Saturday, August 17, 2013

Angel - City Of...

 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.

Buffy - The Freshman

Buffy Season #4, Episode #1: The Freshman

"The fact that you're fat makes you look fat. The sweater just makes you look purple."

Greetings! This week I finally got a new computer and bid farewell to my 2007 11-inch MacBook, which is still technically functional but can't run more than one program at a time, run any word processing software, or send e-mails.

In honor of my entry into this decade (and ability to actually review episodes on my computer,) I'm looking to redesign my blog. Unfortunately, I don't have any idea how to do that. If you or someone you know may be interested in helping me out, shoot me a message at

Onto The Freshman, which signals the dawn of a new era. Some of the changes from the first three seasons are inevitable. Giles is no longer Watcher or Sunnydale High librarian, and the kids have moved onto college. And I have yet to see a single TV show that successfully makes the high school to college transition without sacrificing some quality.

But some of the changes occurred behind the scenes. Angel and Cordelia are both gone, and the latter never appears on the show again. And while the show finally displays in widescreen starting with Season 4, there's also a marked change in the sound design. To my ears, everything sounds flatter and there's little to no ambience. Large portions of episodes go without any music or outside noise. Buffy and Willow walk through the halls of UC Sunnydale, past many groups of animated students bustling about, but all you hear is their conversation on a sound stage. It's jarring.

Joss Whedon, never one to cower in face of a challenge, turns the foreignness of the new Buffy into the actual plot of the season premiere. And even though we love Joss for his intrepid spirit, he's largely unsuccessful in this episode.

Buffy had a hard time fitting in at Sunnydale High because she was too wrapped up in her Slayer duties to socialize. But college is a whole 'nother story. Nerdy introverts like Willow and Oz finally hit their stride, while the jocks and cheerleaders like Buffy are lost.

This shift in dynamic is evident as soon as they get to campus (filmed at UCLA) in time for orientation. Gone is the Willow with the two long braids and the fuzzy pink sweaters. She is enthusiastic about a flyer for a frat party with free jello shots for women, and offers to trade Buffy a "Take Back the Night" flyer to get one. Oof, Joss.

Buffy and Willow go to investigate the UC Sunnydale library, which dwarfs the piddling Sunnydale High library. There's no way that it could serve as Scooby headquarters what with its gargantuan size and the fact that other students seem to actually use it. So the epiphanous shots as Buffy and Willow enter it seem a bit irrelevant--we will never see it again--except to further distance this setting from the previous three seasons. You'll notice that Willow is mighty enthusiastic, and Buffy is freaked out.

Even when Willow tries to find good classes for stupid people to accommodate Buffy--in this case, a class in which you watch TV for credit--Buffy still manages to fail. She heads to the class and sees that the professor is a total douchebag. You can just tell because look at him.
He overhears Buffy asking another student if the class is full yet, and has an unholy meltdown. I mean professors can have egos but screaming, "You are sucking energy from everyone in this room!!! Get out!!!!" at a freshman on the first day seems a bit disproportionate.

The episode takes an unexpected turn for the better when Buffy accidentally knocks a stack of textbooks on top of a flunky, floppy-haired gentleman's head. This is only a positive in retrospect, as it's RILEY, who we do not yet know is the worst but will very quickly learn is really, truly, THE WORST.
Class number two is psych with Professor Walsh and hunky Riley, who turns out to be her TA. Walsh is one tough broad, and warns that her class is a lot of work. Will she be the no-nonsense Giles surrogate of the college years? And hey, where is Giles??

So far, most of the episode has involved Buffy meandering around campus looking flustered. This meandering continues on into the night, but she finds a fellow wanderer in hapless Eddie. He can't find his dorm, wears khakis, and keeps a copy of "Of Human Bondage" next to his bed as a security blanket. A potential friend? A love interest? Or a serial killer?
None of the above. No sooner does Buffy step away than Eddie gets jumped by a group of vampires, including this blonde HBIC.
These vampires appear to be former UC Sunnydale students who didn't make it to graduation. There's the long-haired stoner, the insecure female sidekick, and Sunday, the leader of the pack. Sunday is by far the best part of this episode and has all the right parts to be a Big Bad. She's menacing, she's witty, and when Buffy comes after her to seek vengeance for Eddie, she proves to be a worthy foe.

The vampires' MO is to kill hapless freshmen, steal all of their belongings, and leave a fake goodbye note from the student saying that college was too much and they couldn't handle it. They then use the items to deck out their frat house; there's a great joke about keeping a running tally of how many freshmen have Monet posters vs. Klimt posters.

After being beaten handily by Sunday, Buffy looks for guidance from Giles, who FYI did not appear for the first 23 minutes of this episode!!! Instead she finds an unrealistically hot woman in Giles's button-up shirt, and Giles himself in a Hugh Hefner robe.
Buffy accurately theorizes that a gang of vampires is ganging up on college freshman, and tells Giles that they need charts and strategies and stuff. Giles pretty much tells her that she's whack and is like, "What are you here for, can't you see I am busy fraternizing with an unrealistically hot woman?"

One wonders what it will take to pull Buffy out of this stupor. Visits to Giles and Joyce (who filled her bedroom with shipments from work) only make her feel like more of a loser for not immediately acclimating to college. When she goes back to her dorm room and finds that Sunday took all of her belongings and left a goodbye note from Buffy, she just mopes to The Bronze.

The Bronze! How we missed you! how we missed your music and oversized couches. And how we missed…Xander??
Xander injects some much-needed energy--or maybe just familiarity--to the episode. He regales Buffy with tales of his failed Kerouac road trip, which ended with engine failure at a strip club in Oxnard, and resulted in crashing in his parent's basement. Xander, bless him, reminds Buffy that she is infinitely better than Willow (although not in as many words) and that she shouldn't let a little ennui get her down. "You're Buffy!" he tells her. "You're my hero!"

Buffy gears up for another confrontation with Sunday and appears to be losing badly until her Class Protector umbrella is put in peril. This relic from happier high school days reminds her that she is Buffy and she is Xander's hero, and with a twirl of a stake and a classic zinger, she dusts Sunday.
The show takes a big gamble by eliminating everything familiar about the show and sending Buffy out to sea. Unfortunately, watching all of Buffy's friends act like a bunch of jags while she basically gets dumped on the entire episode is both unsettling and unrealistic. Painting with broad strokes to illustrate the alienation of youth is kind of this show's thing, but the characters have been through too much now to undergo a total reset. I do not buy for a second that Giles would just turn Buffy away, and sure enough, he comes running back at the end for forgiveness. I don't buy that Buffy, who ran off to live by herself for an entire summer and did just fine, would be thwarted by having to locate her classes at UC Sunnydale.

But even though Buffy will find her place in college after this episode, the Scoobies remain fractured. They lack a central location in Season 4 such as Sunnydale High in 1-3 or the magic shop in 5-6. Willow continues to thrive and outgrows her old friends. Xander is basically a hopeless schlub for most of this season, living at home and struggling to find a job. And Giles has nothing to do at all. It's a transition, and not a particularly pleasant one to watch.