As the man behind blockbuster juggernauts like Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon rocketed to Hollywood’s A-List with two of Marvel’s biggest films under his belt. With his recent success on the big screen it can be easy to forget that Whedon’s largest impact on pop culture arguably came from his work in television. He’s worked on multiple television shows over the years, but series like the cult classic series Firefly, which was gone far too soon, and of course the game changing masterpiece Buffy the Vampire Slayer, have had a massive cultural impact. Joss Whedon’s influence on the golden age of television cannot be understated. However, I think Whedon’s work of true genius is the criminally underrated Buffy spinoff, Angel.
It took a little while for Angel to step out of Buffy’s shadow. Though still very good, Angel took a season or two to find it’s legs and become it’s own unique and brilliant show. I would say Season 3 is when Angel really comes into its own. Which brings me to the point I’ll be trying to make in this article, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most groundbreaking works of fiction in any medium and will be remembered alongside I Love Lucy and The Wire as one of the best television shows of all time. I’m here to tell you: Angel is better.
Before I get into what makes this show so excellent and brilliant, I have to give you the show’s basic setup and how the show came to be. Angel (played by David Boreanaz, you know that guy from Bones) was a character first introduced on Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. He was Buffy’s main love interest for the first 3 season’s of the show before getting a series of his own. Angel was a tragic figure right from his introduction and his romance with Buffy was heartbreaking because by it’s very nature it was destined to end in tragedy. Angel was an over 200 year old vampire in love with The Slayer, a girl whose cosmic mission was to kill things just like him. It was poetic in a doomed sort of way.
It’s very important to understand how vampires worked in this universe. Every movie, TV show, piece of folklore has it’s own mythology or “set of rules” on the nature of vampires. In the “Buffyverse” as it’s commonly referred to, people become vampires by being fed on by another vampire, who drinks their blood until they die. But the human also has to ingest the blood of the same vampire during the draining to raise from the dead (so if you just get bit by a vampire you’re not going to turn into one). Once the new vampire raises from the dead, they retain all the memories and certain personality traits of the person they were before. However, they may believe they’re that same person they were before, but their “soul”, their essence, passed on when they died. The thing that rose from the dead is a monster, a soulless demon wearing that person’s face. They have enhanced strength, speed, and senses, but they weren’t so formidable that a well trained human couldn’t kill them. The key word here is SOUL, but I’ll get back to that in a minuet.
When Angel turned into a vampire, he wasn’t just any vampire, he was the Hannibal Lecter of vampires. Killing was an art for him. Sometimes he would toy with his victims for months to drive them insane before killing them. Or kill their whole family and leave them alive to suffer. Most vampires just fed on humans, but Angel or Angelus as he was known back in the day, was one of the most evil and vicious creatures to stalk the Earth. For almost 200 hundred years, anyone who crossed paths with him met a brutal death as he walked the world. Until one day he killed the wrong girl and seriously pissed off some gypsies. That’s really a good rule for anyone: DON’T FUCK WITH GYPSIES! Angel killed the most beloved member of their tribe and her people wanted revenge. So they cursed him by restoring his SOUL (remember when I said souls were important?). Now he felt the weight and the guilt of every brutal, evil act he committed and being more or less immortal he had to live with this guilt for eternity. He still had the thirst of a vampire, but now he had the conscience of a human being.
After wallowing in a gutter of guilt and despair for a hundred years (look I’m not really sure how old Angel is, ok?), he was approached by a demon, but ya’ know the good kind. This demon named Whistler said Angel could keep being a useless piece of shit or he could stand up and help fight the good fight, start trying to making up for all the evil shit he did for all those years. That’s what set him on his path to seek out The Slayer and help her in any way he could, he just didn’t know he’d fall in love with her. The rub is that the curse the gypsies put on Angel fails if he achieves a moment of true profound peace and happiness. At which point he loses his soul again and goes back to eating babies. This and other factors eventually make Angel realize he and Buffy can never really be together, so he moves to LA and becomes a private detective who helps the helpless. That’s the set up for the Angel series.
Buffy was a show that was all about metaphor. The monsters and vampires Buffy fought were metaphors for the experiences and hurdles of growing up. The physical demons were an outward manifestation of what people go through in high school, into college, and finally adulthood. Buffy was always the righteous, deep blue hero fighting a very clear evil. If Buffy was Spider-Man, Angel was Daredevil. Angel existed in a world where there weren’t always easy answers and life isn’t a simple, cut and dry choice between good and evil. It was about the grey that most people live in.
Angel’s supporting cast reflected these ideas very well. The most important people that in Angel’s life are all fundamentally changed as characters from their first appearance to the end of the series. That is of course, if they made it to the end of the series. We all know how Whedon loves to kill off characters and Angel is no exception. Angel’s supporting cast included Cordelia, a vapid aspiring actress who becomes spiritually enlightened with visions that “The Powers That Be…” send her to guide Angel on his hero’s journey.
Two characters who join the show a little bit later are: Gunn a former gang member who grew up fighting vampires that preyed on his poor and predominantly African-American neighborhood because the cops didn’t give a shit about people dying in neighborhoods like his.
Fred a girl Angel and his crew save from a hell dimension who’s also a genius mathematician, Lorne a psychic demon (the good kind) who just wanted to run his lounge that catered to humans and demons alike. Buffyverse fan favorite, sometimes villain/sometimes hero vampire, and Angel’s frenemy Spike also makes reoccurring appreances on the show.
All of these characters change significantly throughout the series as they endure the death, loss, and corruption that comes with trying to change the world for the better in a LA run by demons and really, really shitty humans. Like Angel, they all learn in their own way that you don’t wake up one day to find the battle has been won, good guys don’t always win and bad guys far too often are the ones that come out on top. You can’t stop the machine, it’s war that can never be truly won. But that doesn’t mean you stop fighting. There are always small victories and sometimes the smallest kindness can be a profound source of hope.
All of the characters are interesting in their own way, but no character represents what Angel is all about better than Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (played by Alexis Denisof). Wesley was originally a character that was mostly played for laughs. He was an academic expert in supernatural lore who was useful, but often portrayed as a coward and comic relief. But over time he became one the most badass characters on TV. Through torture, heartbreak, betrayal, and learning to hunt monsters from the most deadly vampire with a soul around, Wesley became one of the show’s coolest and darkest characters. He embodied one of the shows biggest themes, personal and emotional transformation through trials and suffering.
The things he’s been through and the people around him highlight why Angel is such a unique, compelling character. Angel has such a fascinating and unusual motivation for being a hero and it’s at the heart of why I found Angel to be such an excellent series. Angel helps people and fights the good fight because he’s seeking redemption and forgiveness. He knows he’s damned, but he keeps struggling to be better anyway and he doesn’t always succeed. Can acts of good ever really outweigh or make up for evil of the past? Or is that evil always there? A stain on your soul that can never be wiped away or forgotten no matter how much good you do? It’s a timeless philosophical question. Genre’s like fantasy and science fiction allow us to ask these questions in a direct way. Behind the otherworldly and fantastical window dressing of every good science fiction or fantasy story lies a very real tale about what it means to be human.
Running for five seasons on what’s now The CW, Angel was another Whedon show that felt like it ended too soon. Many cancelled shows, especially at the time, ended on a season finale expecting to come back for another season. So their stories are left without an ending, character arcs and storylines still in play never reached their conclusion. With Angel, each season was better than the one before and Season Five was when the show went from great to extraordinary. It felt like they were just getting started. Fortunately, even though Whedon and his writers were unhappy with the cancellation, they were given the opportunity to end the show on their terms and to give the characters, the story, and the audience the closure they deserved. And what an ending it was… It’s fitting that a show of this caliber should end on such a high note, but the writers crafted the perfect ending in the episodes leading up to the finale. To this day, The Series Finale of Angel is without question the best series finale I’ve ever seen to a TV series. And I’m not alone, everyone I know who’s familiar with the show talks about how incredible the finale was. It would be criminal to spoil the series finale in this article. However, It perfectly encapsulates all the ideas and themes of the show: Sacrifice, the idea that you can’t win the war against evil, but sometimes you can win the battle, and that evil prevails when good (or at least decent men trying to be good) do nothing. All while sending the characters out on a fantastic note. That finale stayed with me for a long time. It’s still with me even today. There’s a lot of truth in the ideas presented on Angel and the finale in particular without question effected how I see the world.
Unfortunately, Angel used to be available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, but it’s no longer available on either platform. You can get the show on iTunes and DVD, for some insane reason the show hasn’t been released on Blu-ray yet, but I’ve heard they may release A Blu-ray set this fall. Regardless of how you watch it, I can’t recommend this show enough. Even if you’re not a fan of Buffy, you can still love this show. In fact, I don’t think you really need to see Buffy at all to fully appreciate Angel. I really hope you give Angel a try. As I said before, season three is really with the show becomes great, but the first two seasons have some excellent episodes in there. If the show connects with you the way it did with me, you’re in for a hell of a ride. I revisit Angel every few years and it always remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
As always, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this article!
UPDATE(6/16/18): Awhile back, Tim, who used to be one of our co-hosts, did a solo mini-podcast episode of “The World’s Best Podcast” focused specifically on the Buffy & Angel character: Spike. He had I done a podcast about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I felt we didn’t give Spike enough attention, so I had Tim do a mini-sode follow up. Spike is one of Tim’s favorite characters of all time in ANY medium. Considering how Spike is such an important character both on the show and in Angel’s life, I thought it would be fun to re-post the mini-sode here as a supplement/bonus to this article. It’s a really fun listen, so enjoy!
Bonus Podcast: A Tribute To Spike