Angel Bites Back
When WB lost Buffy, it could have been a stake through the heart of its spin-off. But the show is gaining strength with new lifeblood, including an Angel baby
By Shawna Malcom
"I thought there were gonna be strippers. Or at least scantily clad cocktail waitresses," says a newly blond Charisma Carpenter, surveying the scene where WB's Angel is shooting for the day: Larry Flynt's Hustler Casino outside of Los Angeles. Even so, the view is still eye-popping. While the drama's cast rehearses including star David Boreanaz, who plays the show's bloodsucker with a soul; Carpenter (the prophetic Cordelia); J. August Richards (vigilante Gunn); and Amy Acker (brainiac Fred) a few dozen men in elaborate monster makeup and loud suits mill about the casino floor.
Actual patrons, seemingly oblivious to the proceedings, continue to play the slots, sidle up to blackjack tables and order drinks from the aforementioned hostesses. Security, however, is a different story. "Our [location department] sent out a memo saying, 'There will be armored-car deliveries while we're here, so the security officers will likely be a little wary of any masked demons,'" Richards says. "So we've all been instructed to carry ID with us."
Surreal as scene is, shooting Angel in a gambling hall seems somehow appropriate. After all, when the drama returned for its third season last fall in a new time slot (Mondays, 9PM/ET), the odds were against its success. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show that spawned it and had led into Angel on Tuesday nights had pulled up stakes from WB after rival network UPN outbid the former in a bitter battle. What's more, WB executives had decided to pair Angel with its wholesome hit 7th Heaven, a move those involved with the vampire drama thought, well, sucked. "It's a little like following 'Mary Poppins' with 'Seven,'" says cocreator and executive producer David Greenwalt.
"Everyone was saying 'Are you worried your show's going to get canceled?'" adds Boreanaz, now sitting at a casino table, adsentmindedly playing with some stray poker chips. "Nobody could imagine the people who like 7th Heaven sticking around to watch our dark little show."
But a funny thing happened on the way to a possible demise: Angel rediscovered its wings. Even with the seemingly incompatible lead-in, the series has actually increased its audience by 8 percent over last season, averaging 4.3 million viewers a week. "Angel has a very loyal core audience that followed it to its new time slot," says analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media. "With Buffy on another network, Angel has finally proven it can be its own show."
That's just what Greenwalt was aiming for. "When we ended up [without] Buffy, I think we all felt it was the best things," he says. "I've always wanted Angel to stand on its own."
Helping the show come into its own: Angel and Cordelia's tentative stabs at romance and a darkly compelling story line revolving around the brooding hero's first-time fatherhood. All sorts of unsavory characters have been after Angel's baby boy, Connor from vengeful vamp hunter Holtz (Keith Szarabajka), whose family Angel murdered before he was cursed with a conscience, to the depraved lawyers at Wolfram & Hart (who spiked Angel's supply of animal blood with Connor's, prompting a horrified Angel to realize that his son smelled "like food"). Fearing for the child's safety, even Angel's fellow demon fighter Wesley (Alexis Denisof) tried to skip town with Connor until Holtz made off with the boy instead, vanishing through a portal to another dimension.
In a bloody good twist, Connor returned in the April 29 episode as a teenager (played by new cast member Vincent Kartheiser). "In the dimension where he's been," Greenwalt says, "time moves differently." In reality, "we didn't want to raise a baby for 18 years," admits the executive producer. "It seemed more interesting for Angel to have an adolescent who, like most adolescents, hates his parent and wants to kill him."
In this case, literally. Having been raised by Holtz, Connor is hell-bent on dusting dear old Dad. But Kartheiser, who earned critical acclaim for playing a junkie opposite James Woods in 1998's "Another Day in Paradise," is a bit unnerved by his role's rigorous physical demands. "I didn't know I was gonna have to be Jackie Chan," says the 23-year-old Minneapolis native. "I'm not really a good fighter. I'm only, like, 105 pounds soaking wet with a rock in my pocket."
Nonsense, says Greenwalt, "Vincent may be a skinny little thing, but he has a wonderful confidence on-screen that makes him seem much bigger. You'd never be able to tell he's [inexperienced with] fight scenes. He seems like a natural." Take that, Buffy.