Lessons in Being Human
by Joyce Millman
"Angel," the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spinoff about a handsome 274- year-old vampire atoning for centuries of undead mayhem, is living a real Hollywood nightmare.
The show, which begins its third season tomorrow night, remains on WB while "Buffy" moves to UPN, a result of a protracted contract battle between 20th Century Fox (which produces "Buffy") and WB. "Angel" must prove that it can stand alone without "Buffy" as a lead-in and without the two shows' nifty crossover episodes. As if that weren't distressing enough, WB has moved "Angel" and its dark vampire mojo into a fascinatingly inappropriate new time slot - Mondays at 9, immediately following "7th Heaven," the goody-goody drama about a preacher and his ever-expanding family. As SCTV's Transylvanian TV host, Count Floyd, used to say, "Pretty scaaary, eh, kids?"
But the creators of "Angel," Joss Whedon (who also created "Buffy") and David Greenwalt, have faced daunting tasks before. They did, after all, build a show around the least promising spinoff candidate on "Buffy" - Angel was a laconic, celibate loner - and turned it into one of the most inspired reimaginings of a continuing character since "Frasier."
Played with low-key, self-deprecating charm by David Boreanaz, Angel first appeared on "Buffy" as Romeo to Sarah Michelle Gellar's Juliet. Buffy is the pre-destined vanquisher of all things demonic. But Angel wasn't your average bloodsucker. He was tormented by a Gypsy curse which gave him a soul, making him able to feel remorse and guilt - a real liability if you need to kill people in order to eat. (Angel sustained himself by drinking animal blood, which I guess is the vampire equivalent of being a vegetarian.)
Angel and Buffy fell into swoony star- crossed love. He helped her take on the beasties (Angel morphs fangs, a prehensile forehead and glowing eyes when he's in a fighting mood); she dreamed of a future with the brooding, misunderstood vamp in the black leather coat. Angel was Buffy's bad boy, the kind of rebel the Shangri-Las used to call "good-bad, but not evil."
In the heartbreaking 1998 episode "Innocence," Buffy lost her virginity to Angel on her 17th birthday, after which they learned that the Gypsy curse had a part two: Angel was doomed to lose his soul and turn evil again the moment he felt perfect happiness. Long story short: Angel went all post-sex monstery, Buffy dispatched him to hell in a planet-saving ritual and the leader of the pack was gone, leaving Buffy with a taste of forbidden fruit she has yet to shake. Angel was eventually released from hell after 100 hell-years of torment. (I know this sounds dumb, but if you can't suspend your disbelief, then these are definitely not the shows for you.) He wasn't bad anymore, but by then, he and Buffy realized it was over.
In the fall of 1999, Mr. Whedon and Mr. Greenwalt (who was a writer and producer on "Buffy") unveiled "Angel," in which our hero was relocated to (of course) the City of Angels. He was skulking around, staking vampires with bitter, self-annihilating pleasure, when he received a visit from Doyle (Glenn Quinn), a half-human, half- whatsis emissary from the oracular Powers That Be. Doyle had a proposition: Angel could redeem himself and earn back his mortality by rescuing humans from the clutches of evil demons. With Doyle directing him to clients (he had migraine-inducing visions), Angel hung out his shingle as a supernatural P.I. and attracted the sort of cases you don't take to the police. He has yet to become mortal again, but, hey, at least the sex curse was lifted.
"Angel" and "Buffy" illustrate the storytelling freedom of the fantasy genre; both are remarkably fluid shows, at once character-driven dramas, crackling comedies and deftly imagined creepshows. But where "Buffy" is all gothic romance and girl power, "Angel" is 40's private-eye noir juiced with modern graphic-novel angst. Like Batman, Angel is a dark knight rescuing innocents from the big-city monsters who eat dreams and corrupt souls. (The biggest monster in Angel's Los Angeles is a Satan- worshipping law firm called Wolfram and Hart, a nod, perhaps, to the corporate throat-cutting on Mr. Greenwalt's mordant, short-lived Fox series "Profit.")
Mr. Greenwalt and Mr. Whedon's weirdest creative stroke, though, was in recruiting two irritating "Buffy" regulars to keep their solitary hero company. What in the world did Angel have in common with Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), Buffy's snotty rich-girl former classmate from Sunnydale High, and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), the self-aggrandizing British "watcher" (a slayer's mentor) who had been run out of town for extreme wussiness?
Easy: like so many Angelenos before them, Angel, Cordelia and Wesley had come to L.A. to remake themselves. Cordelia (who would become Angel's Gal Friday) was now a struggling actress, humbled by rejection. Wesley (who would become the brain to Angel's brawn) was trying to salvage his manhood as a "rogue demon hunter" and win the approval of his domineering father. And this theme of people as works in progress, striving to rewrite their destinies, gives "Angel" its unexpected soulfulness.
The first season and a half of "Angel" unfolded in stutters. In a move not exactly welcomed by fans, the beloved Doyle was killed off, but not before transferring his visions to Cordelia with a kiss. The writers kept forcing a relationship between Angel and a brittle Los Angeles police detective (Elisabeth Röhm, since departed) that went nowhere. Compared to the richly envisioned "Buffy," "Angel" seemed formless and uncentered.
Midway through last season, though, when Angel deserted his mates and embarked on a savage vengeance crusade against Wolfram and Hart, the show found its purpose. "Angel" is about the saving graces of moral conscience and community; without them, Angel realized, he's just another monster. So he returned to his family of misfits - Cordelia, Wesley and the new kid, the deadpan ghetto vampire hunter Charles Gunn (J. August Richards) - to fight the good fight.
Bringing the African-American Gunn into the fold was a sound move; his presence acknowledges Los Angeles's racial reality and draws the show's demon hero closer to the demonized populations of any major American city. (A chilling episode, "The Thin Dead Line," portrayed the L.A.P.D. as a force of zombies preying on blacks, street people and vampires.)
"Angel" also received a delicious infusion of gay sensibility last season with the addition of the Host (Andy Hallett), a green, clairvoyant disco-demon who runs a karaoke bar. There's always been a smidgen of gay camp in "Angel," from Cordelia's diva sass to the writers' penchant for having Angel fight shirtless whenever possible. But the flamey Host brings all that out front, calling Angel pet names like Angel Cakes and "big hunk of hero sandwich." Indeed, the neatest joke on "Angel" is the way Mr. Boreanaz, a big hunk of hero sandwich if there ever was one, plays against his beefy looks. Slow on the uptake about modern mores, wearing the bewildered gaze of a man who fell asleep on the subway and woke up past his stop, Angel is eternally unhip.
In a series-defining, three-episode season finale in May, "Angel" sent its characters down a rabbit hole - or rather, a time-space portal - to the Host's unfriendly home dimension of Pylea. Here, they all had to face their inner demons and terrors, which were writ comically, and poignantly, large. Cordelia had just endured a dehumanizing experience filming a TV commercial; on Pylea, she was forced into slavery by the town's demons, who called humans "cows." Angel could walk in sunlight on Pylea ("Did anybody notice how much fire I'm not on?"). But when he accessed his demon side to fight the Pyleans, he turned into an uglier, more brutal beast than he was on Earth, which tapped into his fear of losing his soul again. As for the Host, he had to revisit the family that had shamed him for being "different." In Pylea, music is unknown, but all his life, the Host told Angel, he alone could hear "something beautiful and painful and right." How's that for a metaphor for gayness?
(In Pylea, the gang also met and rescued Fred, a waifish female physicist who had disappeared into the portal five years earlier. Played by Amy Acker, Fred is now a series regular.)
The Pylean adventure was a discombobulating departure for "Angel." (For one thing, it was shot in daylight, in a cheesy "peasant village" out of vintage "Xena.") But it was the sort of shake-up the show needed to bond its disparate characters once and for all. Through their shared trial, Angel and his friends' fears and strengths were laid bare, and they came to regard one another with something very much like love. "We know you," Wesley reassured Angel. "You're a man with a demon inside, not the other way around." Oh, the piquant irony: some of TV's most moving and astute meditations on what it is to be human come from a show about a guy who's undead.
Joyce Millman is a regular contributor to Salon.com.