Test Pilot #31: Angel
Debut date: October 5, 1999
Series legacy: A mostly worthy spin-off of one of television’s most well-regarded series
Welcome to 2012, friends, readers and fellow humans. Test Pilot grew into a popular (relatively speaking, of course) and personal favorite feature in 2011 and I think we have a bunch of really intriguing stuff coming up that will allow Test Pilot to trend upward into the new calendar year as well. For example, to kick things off this year, we’re doing something special: A Test Pilot theme week. Instead of tackling a new pilot within a certain theme every other week, my guests and I will be discussing them over the next four days. This is obviously a different approach and maybe it won’t work, but if it does, look for more theme weeks in the future.
This week, four guest co-writers and I will discuss the work of one Joss Whedon. You folks might not have heard of him, I know. But he’s the voice behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. Although Whedon has not won nearly as many Emmys as the Davids (Chase, Simon, Milch) or someone like Matthew Weiner, he is one of the most respected and admired creative forces in television (and well, now film apparently). His work on the first two series spurred on an entire field of academic study, the third has one of, if not, the most tragic network mismanagement stories and the fourth might be looked at completely different in five or 10 years.
Throughout the week, I will be joined by veteran viewers of all four series and we will talk about how each of these pilots reflect larger Whedon-y (Whedonian?) traits, why they are heavily beloved and what kind of idiot I could be for not watching them sooner. If you missed yesterday’s discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Greg Boyd, please check that out.
Moving in chronological order, today we’re here to discuss Angel. The Buffy spin-off stumbled a bit out of the gate (as I think you’ll see based on our comments below), but eventually grew into a worthy entry into the Buffyverse (I do know a few folks who prefer Angel over Buffy, for what it’s worth.)
Joining me to discuss Angel’s pilot is Chris Castro. Chris is an avid TV and film devourer. Elmore Leonard is his favorite author and he prefers character-driven, serialized television over case-of-the-week procedurals. He grew up in Fresno, California where he studied Journalism until joining the US Army in 2006. He served as a communications engineer in Afghanistan and, after serving 4 years in the army returned home, and is currently residing in Visalia, CA. He plans on furthering his college education in the fall and is currently awaiting the return of Downton Abbey and Mad Men and hope he’ll be able to figure out what Bane is saying in The Dark Knight Rises. You can follow Chris on Twitter. Chris, take it away:
When I rewatched “City of…” (the pilot episode of Angel), what surprised me the most(aside from a cameo from a pre-Lost Josh Holloway as the series’ first vampire in disguise[The Vampire Sawyer! Quick, someone get TNT on the line!]) was how quickly the series opened with action. Granted, it’s not that surprising a new series would begin with some action to get the audience interested. But, in the case of Angel, what’s most surprising about the scene is how convincing and interesting the action is:
Angel confronts a group of vampires about to attack a young woman. He beats them up, slams one on the hood of a car, and dispatches two with a nifty device that extends wooden stakes from his wrists. (He’s like Batman meets Spider-Man!) Then he walks into the alley while hero music plays and the series transitions to the opening credit sequence, which also features classical music, but set to a propulsive beat. It all reminded me that when this pilot first aired, I was truly taken aback by how much the series made me think of Batman: The Animated Series and that Joss Whedon might have actually made a great action series.
Joss Whedon is not big on action. That is to say, he’s not comfortable writing action scenes. He’s brought it up himself time and time again in interviews, DVD commentaries, and convention panels that his writing of action scenes usually amounts to “they fight.”
A casual observer may find this surprising, especially after looking at a summary of his work: Firefly is about space smugglers dodging both the law and the criminals hunting them down; Angel is about a crime-fighting vampire; Dollhouse is about people who can be reprogrammed to anything from assassins to hostage negotiators, but sometimes malfunction and become serial killers; Whedon wrote a 25-issue run of the Astonishing X-Men comic book and he directed and co-wrote the screenplay of what will certainly be one of the biggest blockbuster action movies of this year, The Avengers; and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has freaking “vampire slayer” right in its title! So, I’m sure one of the main selling points behind the creation of a Buffy spinoff was ACTION!
But Whedon is more at home with his character’s speech driving the action. His dialogue is more memorable than arguably any scene of action from his many works. The number of quotes his fans have committed to memory outpaces the number of action scenes Whedon has written by a huge margin. Whedon is a fan of words. Those are his character’s weapons and they duel constantly and entertainingly.
Whedon’s preference of dialogue over action is part of what make him such a successful creator of television. Action scenes are generally expensive to produce. Aside from the time it takes to get a normal scene of acting filmed, add to that whatever special effects(makeup or practical), action-choreography, stunt work, and additional camera work involved in making action scene. Then you have to edit all of that together in a way that doesn’t look hokey, unrealistic, or laughably cheap. Every action scene requires a multitude of departments working together to make one scene work. Non-action scenes generally require a few actors reading some lines and a stationary camera. Whedon’s scripts perfectly suited for the low budget world of network television(or, in the case of The WB, which aired both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, an even lower budget world. More of a moon, actually. The Pluto network. [Actually, maybe that should be UPN, which also aired Buffy. They had Homeboys In Space, after all.])
So, in the fall of 1999, while The WB was salivating over the idea of vampire fighting crime in Los Angeles, I was more than a little skeptical. And not just because I was more of a fan of Whedon’s dialogue than I was of his action.
When “Angel” was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he was not my favorite character. On paper, he sounds very interesting: a vampire with a soul, cursed to remember all the horrible things he’s done and continue to live out his days either wallowing in his guilt or using his considerable strength and abilities to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, there were only a few flashes of daring-do during Angel’s tenure on Buffy. Sure, he was good in a fight, with all the extra strength and preternatural senses that come with being a vampire, but this was Buffy’s story and Angel was only her paramour.
Most of the time, Angel was mopey and prone to shoe-gazing. When he wasn’t brooding over all his guilt of being a mass-murdering psychopath, he was torturing himself, and Buffy over his attraction to comely slayer. I don’t know if I can really blame David Boreanaz for the way Angel was portrayed on Buffy because once Angel lost his soul and reverted to his evil “Angelus” self(an arc from Buffy’s second season), he was suddenly charismatic and a joy to watch. Unfortunately, the normal, soul-having Angel was no rock-and-roll fun.
So, when it was announced that Angel would be getting his own series, it made sense, but it didn’t sound entirely enticing. But, at the time I thought Angel might be an entirely different character(in a good way) once he was no longer tied to Buffy.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
The very first scene in “City Of” has Angel spilling his guts about this blonde girl he broke up with. It’s played for humor and features Angel pretending to be drunk. And even though that Batman-esque action scene almost immediately follows, this scene is the one that most highlighted the problem Whedon and his cohorts had to deal with over most of the first season of Angel: who was Angel and how could they make a series that held the audience of Buffy while distinguishing itself, and its main character, as being worthy of having its own following?
Angel spent most of the first season of his series trying to get over Buffy, much as Whedon and showrunner David Greenwalt tried to figure out how to separate Angel’s universe, and tone, from that Buffy’s. The characteristics the series would focus on in the first season were evident in “City Of” The series wanted to be similar to Buffy, structure-wise, but it wanted to appear more adult. In other words, more damsels in distress who wore low-cut dresses, short skirts, drank alcohol(!), possibly took drugs and were involved in abusive relationships. Also, the series wanted to be a stealth sex crimes series (before Law & Order: SVU had even premiered!). They just supplanted rape with vampirism, but that’s being going on in the vampire genre ever since Bram Stoker introduced Dracula. Angel even had a gimmick that lent the series a crime procedural structure.
Angel wants to save people (mostly from vampires). This is known because the “half-demon” character Doyle tells Angel, and the audience, his complete backstory (with helpful flashbacks!). Angel sits there, blank-faced, humoring his new, excitable Jiminy Cricket (who somehow appeared in the middle of basement apartment below an office that Angel…rents?). Doyle’s been sent to Angel by “the Powers That Be”(i.e. – network suits?) because he gets “visions” of people in peril and Angel’s the only one that can save them. Sometimes.
The “vision” gimmick was a great, if obvious, way to distinguish Angel from Buffy. On Buffy, the characters were always reacting to something that had already happened (a student’s death, reports of animal attacks, etc.). On Angel, the characters were clued in on events that have yet to happen by “the powers that be.” The “PTB,” as Cordelia (another Buffy alum) called them, because notoriously unreliable and vague with the information they gave to Angel’s crew. Angel was to be the PTB’s champion, and to do so, like a soldier, he was not to question his orders.
What was interesting about “City Of” is that as soon as it introduces the concept of a character seeing the near future of a victim and therefore being in a position to save them from danger, it immediately has Angel failing to do so. Which brings us to a major theme of Angel: people trying to do the right thing with the information they’re given.
The visions usually just flashes, snippets of what might happen and that’s all our heroes are given to act on. It usually leads to failure as often as it does victory. Then there’s characters doing what they think is right, even if it is a horrible thing to do. In the pilot, Angel secludes himself from people because he thinks it’s safer for them if he, a creature that craves human blood, stays away from them. But, as Doyle points out, cutting himself off from others, and those he’s trying to save, is not the way to go about things, and certainly isn’t the healthiest path to forgetting that those he saves could as easily become his dinner. This is another running theme of the series: how Angel relates to all the people around him.
Whedon series usually work best when they’re inhabited by a large cast of characters, and Angel is no exception. In fact, a weakness of both the pilot and the first season is the lack of strong, interesting characters for Angel to interact with.
Angel’s a bore, I’ll just say it. Over the course of the series, Boreanaz grew as an actor and Angel grew as a character. But in that early season, there just wasn’t anything to care about with him(other than the fact that he was Buffy’s boyfriend.). So, the more characters Angel interacted with, the more interesting he became. Cordelia became the character Angel interacted with the most and grew to care about, and even love throughout the course of the series. Much like Angel, Cordelia was barely a sketch of a character when she was on Buffy. Yes, she was always there with a great cutting remark, but that was where her character began and ended. So, near the end of Buffy’s 3rd season, they alluded to a Say Anything…-like scenario where her family lost all their money because her dad was brought up on tax evasion charges and cut to Cordelia being a starving artist in LA.
In the “City Of” though, Angel barely interacts with Cordy. He only has a few scenes with Doyle, as well. So, unfortunately, the bulk of the dialogue is between characters we’ll never see again as well as a few scenes between Angel and his damsel-of-the-week.
I understand that this was done to show how awkward Angel is around people. And that, yes, some background is needed on the baddies to know what they’re up to. But, those scenes are badly written and, luckily, a product of the series Whedon and Greenwalt were trying to force Angel to be and not the series it would eventually become.
Angel spent much of the first season in an identity crisis. It wanted to stay true to main characters, but it wanted to become its own different series that was darker and more adult. The more risks the series took in the form of character-building and motivation, the stronger it became. Whedon always does his best work bringing pathos out of characters you wouldn’t expect it from. Doyle, who was the source of most the humorous lines in the first few episodes of the series, eventually had some stirring and emotional moments before his character was killed off(a gutsy move, that, to kill off a main character so early into the series, but that laid a precedent that became a hallmark of Whedon’s work: no character is safe, no matter how funny or beloved they are). His replacement, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, also began as a comic relief character, just as he was on Buffy. But circumstances and some hard decisions changed the character and Wesley’s transformation from a pretentious, awkward clown into a darker, fully-formed and emotionally complex antihero remains one of finest achievements in the Whedonverse.
When Angel concentrated on tried-and-true Whedon characterizations, it succeeded. When it introduced characters that seemed alien, cold and humorless, it failed. In the pilot, the character of Lindsay is the only prevalent representative of the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, the conglomerate that catered to many influential evil forces that eventually became Angel’s main source of misery throughout the series’ run. Lindsay eventually became an interesting character, but that wasn’t until the 2nd season. In “City Of” he comes off as cold and distant. In other words, just like a lawyer. Luckily, another more sarcastic and playful lawyer character was introduced in the first season and her name was Lilah Morgan.
Lilah relished being a cutthroat, conniving lawyer with more than questionable morals. She’s basically a progression of Cordelia’s character if Cordy never changed, went to law school and succeeded. But Lilah was a strong character and probably the most realistic character within the Whedon universe up to that point. It was good to see a strong female character again on a Whedon series, but Lilah actually didn’t turn up until the 16th episode of the first season. Unfortunately, that meant the only recurring original female character the audience was given up that point was Kate the cop.
While Lilah may have been the most successful original female character introduced into the world of Angel, Kate was not. Introduced the second episode of Angel, Kate was a police officer who became Angel’s “friend on the force.” Kate was an obvious addition meant to strengthen the detective series vibe of the first season. She eventually disappeared and no one really cared. Kate was arguably the most hated character in the Whedonverse and no small part of it had to do with Elisabeth Rohm’s performance. Playing the character completely straight as a no-nonsense, by the book, disbelieving cop, she was even duller than Angel. She truly did not fit into world as the series changed from a supernatural detective story into a more serialized, comic-book-like affair. I doubt Rohm should be allowed to take all the heat for her character’s terribleness, however; Kate probably would’ve been just as horrible a character no matter who played the role. Kate belonged on a completely different series. Appropriately enough, Rohm’s talents and acting style served her perfectly when she was added to the main cast of Law & Order.
The first season of Angel, the main cast consisted of three actors. (Once the character of Doyle was killed off, Wesley took his place in the opening credits.) Much like Buffy, as the cast grew on Angel so did the quality of writing. If anything, I’d say Angel was more successful in staying true to its character than Buffy was in its last two seasons. I think that has to do with Angel being less campy than Buffy, as well as the fact that the series became more serialized than Buffy ever did. With so much time given to a single storyline over the course of a season, Angel was able to develop its characters consistently and treated them seriously. That may have been the smartest “adult” aspect to remain in the series.
Eventually the creators realized the more they fought the specter of Buffy, the more fans they would lose. So, instead of ignoring where it came from, they ditched the procedural, detective trappings of the first few episodes and it embraced the Buffy’s mythology and characters, but started attacking that material from a darker place. Hence, the bringing in of Wesley and the regular appearances of other Buffy characters like Spike and Faith.
When these characters appeared on Angel in the first season, not only were they the strongest episodes of the series so far, they were the darker halves of crossover episodes with Buffy. The change in tone was a little jarring but definitely pointed to Angel’s strengths if it wanted to continue down a dark path.
Throughout the course of the series, Angel explored what it meant to be human, what it meant to be good, and that no matter how hard people tried, some things were completely out of their control. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t stop fighting to change them or change themselves for the better. While those themes were present in the pilot, the way the series tackled those themes changed drastically as more characters came into the picture and the writing became more confident. I don’t like this pilot. It’s a poor representation of just how good this series would become (“In The Dark,” the 3rd episode in the series, plays much better in my opinion). Even though the series begins with action right off the bat, it was hard to care about the action until Angel strengthened its characters and writing. Once it did that, it became one the most exciting and daring series in the Whedon arsenal.
And now, my newbie thoughts on Angel’s pilot episode:
Let me tell you something: Spin-offs are tough. Groundbreaking, I know. But seriously, trying to take a beloved character from one project and shift them to a brand-new one has to be extremely difficult for writers and producers. If you can remember back a few years ago, NBC tried its damnedest to get an Office spin-off out of Michael Schur and Greg Daniels before the two great writers just gave up and created Parks and Recreation (and thank goodness for that). Private Practice still exists (I guess?) and people seem to like it (I guess?), but I remember the extended Grey’s Anatomy episode that set Addison’s departure being pretty awful.* And I don’t even think that many people cared about that character to begin with (she was, after all, Meredith’s romantic enemy).
*Backdoor pilot spin-offs sort of don’t count. Sure, NCIS LA is a mega-hit, but it’s not like those characters were really part of the first series’ world, or more importantly, in the fans’ hearts, beforehand. Although most backdoor pilots also suck as well.
The point is that spin-offs are always going to have an uphill battle. Audiences are predispositioned to compare the new series to the old one (which usually means bad things for the newer offering), hope for some of their favorite characters from the other series to pop up in a new context and generally speaking, the expectations can be too high, too quickly. Unfortunately, these high expectations usually coincide with the awkward opening stages of a spin-off, where writers scramble to find a new angle or purpose for the character for which they have built a second series.
I have to imagine that Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt recognized all these challenges when they decided to move David Boreanaz’s Angel to Los Angeles so he could have pulpy detective adventures. And while I’m very certain that Whedon, Greenwalt and the rest of the Angel team eventually figured out what that angle or purpose was, “City Of” does suffer from major spin-off-itis. Even for someone who hasn’t seen most of the character’s appearances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I quickly grew tired of Angel’s insistence in constantly telling me about its lead character’s life story and all his pain.
Chris touched on it just a bit, but I can only imagine how off-putting that had to be for the big fans who tuned into the pilot’s initial airing. Clearly, all spin-offs want (or at least the studios and networks want) to explain enough history up-front so any new viewers not familiar with the previous series’ context know what’s going on. But “City Of” features too many scenes with Doyle basically explaining Angel’s entire life TO ANGEL. “Hey, I’mma let you finish with that brooding stuff but let me tell you about your own life, you know the one you and you alone have experienced since your birth.” Like I said, I understand the purpose of scenes like these, but I wish that Whedon and Greenwalt’s script would have figured out a better way to manage them.
Additionally, spin-offs often want to take a slightly different tonal approach to the transported character(s) and Angel is certainly no exception in that regard. Whereas Buffy’s pilot expertly mixed some teen angst, fun, humorous dialogue and darker horror elements, Angel’s first effort is an extremely drab, seedy affair. My cursory research tells me that the tonal differences between the two series were a primary directive of Whedon and Greenwalt. Again, this is a smart approach to take, particularly with a character who is so obviously brooding, morose and miserable and a location that lends itself to some dysfunctional stories.
However, in the pilot stage at least, the glumness has a weird impact on story. Buffy’s pilot is a bit of a mess, but it is so because Whedon was trying to mix and mash different genres, styles and tones. Maybe it didn’t quite work in “Welcome to Hellmouth” or “The Harvest,” but he quickly figured it out. With Angel though, the tone and styles are on the surface and relatively straightforward. This is a grim detective story (about redemption, of course) with some noir and pulp ingredients mixed in for good measure. This fits the lead character perfectly and results in a more coherent and fully-formed tone and style, but it also makes Angel less compelling. And I know this is supposed to be a dark series, but the humor isn’t as prevalent as it should be, which only adds more stuffiness to a story that doesn’t need it.
Simply put, this pilot feels less experimental and more typical. Chris made the apt Law & Order: SVU comparison above and that’s probably not what Whedon and Greenwalt were going for. The bleak tone and style create their own problems, but there are more issues here that help make Angel bland standard fare in pilot form.
What makes the Buffy and Firefly pilots so entertaining is their ability to pull together a group of compelling characters quite quickly. Not everyone in those two pilots is fully-formed, but in the pilot stage, they’re very well-constructed and thought-out. “City Of” struggles in this regard. Because the pilot is so tied to explaining to possible new viewers who Angel is and why he is now in Los Angeles, very little time is spent on making the other characters interesting at all. Doyle is an exposition machine, Tina’s the standard procedural victim-of-the-week, same for Russell as the villain and Cordeila works almost entirely because of Charisma Carpenter’s charm. Buffy successfully introduces more than a half-dozen absorbing people, Firefly more than 10. Angel has less cast members to deal with and still spends too much time on the guy the audience already knows.
Thematically-speaking, this pilot is somehow both richer and less successful than Buffy’s initial episode. “City Of” focuses more on the obvious themes the series wants to explore (most notably, of course, redemption) and yet, the aforementioned tendency to over-explain rears its head once again. The Buffy pilot only briefly engages in any “high school is hell” or overly feminist/progressive themes, but also strays away from beating the audience over the head with them as well. Although I am not entirely familiar with what was happening in Buffy at the time that Angel debuted, it feels like “City Of” tries too hard to match the thematic depth that its sister series has in its fourth season. Redemption is certainly an engaging concept, but it’s also not inherently novel; and when packaged in the obvious manner we see here, the impact is nullified further.
Additionally, I was really surprised at how “City Of” treats women. I might not be a Whedon mega-fan, but I’ve read my fair share of articles discussing his progressive handling of Buffy (and others) as strong feminine figures. And yet, here we have the Angel pilot focusing almost entirely on a very masculine vampire man saving (or at least attempting to save) pretty, fairly unaware women from other male characters. There is something to be said about the construction of masculinity in regard to Angel’s relationship with women and his failure to save Tina here, but she’s still dead. And Cordelia almost ends up dead. And I know that one could argue that the helpless female victim is a standard part of the noir and pulp detective stories, but aren’t we supposed to expect Whedon to subvert generic stereotypes and clichés, particularly when they are regressive?
I’m not saying that everything Whedon does has to feature supremely progressive treatment of women and innovative perspectives on gender relations as a whole. Nevertheless, I still found the lack of strong female characters – or even ones with real agency – disappointing and a smidgen shocking, based on reputation alone.
When taken all together, the straightforward style, the bland characters, the incessant exposition and the odd treatment of women make for a usual pilot. Angel isn’t as schizophrenic as Buffy is in the pilot stage, but it also isn’t as energetic – and that’s not just because of the purposeful differences in tone. “City Of” feels like the pilot episode to a dozen other detective series, or various contemporary “cop dramas with a twist.”* It lacks Whedon’s typical flare, in both dialogue and plotting.** Angel is the most easily accessible and consumable of Whedon’s four pilots, but it’s also the worst. Yesterday, I mentioned that Whedon works great within the studio/network system and perhaps he took that too far here. “City Of” needs more risks, needs some more novel tidbits, it just needs something.
*It also feels network noted to death, but maybe that’s just my impression.
**Although, I will say that his directorial style is more refined here. The style might be drab, but Whedon does a nice job of making drab look pretty good.
Conclusions on legacy: Angel ended up being quite great, but it sure started out in a rough spot