Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Five Seasons of Angel

Here's my ranking of Seasons 1-5 of Angel, in reverse order of favorites. (Note: you can find links to episode recaps here.)

Fifth Place - Season 4. Although I often feel bad when I put something in last place, in this instance, it is entirely appropriate for me to rank Season 4 as my least favorite season. As I stated in a previous post,
Wow, Season 4 was a challenge for me! I like to pride myself on watching shows and movies that dwell on the dark side and offer no easy choices, but I found out that even I have my limits. Between Wesley being estranged from the group for a while, Cordelia being lifted to a higher plane, Connor acting like an out-of-control monster brat, Angel existing in a watery grave, Skip the Demon telling the Angel crew that just about every choice they made was actually a preordained chess move (I choose not to believe him), Cordelia and Connor getting all "couply", Cordelia being first channeled by and then giving birth to whatever entity was controlling The Beast, my favorite character being forced to chop the head off of his lifeless "loved one", The Beast destroying everything in sight with the Angel Gang being completely helpless to stop it, Angel turning into Angelus for way too long, and the whole Jasmine deal.......I didn't think the season would ever end.
Season 4 offered a lot of instances where I thought things would finally start getting better, only to have my hopes cruelly dashed time and time again. Just think of the number of times Connor acted like he was about to start functioning like a normal human being, only to resume his teenage reign of terror. Instead, Season 4 turned out to be a collection of horrible events happening one after another, to the point where I was beginning to seriously wonder how the members of Angel Investigations could possibly continue to function. About the only way I can justify the dreariness of Season 4 was that it gave me the only reason I could come up with for why it was a good idea for Angel and his crew to take over the LA offices of Wolfram & Hart. In Season 5 they had a chance to rest, regroup, and start afresh.

There were still a number of bright spots in Season 4, including Andy Hallett's poignant performance in "Spin the Bottle", the Las Vegas interlude in "The House Always Wins", Wes and Faith's sensational pairing in their hunt for Angelus, and, the story arc that saved the series for me, Wesley and Lilah's love affair.

I'm not sure if I can include the Jasmine episodes as a bona fide "bright spot", but I have to admit, her arc offered a welcome respite from The Beast/Angelus fiasco.

Fourth Place - Season 1. In this case, I am sorry that I have to rank Season 1 in second to last place, because it implies that perhaps I didn't enjoy the episodes. On the contrary, I adored Season 1. Highlights for me include: Doyle's brief interlude at the beginning of the series; the Buffy crossovers, including appearances by Spike, Oz, Faith and Buffy herself; Wesley's rapid integration into the group and his continuous character development; Kate Lockley before her "I can't handle the supernatural" shtick became too intense; the cozy (but cramped) office and "bat cave" sets; the lovely, warm, glowy family atmosphere created by Angel, Cordelia and Wesley; the early stages of my beloved Wes/Cordy relationship; and entertaining early appearances by Lindsey McDonald, Lilah Morgan and Holland Manners.

Much has been written about how Season 1 started as a series of stand-alone episodes dominated by a dark, broody, character (Angel). The producers then decided to lighten up the character a bit and introduce story arc elements into the series. Arguably, the early episodes may have been a bit rough around the edges, but I enjoyed the element of tension where the producers were obviously experimenting to try to figure out what to keep and what to discard. I'm curious if I would have held Season 1 in such high regard if I had started watching the series from the very beginning, rather than starting from the end of Season 2 and continuing up through Season 5, before looping back to Season 1.

For me, Angel really took off to the next level in the 17th episode, "Eternity", when Tamara Gorski appeared as Rebecca Lowell, a TV actress who attempted to halt the effects of aging by having Angel turn her into a vampire. From that point on, I thought the core group of Angel, Cordelia and Wesley really started to gel. Although "Eternity" was still ostensibly a "victim of the week" episode, as writer Tim Minear put it according to this Wikipedia entry,
".....it's really about our core people, and by the end of the episode the client's gone. There's not even a wrap up scene at the end with the actress. It's all about Angel being chained to the bed and Cordelia not untying him."
In essence, "Eternity" marked a turning point in the series where the main cast was no longer simply reacting and commenting on the "victim of the week", but actually becoming the main focus of the series.

By the time "War Zone", "Blind Date" and "To Shanshu in LA" came about, I was amazed at how far the series and characters had progressed. It got to the point where it became hard to believe that these three episodes were actually still a part of Season 1.

Third Place - Season 3. It pains me to put Season 3 in third place, simply because the first half of the season provided me with my favorite run of consecutive episodes, from "Heartthrob" to "Couplet". I really should include "Sleep Tight" and "Loyalty" since they featured brilliant performances from Alexis Denisof. However, the juxtaposition between the light-heartedness of warm and glowy "Couplet" and the impending doom in "Sleep Tight" was just too much for me to handle. From that point on, Season 3 became an endless series of "let's see who can kick Wesley the hardest" contests between various cast members.

Although Alexis Denisof had plenty of moments to shine as Wesley in the first half of the season, particularly in "Billy", for the most part it seemed like he was just kind of "there". I remember being puzzled when I first started watching Season 3. I thought Wesley was used to great advantage in the Pylea arc (which were the first episodes I ever saw), yet the producers had kind of dropped the ball on his character. After seeing the rest of the episodes in that part of Season 3, I now understand that he was being held somewhat in reserve since he would play such a crucial role later on. Whereas before I considered Wesley to have been relegated to the background, I now view him in these episodes as being a quiet, steadying influence on the rest of the group as he settled quite nicely into his leadership position.

Charisma Carpenter was the real star of the first part of Season 3, as she appeared in what I considered to be roughly the "Cordelia arc" that started with the Pylea episodes in Season 2. She was making the transition from a ditzy, bitchy (though wildly funny) young girl into a warmer, more confident, mature young woman, while still allowing her inner-bitch-goddess personality to come out at appropriate times. Why the writers decided to mess with her natural personality development and turn her into, first Saint Cordelia, then killer Jasmine, I'll never know.

Let's not forget Julie Benz and her memorable turn as Darla, being first the blood-thirsty mama vampire, then gradually turning into a tragically loving mother-to-be who literally sacrificed herself for her baby.

Second Place - Season 5. Season 5 was almost a reverse image of Season 3 for me. I didn't really care for the first part of the season, then, almost as if someone switched on a light, the episodes leaped exponentially in quality as the series started concentrating on Angel's powerful series-ending crisis of faith story arc.

The first time I saw Season 5, I actually liked the beginning stand-alone episodes simply because they were welcome respites from the doom-and-gloom story arcs of Season 4. (I also understand the network had insisted on the return of stand-alone episodes.) Unfortunately, the second time I saw Season 5, I was actually quite bored with the first four episodes, ("Conviction" through "Hellbound"), with my enjoyment of the next seven episodes being spotty at best. Of the first 11 episodes, my favorites were "Life of the Party" (though I enjoyed it less on the second viewing), "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" (which I consider to be a nice, old-fashioned, family-oriented throwback), "Lineage" (with yet one more amazing Alexis Denisof performance), and particularly, "Harm's Way", which I consider to be the best portrayal of underappreciated administrative assistants ever filmed.

It's only fitting that Charisma Carpenter's farewell appearance in "You're Welcome", (episode 12 of the season, and Episode 100 of Angel) jump-started not only Angel himself, but the entire series. From then on, the show was at its highest quality during its entire run (with the exception of what I considered to be the only unwatchable episode of the entire series, "The Girl in Question"). This made it all the more cruel when WB announced Angel's impending cancellation. At least the series ended on a high note.

First Place - Season 2. I had just a little bit of difficulty naming this my favorite season since there are very few episodes or story arcs that stand out as being my top, top favorites. Regardless, Season 2 was absolutely top-notch from beginning to end, from Lorne making his karaoke-demon debut to my sentimental favorite episodes, the Pylea arc. Although Darla always had the potential to ruin the series for me, with her nasty habit of turning up every time good things started to happen, I always found her performances and the episodes she appeared in to be almost breathtaking. It was as though everyone, from the writers, actors, and the rest of the production crew, stepped it up a notch whenever Julie Benz appeared on the set.

Angel's crisis of faith, as he tried to do battle with the Senior Partners and Wolfram & Hart, also made for compelling viewing.

I have to admit that I thought the first four episodes of the season were a little weak, but that's just a minor quibble in comparison to the rest of the season. Another mild complaint is how I thought Wesley regressed a little bit at the beginning of Season 2, but I'm pretty sure that was done just to more fully contrast the "old" Wesley with the newer improved Wesley that emerged later on.

How can I summarize the high points without doing recaps of nearly every remaining episode? Top-notch standouts in my mind include: "Guise Will Be Guise", where Wesley was forced to impersonate Angel, gained new confidence in his fighting abilities and won over the lovely Virginia; "Darla", with all of the outstanding flashback sequences; "Reunion" and "Redefinition", where Darla and Drusilla went on their rampage, and Angel left a wine-cellar room full of Wolfram & Hart lawyers to their bloody fate; "Blood Money", for just the sheer enjoyment of watching Angel and an old demon pull one over on Wolfram & Hart; "Happy Anniversary", for being an outstanding Angel-and-Lorne-as-sidekicks episode; "Reprise" and "Epiphany", where Angel gained a new sense of purpose in life after reaching rock-bottom during his crisis of faith; "Disharmony", for Mercedes McNab's unique take on the "dumb blond" persona; "Dead End", for being a brilliant showcase and send-off for Christian Kane's Lindsey McDonald; and the final four "Pylea arc" episodes, for setting up Angel Investigations into a new era with the addition of Fred, and for allowing Wesley to gain increased confidence in his leadership and planning skills.

I have to also give praise to the delicious interplay between deadly rivals Lindsey and Lilah, the contrasting cozy little relationship/friendship between Wes and Cordy, the not-so-easy integration of Charles Gunn into the group, and the valuable insertion of Lorne into the cast as the incisive comic relief.

About the only low points I can think of were Detective Kate Lockley's increasingly shrill screeches against supernatural forces; Wes, Cordelia and Gunn's naive attitudes about how Angel was handling his crisis of faith; and the trio's insistence that Angel perform absurd penance after he returned to the group. Even so, I recognize that Wes, Cordelia's and Gunn's attitudes were crucial to the story line, which allowed their later action in the series to stand out in more of a stark contrast.

Closing Thoughts. An easier way to try to pick a favorite season would be to ask myself this question. If I could only purchase one season of Angel on DVD, which season would it be? You can quickly see my dilemma, since my answer would clearly be "Season 4", simply for the Wesley/Lilah episodes, even though it's clearly my least-favorite season. Joss Whedon et al had a particular skill of mixing in the good with bad, by putting in outstanding episodes into lackluster seasons, (like, including "Spin the Bottle" in Season 4), and placing favorite scenes into lackluster episodes (like Wesley's "It's not always about holding hands") into Season 4's "Players".

The creators also had a particular knack for carrying over certain story arc elements from one season to the next, making it nearly impossible to buy just one season's worth of DVD's. For example, I said above I'd buy Season 4 just for the Wesley and Lilah scenes. However, if I was really serious about the story arc I'd have to buy Season 3 as well.

I've often thought that a logical ending to the series could have occurred at the end of Season 2's "Epiphany", when Angel and Kate Lockley revealed their own personal miracle stories to each other. Lindsey's last appearance in Season 2 ("Dead End") also would have provided a decent ending for the series. As it turns out, with the exception of the Pylea arc, Season 2 was the last season that I saw when I first watched the complete Angel series on TNT. I wonder how much of my affection for Season 2 and the sense of finality I get stems from the fact that, for me, it really was the last of the series?

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