Saturday, August 21, 2010

On the Homestretch for Season 4

It just doesn't seem possible that an episode like "Home" from Season 4 of Angel could be jam-packed with so many excellent scenes. What's even more amazing is how the episode was able to maintain a unified theme even though many of the scenes were so different from each other in tempo and style. For example, "Home" started out with Lilah Morgan's hysterically funny return to the Hyperion Hotel, followed by a rapidly deteriorating Connor brutalizing a suicidal cop, followed by Gunn and Wesley reconnecting with each other in the hotel office, followed by various scenes at Wolfram & Hart, followed by a climactic fight scene at a sporting goods store, etc.

As I mentioned in my last post, "Lilah Lives On", Tim Minear noted that the episode came in about 10 minutes long. He was therefore forced to cut several lines that did not deal directly with the main issues of the episode, which were mainly Angel's conflicts with Connor, and Lilah's deal to hand over the Los Angeles office of Wolfram & Hart to Angel Investigations. "Home" also had to perform double duty as somewhat of a pilot episode for Season 5 of Angel, since the series was in serious danger of being canceled at that point. Writer/director Tim Minear and the rest of the Mutant Enemy staff really pulled together to give their audience an outstanding conclusion to Season 4.

Lilah's offer of a lifetime. I'll let you read the dialogue here, but the opening scene is probably best remembered for the deliciously long silent stretch where the bewildered Angel Investigations team members reacted to Lilah's off-camera offer to hand over control of the Los Angeles branch of Wolfram & Hart. Minear explained that it was somewhat of a joke how the opening credits always dragged on forever at the beginning of each episode, and he purposely kept the actors silent until his name appeared in the last of the credits. He also explained that the actors were filmed separately for about a minute where they were instructed to shift their weight back and forth, look around and otherwise act uncomfortable.

Stephanie Romanov was the undisputed star of this scene, and Minear praised her by saying that she really "kicked it out". This sequence must have been an editor's dream, as it was practically an almost endless series of quick shots back and forth between the different actors. Kudos to Tim Minear, the actors and everyone else for making this scene such a success.

Charles Gunn. One thing I didn't really pick up on before was that Gunn, according to Minear, was somewhat favorable to the offer almost from the very moment Lilah presented it. Although the dialogue in the beginning scene doesn't show it, Minear pointed out that the editors inserted a few shots of Gunn that indicated he was responding to the offer somewhat differently from the others in the group. In this early scene, we could tell that Gunn was already thinking through some of the advantages of taking over the LA branch of Wolfram & Hart when he explained to Wesley "Can't help thinking it might cut down on the work load some if we got a little help, a few extra employees, or a turnkey, state-of-the-art, multi-tasking operation."

Of course Gunn's heart sank at Wolfram & Hart when he momentarily thought he'd be given the "muscle" job of head of security. However, Lacey, his tour guide, assured him that they had much grander plans for him. We all know that the sequence of events ended with Charles eventually undergoing a procedure where an entire law library was downloaded into his brain. I'd often compared Charles Gunn to Lindsay McDonald, in that both characters were upwardly mobile after rising out of horrendous poverty-stricken backgrounds. Lindsey quickly chose the "easy" way to success by turning Evil, whereas Gunn took a more circuitous route. Although I won't say Charles consciously embraced Evil, we can't deny that both Lindsey and Charles ended up in the exact same spot.

Rutherford Sirk. Tim Minear also praised Michael Halsey, the actor who played ex-Watcher Sirk, for his performance in this episode. As Wesley's guide at Wolfram & Hart, I thought Halsey brought the perfect blend of smooth, evil arrogance to his role. Although I don't normally like it when a character is introduced just to act as a foil for an existing character, I looked forward to seeing a lot more of Sirk after he made his first appearances. I thought he deserved to be a semi-major character in his own right, somewhat on the order of Knox. Unfortunately I think Halsey only appeared in one other episode, "Destiny".

Minear said that he named this character "Sirk" in honor of Douglas Sirk, a film director from the 1950's
"...who directed what were then known as women's pictures, and he directed these very...colorful and lurid melodramas, and we have often said that Angel was not unlike a Douglas Sirk movie in that it's really about men and women and their relationships.... and that it is a pot boiler and is in fact a melodrama."
Douglas Sirk directed movies like "Magnificent Obsession" and "Imitation of Life". I never found any of his movies to be particularly "lurid", but maybe I saw the wrong ones. Regardless, it's comforting to find validation of what I've suspected all along, that Angel really is ".....about men and women and their relationships". I'd hate to think that the main thing that attracts me to the series doesn't even exist.

Angel and Lilah. Although I focus a lot on Wesley and Lilah's final pairing of the series, I can't forget that "Home" also marked the last appearances of Angel and Lilah together. For whatever reason, their scenes lacked the sizzle of their Season 3 and early Season 4 pairings, and I can't really put my finger on why. I thought both Stephanie Romanov and David Boreanaz put in magnificent performances, particularly in this scene where Lilah was forced to play her final trump card in order to persuade Angel to take the deal.

Part of my dissatisfaction with their scenes might have had to do with the fact that I resented every moment that Lilah spent with Angel instead of Wesley. However, I could hardly begrudge the producers for not having the entire episode revolve around Wesley and Lilah. She had her work cut out for her in that she had to try to bring over one of the world's greatest sources for Good over to the side of Evil.

Probably the biggest reason for my dissatisfaction with the Angel/Lilah scenes was that the delicious undercurrent of flirtiness that was a hallmark of their earlier appearances seemed to be replaced by a sense of deadly seriousness. Their constant one-upmanship was still there as usual, but there was just too much at stake for either of them to relax and play along with each other just like old times.

Angel and Connor. It was unfortunate that I was pretty bored with all of the Angel/Connor scenes in "Home" since both actors put in fine performances. The scene in the sporting goods store seemed to particularly drag on for me, and I was surprised that I didn't give up and scan through to the next scene. Tim Minear revealed in the commentary that the scene was actually much longer, since Connor was also supposed to talk about Holtz and Darla as well. As I mentioned above, Minear had to cut out a lot of dialogue that wasn't exactly on-target with the rest of the episode. However, I can't help but wonder if the scene would have been more interesting if some of these seemingly extraneous lines hadn't been cut.

I'm glad I stuck with Angel and Connor in "Home" since I learned a few new things this time, courtesy of Tim Minear. I'd never paid too much attention to this on earlier viewings, but Minear pointed out at the end of the fight scene that Angel paused for a moment before he delivered his final blow, which emphasized how the whole "The father will kill the son" prophesy was finally being realized. Also, in the final seconds, as Angel brought the knife down into Connor, it became apparent that some sort of blood ritual was being performed.

This is where DVD audio commentary is worth its weight in gold. Writers have an enormous amount of information that they need to cram into each episode, and they can't write specific dialogue for every little situation. Sometimes I pick up on the visual clues that are left for the audience, and sometimes I don't. Although I would have liked more details on how the Connor mind wipe spell was performed, this scene at least let me know that Angel was an active participant in the ritual. Before then, I just assumed that Cyvus Vail (who we found out in Season 5's "Origin" was the one who performed the spell) said a few hocus-pocus words and that was it.

I never get tired of hearing about how Vincent Kartheiser really gave it his all in his acting performances. This time, Tim Minear spoke about how not only Kartheiser, but David Boreanaz as well, stayed in character throughout the several hours that it took to shoot this scene. When they're filming an actor from one direction, naturally we can't see what the other actor is up to. Minear said that the off-camera actor won't always keep playing the part, which can make it difficult for the on-camera actor to perform to the best of his ability. Both Kartheiser and Boreanaz stayed in character, which allowed both of them to keep feeding off of each other's energy levels.

Finally, Tim Minear revealed that it was always a given that Connor would only last about one season, and that he would leave the series in a particularly gruesome way. However, everyone grew to love both Vincent Kartheiser and his character, and Mutant Enemy decided to give both of them a much nicer send-off. Being a mother of teen-aged boys myself, I always appreciated how the average middle-class kids were treated with respect on Angel, without making them easy targets for ridicule. For example, I always enjoyed this scene from the Season 4 episode "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" where Connor rescued the family of three from tow-truck operating vampires when the family truckster broke down in a nasty section of LA. I know the character of the wise-cracking man-child in the backseat quite well. So naturally I really appreciated the nice homey portrayal of Connor's family in this scene, where his new "family" was toasting what appeared to be his promising future in college.

Pitch for Season 5. It's particularly poignant to watch "Home" since, not only was Lilah giving a pitch to get Angel Investigations to hook up with Wolfram & Hart, Mutant Enemy was making a pitch to the WB Network to pick up the series for the 5th season. We all know that despite all of the promise of the series going off in an exciting new direction, all Mutant Enemy was able to do was buy one final year for Angel.

As Tim Minear said in his commentary,
I'm really proud of the last four seasons of Angel, but I do think it was time to shake up the paradigm a little bit. It was starting to get soapy, and I don't mean that in an overwrought way. I just mean that you really, really couldn't miss an episode, otherwise it would have been hard to follow the story, and we wanted to create a new paradigm that could continue in the novel approach, because TV really is like reading a novel. You want to see what's going to happen in the next chapter, but we wanted to make it a little more user-friendly, that people could take in and understand what these people were doing.
I was interested in how Minear stated that Angel was getting "soapy". My main objection to soap operas is how they always seem to be one episode away from resolving the main conflict, yet the writers keep tossing in obstacles and barriers and otherwise doing everything they can to prolong the misery. I found that if I saw one episode on one day, and tuned into the same soap opera a month later, the plot would have hardly budged at all during that period of time. I think Minear and I may have different definitions of "soapy", but I thought Season 4 fit my criteria quite well.

I'm not sure if I totally agree with Minear that you couldn't afford to miss an episode of Angel without getting lost. I started watching the series towards the end of Season 2 and I missed a few key episodes in my first rotation. However, upon catching up with the lost episodes, I was somewhat surprised that I had somehow been able to pick up on the most important plot elements, while just missing out on some of the finer points along the way. However, Angel did evolve into somewhat of a soul-sucking series, in that it drew you in and didn't let you go, somewhat like when you step into quicksand. I normally don't like to be a slave to a TV show, and that's why I prefer standalone episodes to long, involved story arcs.

I've always read that the network suits wanted a return to more standalone episodes, which Mutant Enemy obligingly provided during roughly the first half of Season 5 until they returned to a long story arc format for the second half of the season. One of the things I'll be looking for in Season 5 was how the producers were able to create such a compelling story arc without making me feel like I was being smothered to death.

Metaphor for twenty-somethings. Tim Minear reminded us that Buffy the Vampire Slayer provided us with metaphors for the teen years while Angel was supposed to represent life for young adults in their 20's. However, the consensus was that Mutant Enemy never found that perfect metaphor for Angel until the group agreed to take over Wolfram & Hart in late Season 4 and into Season 5. (There was a bit of an extra challenge in that the main character, Angel, was well over 200 years old.) Minear continued on that in essence, the Angel Investigations team members were like youthful, idealistic Greenpeace activists who joined the big bad oil company and wondered whether they would be able to keep their ethics intact.

I could refine the argument a little bit further and say that the Angel Investigations team members were in their 20's while they were saving the whales in Seasons 1 through 4, then joined Big Bad Oil when they entered into their 30's. However, it's just a minor quibble, and it just goes to show that the metaphor did not really become evident until the kids decided to settle down and join Wolfram & Hart.

Idle Thoughts. I was never completely convinced that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was actually in his 20's when he crashed the Buffyverse. However, Minear's commentary provides yet one more piece of circumstantial evidence that Wesley really was supposed to be in his 20's during Buffy and Angel.

My life seems to be the complete opposite of what the Angel Investigations team members experienced. I joined the Establishment right out of college, and dropped out of the rat race and jumped into a Greenpeace-type outfit just a few years ago.

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