What Angel's first season did right

Feature Juliette Harrisson 12 Mar 2014 - 07:09

It's rarely the most popular of the five, but Juliette argues we shouldn't dismiss the many achievements of Angel's first season...

There’s not a lot of love for Angel’s first season around the internet. As happens so often, its second and third seasons are most often praised, and there’s some love for its resurgence before cancellation in the fifth season. Season one, however, is generally considered to be a weak beginning, during which the show struggled to find its feet.

There is some truth to this criticism. Like many spin-off shows, Angel struggled in its early episodes to find its own voice separate from the parent show; second episode Lonely Hearts tries a little too hard to be adult, as distinct from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s teen setting (with a story remarkably similar to Torchwood’s second episode years later) while I Will Remember You feels a lot like an episode of Buffy, partly due to so much of it revolving around Sarah Michelle Gellar and Buffy and Angel’s romance. At only episode ten, the series had to re-pilot itself (thank you for that word, Dan Harmon) following Glenn Quinn’s departure – whether this was Whedon’s plan all along or not, it meant shifting all of the small cast around, adding a new character who had only been fairly lightly sketched in Buffy and re-organising everyone’s roles within the show. There were also a few episodes that were just plain bad – this happens in every season of television, but it’s particularly problematic when several of them are in the first season.

However, for all its problems, we’d advise against dismissing season one too easily. Season one is tonally and structurally very different to the rest of Angel, using a monster-of-the-week format and, despite its much advertised ‘darkness’, being rather lighter in tone than much of the rest of the series. It is closest to season five, at the beginning of which the show ‘re-piloted’ itself again, but season five combines more of the later series’ tendency towards story arcs with its stand-alone episodes as well as featuring the on-going internal conflict surrounding our heroes’ joining with evil law firm Wolfram and Hart.

For better or for worse season one, with its tiny regular cast, frequent references to financial problems, basement-and-sewers setting and assortment of bizarre monsters, presents itself as a different show from the rest of the series. Most feel the changes were an improvement and in many cases that’s true – and we’re certainly not knocking the cast members who were added in later seasons – but when you change something so completely, something is lost, and we were sad to see some aspects of season one go. And so, here’s our list of some of the things we thought season one did right.

It’s a procedural

Monster-of-the-week based procedurals are a divisive topic, one that we’ve talked about a couple of times this year (in this piece defending monsters of the week and this on supernatural procedurals). Whether you like weekly procedural shows or not is entirely a matter of taste, and if you can’t stand procedurals, you will much prefer the later seasons of Angel (especially two-four) to the first. However, there are fans out there who enjoy procedurals, and even the monster-of-the-week format. If you are a fan of procedurals, then the first season of Angel is definitely the season for you.

While season five returned broadly to the format, our heroes’ attempts to solve the mystery of the week in that season were complicated by the fact they had literally made a deal with the devil and were frequently trying to walk the line between pleasing their evil clients and actually doing some good. Many will find that much more interesting and that’s fine; but there’s a certain simplicity to season one’s set-up that others may enjoy. In season one, Angel is a private detective ‘helping the helpless’; he is either hired by someone who needs him or a vision indicates that someone is in trouble. For fans who enjoy crime procedurals in general, the simplicity of this set-up, allowing for a fair amount of flexibility within the show’s main parameters, is a positive trait, one largely lost after the end of season one.

It emphasises the ‘urban’ part of urban fantasy

Season one of Angel takes place in a recognisable version of reality. Angel’s apartment is a basement with weapons on the wall because he’s a vampire, but otherwise it’s a relatively normal apartment, and both Cordelia and Doyle live in recognisably messy, small apartments as well (until Cordelia moves). Cordelia and Wesley both struggle with money and there are frequent references to the gang’s need for paying clients.

The Hyperion hotel set that formed our heroes’ base of operations in seasons two-four was a beautiful set and their reasons for moving in fairly logical, but living in an abandoned hotel remains a rather less common set-up for those of us in the real world than living in a small, messy apartment. Later seasons also featured more stories about vampire cults, god-like demons, people who grew up in other dimensions and, of course, an whole arc set in Pylea, the Land of the Green Klingons. Season one had its fair share of out-there fantasy (She, The Ring) but generally speaking it was much more inclined to deal with real issues, or metaphors for real issues, including abusive boyfriends, stalkers, ex-spouses and, since it’s a vampire procedural, vampire serial killers.

This is another aspect of the show that season five re-visited, but in season five, thanks to Wolfram and Hart, our heroes have a lot more money. They similarly work and live in something more closely resembling reality, but have moved up in the world, living in rather nicer apartments (Angel’s appears to be in the office building for some reason) and dealing with the problems of the wealthy and successful. Again, it depends what interests you the most; but when season one ended and the frequent references to the problems of trying to make ends meet and survive in the underbelly of a big city – the show’s original defining metaphor – were set aside, something was lost.

Our heroes helped the helpless

That original concept for the show was that Angel would help those who couldn’t be helped by more earthly authorities. Frequently working with police officer Kate Lockley, his stated aim was to help those who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Indeed, in episode three he goes so far as to smash a ring that would allow him to walk in daylight because it’s so important to him to help those lost in the dark (we think this was a bit melodramatic and it wouldn’t have hurt him to be able to go out in the daytime occasionally, but that’s beside the point).

The idea that yet another apocalypse was coming was threaded through the show from the start, so it was inevitable that the helpless would eventually be left behind as our heroes were forced to focus on saving the world several times. The show never completely forgot its original mission statement, coming back to it occasionally over the years. The writers also made a point of including Anne in the series finale; Anne was the original person who’d fallen through the cracks in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anne, the episode that served as a back-door pilot of sorts for Angel, and she embodied that aim of helping those no one else will help as her character in Angel dedicated her life to helping others like her. Overall, though, the focus on helping those no one else can or will help slowly faded over the years as other story arcs took over, leaving season one the only season to really focus on it.

The guest stars

Angel was more than happy to bring Buffy characters and actors into the fold throughout its run, with five out of the ten characters credited as regulars over the course of the show coming from Buffy. However, for various reasons, it was only in season one that the show was able to include Buffy herself, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar.

In some ways, not including her was a blessing for later seasons; as I Will Remember You demonstrates, throwing Buffy into the mix carries with it the danger of eclipsing the regular cast of Angel and turning the series into The Buffy and Angel Show. Angel, as a series, is about growing up; on the assumption that growing up involves moving on from extinguished romantic relationships, less Buffy is generally more. However, the character is so important to the character of Angel’s history and development that leaving her out all together also seems like a glaring omission, something particularly awkward in season five, as Spike and Angel inevitably send a lot of time talking about Buffy without ever actually talking to her.

It’s in season one that we see Buffy used most effectively within Angel’s world, along with another welcome guest character from the Buffy universe, Faith. As a character, Faith fits into Angel’s dark, urban world much better than Buffy and Eliza Dushku and David Boreanaz have an effective platonic chemistry that creates what is in some ways a more interesting relationship (Faith was certainly the highlight of the not-entirely-successful season four). The plot of Five by Five and Sanctuary allows Angel to truly start to move past Buffy by getting angry with her for the first time, and sees the show start to find its own tone, independent of the parent show, while acknowledging the debt it owes to Buffy and to Gellar.

Season one also featured recurring character Kate Lockley, representing the procedural aspects of the show, Jeremy Renner as a vampire before he was famous, Spike’s very last properly villainous appearance (he returns to Sunnydale and is neutered immediately afterwards, remaining evil for a long time but largely impotent) and the introduction of Gunn, who could be said to represent the people Angel is trying to help except that Gunn is largely capable of taking care of himself. If only Lorne had been introduced in season one, the guest cast roster might have been perfect.

Doyle

Exactly why Doyle, initially one third of the entire regular cast and the character who persuades Angel to get off his bottom and do something with his un-life, appears in only nine episodes of the series is a murky question which we don’t intend to go into here. The fact is, that’s what happened, so all there is to do is enjoy his presence while it lasts. In his short time on the show, Glenn Quinn’s Doyle establishes himself as a snarky, relatively upbeat in the circumstances, reluctantly heroic counterpart to Angel’s eternal brooding. Physically and temperamentally opposite to Angel, the two balance each other out perfectly (and this, people, is what an Irish accent sounds like). His pining after Cordelia also remains just the right side of creepy, and considering her attraction to Xander, he was almost certainly in with a shot.

All of which makes his final episode a painful but thankfully well put together experience. The video advert Cordelia has Doyle star in explaining what a true hero is may be slightly cheesy but it’s effective – though for us, the truly heart-breaking line is his final, ‘Is that it? Am I done?’ It was always an effective exit, made all the more poignant by Quinn’s early death while the show was still running, and when Cordelia and Angel re-watch the video (after Quinn had died) in the show’s 100th episode, it’s a tribute to the importance of Quinn and his character to the show in the short time he appeared on it.

Phantom Dennis!

To finish on a rather less tragic note, season one is also the only one to feature regular non-appearances from our favourite ghost, Phantom Dennis. Dennis wasn’t written out until the gang clean out Cordelia’s apartment at the beginning of season four and his last hours of life, weeping as his mother walls him up in their apartment, remained a strong visual in the opening credit sequence for the show’s entire run. But it was in season one that Phantom Dennis made most of his regular invisible appearances, slamming doors in the faces of demon-worshippers, offering Cordelia tissues and tucking her in to comfort her, offering Angel a beer. His unseen presence was much missed in later years.

Angel season one will never be to everyone’s taste and for many fans, the later seasons were a more complex, satisfying experience. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water and dismiss season one completely – there was some good stuff there, which may be worth re-visiting.

Read more of our Angel look-backs, here.

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