the mob boss, the sensitivity trainer, and the Wolfram & Hart lawyer), and you have an episode that tries too hard to introduce the audience into the microcosmic world of the police station and doesn’t spend enough time introducing our central characters into the same environment. Yes, David Boreanaz gets to show off his comic chops both as the directionally challenged vacationer and as the sensitivity stick-affected version of Angel, but the episode is problematically imbalanced. While Kate may be a recurring character, I think Tim Minear overestimates our interest in her story, delivering scenes that are decently executed (her speech to her father, for example) but just don’t connect with me as a viewer due to their transience in the big picture.
It’s perhaps most problematic because it follows “Rm w/a Vu,” which tells a very human ghost story centered around the show’s most well-developed character for those who watched the first three seasons of Buffy. The inherent sadness of Cordelia’s situation in Los Angeles picks up her struggles towards the end of Buffy’s third season, and Charisma Carpenter is so good at portraying this character’s desire to put on a happy face and pretend she’s living the life she used to live. “City Of” dealt with some of this, but here we got to see the level to which Cordelia has been broken down by her time in Los Angeles, through a plot device that only a show like this one could use: Jane Espenson’s script does a fantastic job of making a vengeful mother who murdered her son so that he wouldn’t leave her and marry a young temptress and who bullies young female renters of the apartment and forces them to kill themselves seem entirely natural and even poignant. The result is Carpenter getting some fantastic material as she gets to portray Cordelia’s inner struggles rise to the surface as well as the return of her inner bitch as she defends the rent controlled apartment and eventually cracks the mystery. Throw in a character-specific story for Doyle, and you’ve got an episode which uses the series’ detective trappings in order to tell an intensely personal story, which is simply going to result in a better episode of television.
The same goes for “Bachelor Party,” which isn’t a particularly fantastic episode but which is so much about Doyle that it can’t help but be beneficial at this early stage in the game. What’s interesting about all of these episodes is that they are very much demonic takes on logical situations: “Sense & Sensitivity” plays out as a workplace drama gone haywire, “Rm w/a Vu” presents an L.A. apartment search gone bad (which I’d imagine isn’t that uncommon, although largely for less supernatural reasons), and “Bachelor Party” asks how a story about an ex-wife returning with a new husband plays out when the new husband’s a demon with some wonky traditions. At times, I think the show would be better off in departing from Buffy’s sense of humour (especially evident in the matter of fact reveal during a family meal that they intended to eat Doyle’s brains), as there were times when the story lacked any real sense of danger. The show obviously likes to play with that give and take between comedy and drama, as we saw with Richard and his family remaining courteous and Americanized even while adhering to an ancient ritual, but I thought the show oscillated between the two so many times in the episode that it left Doyle’s residual feelings for Harry sort of underdeveloped.
But when the show is clearly still tackling narrative by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, there’s a certain scrappiness to an episode like “Bachelor Party” that works compared to an episode like “Sense & Sensitivity.” At least when the show is trying something, like building Doyle’s character or introducing an entirely new race of demons (the Ano-movics) with their own personalities and traditions, you can see the kinds of ideas they’re interested in playing around with. Harry, as an ethnodemonologist, represents the sort of academic approach to demons that we saw with Giles, but for the purpose of interest and fascination rather than eradication. The notion of peaceful demons, albeit peaceful demons with a century-old history of cannibalistic rituals, is the kind of thing which goes beyond “threat to Sunnydale” or “result of the Hellmouth” to (again) real life. The episode has too much going on tonally to really delve into Doyle’s otherness, but the notion that Harry left him because he was unwilling to embrace his demon half as opposed to being freaked out by it is really intriguing, and places his character into a whole new perspective. Sure, the actual content of the episode was largely irrelevant to that reveal, and was largely played for laughs as a result, but there’s some really intriguing stuff in there that I’m hopeful we’ll see develop further in the future.
Right now, what matters about these episodes is what stays with the show: sure, “Sense & Sensitivity” has some further Wolfram & Hart shenanigans, but for the most part it’s dealing in an area I doubt the show has much interest in. Instead, we look to the investigation of demon society, or the importance of having paying clients (which, humorously, being irrelevant in the following episodes which all have Angel dealing in favours), or the individual characters themselves. The series will ultimately be constructed by what sticks to the wall, and I have enough faith in Greenwalt and Whedon to see what’s working and what’s not – I’m sure you are all reading this and dying to point how how great Doyle’s arc becomes, or how far Cordelia evolves, but part of the fun with a new series is that sense of uncertainty about just how it will develop. It keeps us watching weak shows longer and, in the case of Angel, it keeps us watching good shows more intently so that we can discover the moment when they become great.
We’re not there yet, but I think the show is nonetheless in a good place.
- I’m kind of in love with the idea of Cordy sharing her apartment with a subservient ghost who acts out by moving her root beer can.
- Speaking of Cordy, there’s an unfortunate line of dialogue in “Rm w/a Vu” which was probably really funny for a good decade but has become alarmingly morbid: “How come Patrick Swayze’s never dead when you need him?” However, I very much enjoy the notion that Cordelia’s lack of a filter has resulted in off-colour comments which only grow more off-colour with time.
- Beth Grant, who plays the Poltergeist in “Rm w/a Vu” and who has recently been seen on The Office (as Dwight’s date in “Dinner Party”) and No Country for Old Men, was clearly noticed by Tim Minear here, as she would later play Marianne Marie Beattle on Wonderfalls (which Minear ran) and then later on Pushing Daisies.
- As people pointed out when I watched “Anne,” Carlos Jacott shows up again here, which is a bit distracting – I don’t know if it was less distracting when it was over a year since “Anne” aired as opposed to a month and a half or so, but it definitely stuck out to me both in terms of seeming a bit strange and immediately convincing me that (as Angel and Doyle both felt) there was something up with the guy.
- Enjoyed that there was actually a joke about Elisabeth Rohm’s Kate being a lesbian in “Sense & Sensitivity” – I guffawed (and if you don’t know why this is funny, you haven’t seen this.)
- No big comparisons between the two shows at this point (although the crossover’s coming up, I’m aware), but there’s some interesting parallels between Doyle and Oz to be found in terms of their half-demon/half-werewolf-ness. Doyle is completely capable of controlling his demon side but doesn’t want to use it too often, whereas Oz has no control and struggles in a different way – just something to consider, is all.
- Doyle’s desire to remain in human form is a nice character beat, but it’s also conveniently cheap – just saying.
- There’s some nice moments for Angel in here, but he really isn’t at the center of his own series when there’s not a crossover involved, is he? Right now, the guest stars and the supporting players are playing the larger roles, which isn’t really a problem (as Angel is still very much involved) but it does mean that a lot of the weight for his character is being left to the crossovers, which risks tying his character too intensely to his past as opposed to his future. However, the severing between the two series is going to be an important part of this season’s trajectory, so I’ll watch for that in coming episodes.