Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Official 10-Year Anniversary Post for Angel

Angel's 10-year anniversary came and went on October 5, 2009. I honestly don't feel qualified to do an official post for the occasion as I've only been following the series since March of this year. It does give me a good excuse to stand back and take stock of what exactly makes the show so appealing to me.

Alexis Denisof as Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. (Surprise, surprise). I fell in love with Wesley at first sight right when he had his "Eureka!" moment in Season 2's "Over the Rainbow". As I wrote in a post last April:
"Wesley was absolutely adorable! He was so boyishly pleased with himself for making the discovery. And what a sight he was, as if someone conjured up the perfect man for myself. Tall, thin, athletic, bookish, curling hair, and I love those glasses. I always fall for the handsome, serious, yet slightly goofy, intellectual types...."
Needless to say, that was was before he went all dark and handsome on us later in Season 3 and became so impossibly sexy.

The writers deserve accolades for presenting the storyline in such a way that even a novice viewer like myself could tell I was witnessing a major turning point in his character during the Pylea arc. Wesley was turning from a weak and indecisive leader into someone who was becoming bold and more confident of his abilities. From that point on all I could do was sit back and admire Alexis Denisof's astonishing acting range. He must be eternally grateful to Joss Whedon and the rest of the production team for allowing his character to grow from the bumbling Watcher from his Buffy days, to a steadily toughening (although still lovingly inept) rogue demon-hunger during Angel's Season 1, to a steadily maturing and confident leader in Season 2 and early Season 3, to a dramatically dark character sinking and rising from great emotional depths in Seasons 3 and 4, to a more well-balanced and integrated character in early Season 5, only to lose it all over again and sink back into despair after the loss of Fred towards the end of Season 5.

Although the other main characters were tagged with strongly identifiable character traits (Angel was dark, brooding and heroic, Cordelia was vain and bitchy, etc.), Wesley appeared to be somewhat of a blank slate for the writers. One wonders if when they had some ideas that they wanted to work through and couldn't figure out who else to experiment on, perhaps they just automatically used Wesley as the guinea pig. While being ostensibly naive, klutzy and timid in the beginning, Wes was also simultaneously quite confident, assertive, and brave at times. Alexis successfully portrayed Wesley as being bullying, stuffy, klutzy, blustery, sweet, witty, lovable, charming, gallant, stubborn, brave, enthusiastic, kind, naive, idealistic, dark, pragmatic, ruthless, deadly, calm, commanding, respectful, arrogant, iconoclastic, level-headed, sexy and a bunch of other things I'm sure I'm leaving out.

Alexis mentioned in his BlogTalkRadio interview yesterday that the writers tortured and otherwise did terrible things to Wesley as a way of allowing him to grow up and mature. People pretty much agree that Wesley went through the most dramatic character development in the entire Whedonverse. Despite all of the changes that he went through and all of the personality traits the writers threw at him, Wesley seems to be the most ill-defined main character on Angel. In a supreme piece of irony, I feel I'm not any closer to "understanding" or "knowing" Wesley now than when I first started watching the series. There seemed to be an element of Wesley going through all of these changes as a way of trying to forge his own identity and figure out his purpose in this world. In essence, Wesley spent his entire life trying to "find himself".

I hesitate to say that Alexis must have truly identified with Wesley, since only he knows that for sure. However, Alexis appeared to have found a wonderful comfort zone with his character as he always remained a truly identifiable, and, in some ways, unchanged Wesley Wyndam-Pryce throughout the series. I consider it to be a true privilege to have been able to witness Denisof's portrayal of Wesley through those five seasons.

The Main Cast. I'm always a sucker for a strong ensemble cast (e.g. M*A*S*H, Seinfeld, etc.), and a supportive friends-as-family atmosphere. In my mind, the cast of Angel ranks as one of the strongest. They were able to succesfully portray the characters as being loving and supportive of each other despite all of the trials, tribulations, squabbles and jealousies they endured.

Amazingly, the series was able to seamlessly absorb so many new cast members as the warm glow of the family atmosphere rubbed off on each and every new character. The original members were Angel, Cordelia and Doyle (David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Glenn Quinn). Wesley (Alexis Denisof) was added early in Season 1 when Doyle was killed off, then Gunn (J. August Richards) was added in late Season 1. Lorne (Andy Hallett) was eased into the mix throughout Seasons 2 & 3, while Fred (Amy Acker) was added late in Season 2. Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) came on board in Season 3, then finally Spike (James Marsters) was added in Season 5. (I don't quite consider Harmony to be part of the main cast.)

The series was able to successfully explore some of the secondary relationships between the main characters, in addition to the primary relationships such as the ones between Angel and Cordelia, Angel and Connor, Gunn and Fred, and Wesley and his various love interests. Some of my favorite secondary relationships were the ones between Wes and Cordy, Angel and Lorne, Angel and Wesley, Lorne and Connor, and Wesley and Gunn.

I absolutely adored each and every character with the exception of Fred and Connor. I liked Fred well enough but I always thought her character was rather weak. Despite my reservations about Fred, there's no doubt that the series really took off and went on to the next level when Amy Acker joined the cast. Regardless, her portrayal of late Season 5's Illyria more than made up for my disappointment with Fred's characterization. As for Connor, his character was just too unlikeable for my tastes, despite Vincent Kartheiser's terrific acting performances.

Supporting Cast and Guest Stars. In a way, the excellence of the supporting cast was even more impressive than the peformances of the main cast, since you figure the main cast has to be good. I made a comment on a previous blog post where I wondered if the casting directors were even capable of hiring a bad actor. Even brief walk-ons like Deborah Zoe as Season 3's Mistress Meerna were quite memorable.

Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov), Lindsey McDonald (Christian Kane), Darla (Julie Benz), Mark Lutz (The Groosalugg), Holland Manners (Sam Anderson), Harmony Kendall (Mercedes McNab), Gavin Park (Daniel Dae Kim), Daniel Holtz (Keith Szarabajka), Sahjhan (Jack Conley), Skip (David Denman), Gwen Raiden (Alexa Davalos), the Archduke Sebassis (Leland Crooke), Drogyn (Alec Newman) etc. were all absolutely outstanding. I've said unflattering things about Justine (Laurel Holloman) and Eve (Sarah Thompson), while not being particularly fond of Linwood Murrow (John Rubinstein), or Drusilla (Juliet Landau). To be fair, I think their characters were just too unlikeable for me to be able to pass fair judgment on the performers' acting abilities. The only weak performances I can think of (my opinion only) off the top of my head were put in by Thomas Burr as Season 1 Wolfram & Hart lawyer Lee Mercer, Daisy McCrackin as Season 2's Bethany, and Gerry Becker as Wolfram & Hart late Season 2 bossman Nathan Reed.

Writing. Most of the time it's not a compliment to say that a one-hour show feels like it lasts much longer. Usually if I'm enjoying a show I'm disappointed at how quickly the episode ends. I don't know how the Mutant Enemy writers managed to pull this off, but they had so much happening in each episode, I'd think that the episode was almost over, only to happily find out I still had another 30 minutes to watch. I was usually well-satisfied and satiated by the time the 60-minute mark came along.

I'm also continuously amazed at how scriptwriters can get such great mileage out of just a few words. On paper, it didn't look like the writers came up with any great soliloquies, which I don't mean as an insult. In most scenes it would have been overkill if the writers gave any more lines to the actors. The Whedonverse writers, directors and actors were quite adept at working together to really make a scene come alive.

Two of my favorite "speeches" in Angel weren't really speeches at all. They were more like short, but powerful, well-placed fragments of dialogue within a scene. Two examples are Angel's "if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do" from Season 2's "Epiphany", and Wesley's "There is a line, Lilah. Black and white, good and evil." from Season 4's "Habeas Corpses". Ironically, one of the few really good speeches turned out to be a deft comedic moment, when Angel misinterpreted Faith's confusion as to how the operate the microwave as a cry for help.

I'm also amazed at how the writers could pack in so many different scenes into their episodes, which makes summarizing even one single episode an almost Herculean task. Just grabbing an episode at random, in Season 3's "Offspring", we have an 18th century Holtz, Darla and Angelus flashback: Darla taking a wild bus ride in present-day Los Angeles; Gunn and Wesley breaking into a gazillionaire's house; Wesley and Fred translating a prophecy; Cordelia and Angel almost sharing a true "I love you" moment; Darla making a dramatic entrance into the Hyperion Hotel; Cordelia getting all huffy when she found out Angel was responsible for getting Darla pregnant; the gang bringing Darla to Caritas for Lorne's insight and wisdom; Darla almost killing Cordelia; Darla stalking young children at an amusement park; and Sahjhan awakening Daniel Holtz into present-day Los Angeles, not to mention all of the usual filler dialogue where the different characters comment on the surrounding action.

I've also tried to figure out if I have a "few" favorite writers for the series. I was able to identify two or three standouts, (including Joss Whedon himself), but it seems unfair for me to single these individuals out for praise since so many different Mutant Enemy writers wrote so many outstanding episodes.

Perfect Blend of Comedy and Drama. A lot of people who see Angel for the first time are surprised at just how damn funny the show is! Many people have told me that they avoided the series for years simply because they thought it would be too depressing to watch. Although Angel was definitely a drama with comedic elements, (as opposed to M*A*S*H, which was a comedy with dramatic elements), there were usually enough light-hearted moments along the way to make sure we didn't get too down while we were watching. I probably never would have watched the show if it wasn't for the comedic elements.

The creators also did a good job of mixing up the dramatic and humorous moments. Some shows were very dark and dramatic, with just a few touches of comedy thrown in to give the audience a little bit of a respite, while other episodes were light-hearted the entire way through. Even more episodes seemed to offer an equal mixture of drama and humor. Quite effectively, my favorite light-hearted episode, Season 3's "Couplet", ended on a terrifyingly dramatic note when Wesley translated the ominous message of "The Father Will Kill The Son". This is just a long way of saying that not only did the creators come up with different mixtures of dramatic and humor within single episodes, they also managed to do so over the course of an entire season. The dramatic elements made the comedy that much funnier, and the comedic elements made the dramatic moments that much more powerful.

I didn't realize until I wrote this post that this somewhat unpredictable mixture of comedy and drama helped keep Angel from turning into a simple formulaic show. Although I can often appreciate repetition within a series (think of the weekly chat the Taylors had with Wilson the Neighbor in Home Improvement), a series without these predictable plot elements have a much more realistic feel about them.

Realistic SuperHero Characters. Although every one of the main cast of characters have definite Superhero elements (Angel the Vampire With A Soul, Cordelia the Vision Girl, Wesley and Fred the Brainiacs, Gunn the Muscle; Lorne the soul-reading demon), I can actually relate to each and every one of them on quite ordinary levels. The very fact that each character has certain faults and foibles provides me with a great deal of comfort. Angel was socially inept, set in his ways and somewhat of a Luddite (e.g., his early dislike of cell phones); Cordelia was bitchy, materialistic and vain; Wesley was klutzy, too sure (or full) of himself, and quite clueless a large part of the time; Gunn hid his inferiority complex behind a tough guy persona; Fred used her basic sweetness and goodness as a filter for denying how the world around her really operated; and Lorne was somewhat of a cowardly inebriate.

All of these character weaknesses were used to great comic effect, but were also used as springboards for some of the most tragic events within the series. The biggest example would be how Wesley's uber-confidence in his abilities led to his ill-informed decision to kidnap Connor in Season 3.

Moral Ambiguity and Good and Evil. I like to say that Alexis Denisof as Wesley attracted me to the series' while the constant explorations of the shades of gray that exist between Good and Evil kept me hooked. I've never known a series to explore all of these area of moral ambiguities with quite the same finesse as Angel. Other series that attempted to do so, like M*A*S*H, produced way too many "Anvilicious" moments, which is described at TV Tropes as being:
"heavy-handed", or, "a writer's and/or director's use of an artistic element, be it line of dialogue, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously or unsubtly convey a particular message that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.
Although the TV Trope page mentions several anvilicious instances in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, those moments were few and far between on Angel. I know there must be several other examples, but the only two Anvilicious episode I can think of off the top of my head was Season 1's "She", which was an episode that acted as one huge metaphor for attitudes surrounding African female genital mutilation, and Season 2's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been", which acted as a metaphor for racial prejudice and political witch hunts . I don't mean to imply that mutilation, prejudice and witch-hunts are not serious subjects. I just thought the creators could have handled these issues with a slightly lighter touch.

Huge ethical issues that were introduced (and never completely resolved since there are no definitive answers) include: Are we ever justified in operating outside of the law? Should we spend most of our time giving active aid and comfort to victims, or should we concentrate on going after the source of all Evil? Should we always work for the common good even though individuals may be harmed in the process? Should we work with the enemy to save innocent lives even if it means compromising our own principles? Are higher beings looking directly after our best interests? Will all of our good deeds lead to a greater reward? Do we have free will? Do demons and vampires have a right to exist in our world? Should we take our battles directly to our enemies, or should we wait for our enemies to bring the battles to us? Angel quite notably addressed some of these issues in what I considered to be two of the best story arcs, which were Angel (the character's) Season 2 and Season 5 crises of faith.

Use of Metaphors. I'm amazed at how the use of metaphors in a fantasy series like Angel often conveys certain messages much more effectively than what is introduced in more realistic dramas. The use of metaphors also allowed the characters to take the moral high ground in Angel without getting in danger of being too preachy for audience tastes.

For example, in Angel, the fight against the Senior Partners and who they represent is a powerful metaphor for the populist fight of ordinary citizens against the monied interests of the ruling classes. Other metaphors include: the dual nature of Angel/Angelus in describing our own personal struggles between our better and basest instincts; the frequent explorations of the themes of loneliness and despair as equating with our own efforts to connect with fellow humans in an increasingly fragmented society; the comparison of demons inhabiting an "underworld" with our criminal classes and their versions of an underworld; Angel being one sip of human blood away from turning back into a killer vampire, similar to how a reformed alcoholic is one drink away from turning back to a life of booze; the fight against vampires in the poorer African-American communities compared with the fight against exploitation, injustice and crime in our lowest-class neighborhoods, etc.

By using these metaphors, the creators were able to push the envelope and more fully explore certain themes without becoming too moralistic and "Anvilicious". The end result is that the exploration of these themes is often conducted in a more sophisticated manner on fantasy shows than on truer to life dramas.

Religious Symbolism. For being an atheist, Joss Whedon wasn't afraid to put in a lot of Christian symbolism into the series. I have no doubt he added plenty of elements from other religions, but I just didn't recognize them outside of a few Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist references. Being a creative personality, Whedon recognizes the power of the narrative, and also recognizes how religious beliefs provide the most powerful narratives of all. Examples of Christian symbolism I can think of include the frequent uses of crucifixes and Holy Water, references to Catholic priests being used to expel demons, a discussion of Dante's Inferno, Lilah's stigmata wounds in Season 4's "Calvary", etc.

Although a lot of the themes explored in Angel are universal, some devout Christians will claim these themes as being central to their own beliefs. Some of these themes include the search for forgiveness and redemption, faith (or doubt) in higher beings, feelings of abandonment by higher powers during times of need, life beyond death, the concepts of Heaven and Hell, the existence of souls, and sacrificing yourself for your fellow man.

Closing Thoughts. I really should have a category for the exciting action sequences, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately I'm not very good at writing about fight scenes. The best I can come up with is what a great cathartic release it was for me to see Angel & Co. beating up the bad guys. Some of my favorite action moments occurred when Angel dramatically revealed his true nature to the enemy, including the scene in "Expecting", when Angel single-handedly took care of all of those jerks who impregnated the females with demon spawn.

Come to think of it, I should also have included a section on the production values. Suffice it to say, Angel was a highly-polished series, and everyone associated with putting on the show, from the producers, directors, writers, editors, camera operators, etc., deserves kudos.

If someone had told me a year ago I'd be spending at least seven months keeping up a blog about a single TV series, I would have thought that person was nuts. Now, after falling through the rabbit hole into the Whedonverse, it seems I've discovered a whole new world that needs to be explored. I feel like I'm currently traveling concentric circles through one corner of the Whedonverse (Angel), and I'll have to decide whether to expand my range by going on to explore Buffy, Dollhouse, etc., or to head back home. Regardless, it's been a wonderful journey for me.

Angel also came along for me at the right time in my life. I'm down to one older child at home, and I have a chance to spend a little time on me rather than the rest of my family. If TNT was not currently showing Angel reruns during the morning, would I have become hooked on any other TV shows instead? Something tells me, no. I may have come close with Charmed, but that series represented more of an extremely agreeable diversion for me rather than something I could really sink my teeth into.

I can't help but notice that Joss Whedon and a lot of the other Mutant Enemy production team members are roughly my age, so it's possible we're all going through the same generational existential-angst traumas at the same time. Perhaps if they could pioneer some sort of fantasy-horror series named Forty and Fifty Something.......

Update - Criminal Oversight. Good grief! How could I fail to mention that Angel had by far the coolest theme music and opening credit sequences in TV history?

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