Angel Season #1, Episode #1: City Of...
"The powers that be what?"
Angel's first season is a strange beast. It has elements of a cop procedural, but Angel is a vigilante working outside of the law. Which makes it more of a modern noir--only it's too silly to take the genre seriously. Beginning with season 2, the show radically changes and becomes a serialized plot with very few standalone or stand out episodes. Season 1 is nearly all standalone, with some episodes working far better than others.
The pilot does an adequate job of establishing this bizarro genre and distancing itself from Buffy. The opening scene sets a tone that will follow for most of the season--cheesy, rote genre pieces that are immediately undercut by self-conscious humor. We begin with dark, sexy shots of Los Angeles with a voiceover from Angel, opining on the sordid reasons people flock to the city. He ends, "My reason? It started with a girl."
Cut to Angel, drunk at a bar, incoherently describing this "hottie girl" to a random stranger. Eventually we discover that he's undercover, and that his life in LA revolves around prowling the streets for bad guys and giving them some old testament justice.
The scene ends with what has to be a deliberate callback to Buffy's first scene. If you remember, that show begins with a pretty blonde being menaced by pushy dude, only to reveal that she is a vampire. When Angel follows a vampire out of the bar and into an alley, he's menacing a pretty blonde, and there's no twist. This show will not be about subverting tropes. It's about our tortured protagonist, a dark avenger, and his quest for absolution. In this humble viewer's opinion, that is a theme that offers more fertile ground.
Angel allows itself to revel in the dark, brooding soul of its protagonist and its pessimistic take on Los Angeles, but swaddles that core with lightness and humor. Enter Doyle. Doyle is the sweet, sometimes crass, fast talking Irish half-demon who insinuates himself into Angel's life by breaking into his apartment and telling truths. Doyle was sent by the Powers That Be to help Angel get out of his rut and become a more effective fighter of evil. Apparently, the Powers aren't happy that Angel is just saving people and not having a lovely chat with them, because disconnecting himself from their struggles will make it difficult to resist the temptation to eat them or something. Doyle receives visions of people that Angel needs to help, and he must seek them out and get to know them in order to rescue them.
Unfortunately, Angel isn't good with people. On Buffy, he only ever interacted with one character in scenes that became more isolated from the overall plot over time. Having him interact with an ensemble cast necessitates poking fun at his romantic hero stature and revealing him for what he is: an out-of-touch, fun-hating recluse. When he goes to meet his first charge, Tina, his complete incompetence at even getting her attention is played for laughs. He acts so bizarre that she accuses him of being in cahoots with her crazy ex, Russell. But he uses the totally not creepy pick-up line, "You looked lonely, so I figure we have something in common," which, for plot purposes, gains her trust.
Tina takes Angel to a fancy Hollywood party where an agent tells him, not asks him, "You're an actor." He winds his way through the schmoozers and runs into none other that Cordelia, who moved to LA to become an actress. By her account, she's living life in the fast lane with a condo in Malibu, but in reality, she lives in a decrepit apartment and wears sad grey sweats.
After a close encounter with some cohorts of Russell's, Angel offers to let Tina crash with him. She's taken aback by his insistence that she not do anything to repay him, and that he isn't just trying to get in her pants. However, her tenuous trust of him breaks when she sees the slip of paper that Doyle gave to Angel with Tina's name and workplace. The idea that someone might be genuinely kind to her now seems too good to be true, and she escapes Angel's apartment only to run straight into Russell.
If you hoped that Tina may become a regular character on the show, too bad. Turns out Russell's a vampire, and Tina gets bit.
It seems that it's hard out there for a young, attractive woman in LA. The writers may take a pessimistic view of the city, but they picked the perfect setting for the show. Unlike Buffy, where demons represent the angst and tribulations of adolescence, on Angel they represent the shallowness and depravity of human nature. And what better place to explore "regular" seeming people who indulge their basest impulses for money, status, and power?
When Angel finds Tina's corpse, he remembers why he never wanted to get to know anyone in the first place. He's seen too much suffering to last many lifetimes and acts like a hermit to protect himself. But Doyle and the Powers That Be were right--because he had a personal connection with Tina, he's not about to skulk off and let her murder go unpunished. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the girlfriend ends up in the refrigerator on this show.
Russell gets a visit from a young toolish lawyer from a firm called Wolfram & Hart. In my opinion, Wolfram & Hart is the best invention of the entire Buffyverse, but I'll get into that later. This lawyer, Lindsey McDonald, assures Russell that he has gone above and beyond to cover up Tina's murder. It's clear that this firm is in the business of enabling demons and malcontents to wreak havoc on the city, and Russell quickly moves on from Tina to choose his next victim--Cordelia.
Cordelia, still languishing in sad sweats, is overjoyed at the invitation to visit Russell's mansion in hopes that he can help jumpstart her career. But this Sunnydale girl is not so easily fooled. When they go to his lavish and cavernous den, she says, "I finally get invited to a nice place with no mirrors…and lots of curtains…hey, you're a vampire!"
Luckily, Angel is already on his way to avenge Tina, and he and Russell get into a big fight on the nice marble floors. But Angel doesn't get to finish the job until the next day, when he tracks Russeell down at Wolfram & Hart's headquarters.
We get a flicker of the dynamic protagonist that Angel will become in his final exchange with Russell. Russell tells Angel that he should stop fighting in the streets and should instead insinuate himself into normal life. Russell pays his taxes, doesn't make a mess, and lives below the radar. "In return," he says, "I can do anything I want."
Angel asks Russell, "Can you fly?" And kicks him out of the window to his death. Then he waltzes outta there like a boss.
Cordelia, ever the entrepreneur, sees dollar signs in Angel's newfound mission. She proposes that they open up an agency to help people in trouble, with Doyle providing the visions and her working for a flat fee. And just like that, our team is born.
This is the mission statement of the show, at least in its first season. Actions have consequences, and Angel knows that better than anyone. He's as unwilling to let evildoers get away with their bad deeds as he is unwilling to let himself escape his past acts.