Joss Whedon’s cultural capital is at an all-time high. Thanks to the extraordinary success of The Avengers (which raked in over $200 million in domestic gross for its opening weekend smashing the record for highest opening weekend), a man whose cultural legacy was increasingly becoming associated with critically acclaimed but swiftly canceled TV series. His last bona-fide commercial success was Buffy the Vampire Slayer which ended in 2003. So, it’s a small miracle that my master plan to review Angel after I had finished Dexter and Doctor Who alongside Mad Men resulted in me beginning to watch a Joss Whedon program right when the man is on the tip of everyone’s tongue for the first time in years. I finished reviewing Buffy ages ago and Angel has been practically begging me to watch it since then. I’ve owned the entire series on DVD for years now. I just never got around to watching it, and my complicated scheduling process for how I interact with pop culture on this blog definitely complicated things even more. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the darker and more mature spin-off to Buffy. Angel is the Torchwood to Buffy’s Doctor Who.

Feeling that Buffy could never truly be happy or safe while he was in Sunnydale, vampire with a soul Angel (David Boreanaz) decides to move to Los Angeles to continue his quest for redemption by doing his small part to fight back against the forces of darkness eating away at the city’s soul. However, he’s completely shut himself away from contact with the rest of humanity as penance for his past crimes (consider that his stint as Angelus was only a year prior to the series though he spent a long time in the Hell dimension so that argument actually makes no sense in my mind anymore). One night, as he returns to his spacious living quarters, he is confronted by a half-human/half-demon Irishman named Doyle (Glenn Quinn). Doyle has been sent by “the Powers that Be” to help guide Angel back on the path towards the light as Doyle is “blessed” with visions of people in need. Angel desperately wants to be rid of the guilt of his past crimes and tentatively agrees to help Doyle, but when his first case leads him to a struggling actress under the cruel thumb of a local businessman/vampire that feeds off young girls, Angel (who runs into Cordelia [Charisma Carpenter], herself a failing actress, at a Hollywood party) knows his quest isn’t going to be simple. He’s unable to save the young girl, but he does stop the vampire when it threatens Cordelia. We learn about a mysterious law firm called Wolfram & Hart a fictional law firm dedicated to protecting the interests of vampires, demons, and other evil entities. Cordelia and Doyle officially join Angel in his quest for redemption as part of Angel Investigations, devoted to “helping the helpless”

That was just the first episode and my attempts to sum up the basic nature of the series. As to the rest of the three episodes on the disc, they were mostly more stand-alone in nature (though as I understand it, Angel eventually becomes more reliant on heavily serialized storytelling ala Lost). In the second episode, Doyle’s vision leads the gang to a nightclub where someone (unknown who) is in trouble. Angel meets a local policewoman, Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Rohm), who is investigating a series of murders of patrons of the club. It turns out a local demon is preying on people’s loneliness and need for intimacy to find a perfect host body. In the third episode, Oz (Seth Green) arrives in Sunnydale with a ring that makes a vampire immune to sunlight or even stakes, but Spike (James Marsters) is hot on his trail because he wants these powers for himself and is willing to do anything to get them. Angel and crew are eventually able to foil Spike’s plans, but Angel decides the ring is too dangerous (after enjoying one last day in the sun) for anyone to have and destroys it. Finally, Doyle has a vision of a woman who is being stalked by a neuroscientist she went on one date with who of course turns out to have supernatural powers. He is able to detach and reattach his body parts to spy on people around him. I swear it’s all much creepier than my description.

The only series I’ve been watching lately that I could tackle on an episode-by-episode basis was Doctor Who so it’s great to have something that I can look at piece by piece. “City Of” was a wonderful pilot that was just leagues better than the Buffy pilot. It introduced the darker aspects of the series through the death of the girl that Angel was trying to rescue, showing that the series will have less happy endings than Buffy did. It also introduced the contrasting theme between Buffy and Angel. Whereas Buffy was all about the metaphors for growing up, the characters in Angel (except for Cordelia) are already grown-ups so it’s about dealing with the trials and tribulations of adulthood and often failed dreams. It also shows Angel‘s reliance on film noir as the primary genre of storytelling as opposed to the horror films that Buffy often subverted. “Lonely Hearts” continued the theme of the troubles of adulthood with a very allegorical tale of the lengths we go to make connections with others and the heartbreaking realities of trying to make an emotionally intimate connection with another in a big city. It also had a sly commentary about sex, but mostly, it served to emphasize the mature themes of the series. “In the Dark” was the best episode of the disc because it had Spike, and James Marsters makes everything better. It was funny, it was shockingly brutal (the torture scenes were difficult to watch), and it paid tribute both to the series that birthed Angel but also how this show was going to be much, much darker. But just honestly, the chance to see James Marster go off on any of his darkly comic rants is always a treat. “I Fall to Pieces” was super creepy. It sounds like a stupid concept for an episode, but the actor playing the villain was very well done, and it was just a great statement on the way that men use fear and intimidation as a way to exert control over women. Have I mentioned how Joss Whedon is one of the greatest feminist storytellers of all time?

Is the show as good as Buffy yet? No, it’s not even close at this point. However, I watched something like (more like exactly like) seven seasons of Buffy. I knew Joss Whedon’s well-rounded cast of characters like the back of my hand by the time the series was over. The Scooby Gang, whether it was the original trio of Buffy, Willow, and Xander (plus Giles) or its ever-increasing and rotating cast of characters, became a group of people that I simply felt like I “knew.” It’s four episodes in and while I already know plenty about Angel and Cordelia (cause of their time on Buffy), Doyle doesn’t seem all that well-developed even if he does have plenty of personality. There hasn’t been as much emphasis on character growth for our heroes as there has been for individual adventures and that’s something I’d like to see the show change. If there’s one thing that Joss Whedon does spectacularly well, it’s character-driven fantasy storytelling and I know he can do this group of characters justice (especially since I already know that the group is only going to get larger). Also, the show hasn’t introduced any kind of big bad yet besides the oblique references to Wolfram & Hart. I just want to know what the end-game for the season or series could be although I guess that’s a weird thing to complain about since I’m only four episodes in to the show.

Even if I don’t feel like the show has quite figured out who it is yet, I’m still really excited to be watching it. I actually watched the first half or so of this first season a couple years ago but then I stopped because the person I was watching it with stopped coming over as often. So, I know that it won’t be very long at all before the show begins to hit its groove again. Joss Whedon is one of my favorite TV showrunners of all time. He might not have the raw artistic talent of David Simon or David Chase, but much like Steven Moffat, he’s pretty much the master of popcorn TV. Having checked out the directing and writing credits for this season though, Joss is only credited with writing/directing the pilot which has me a little concerned about how much direct involvement he had with this season of Angel. My least favorite seasons of Buffy were the ones where Joss was involved the least (except for seven where it was still mostly excellent even in his absence though the times he was around were obviously the best). Still, I’ll keep reviewing the show and we’ll see how things turn out in the end.

Final Score: B+