Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lack of Conviction

(David Boreanaz' Angel finds that it's lonely at the top.)

Even Joss Whedon seemed somewhat bored in his DVD commentary as he described the basic standalone story line of Angel's Season 5 premiere episode "Conviction". The quick synopsis is, Angel and his gang moved into the LA offices of evil law firm Wolfram & Hart and felt compelled to defend a particularly odious man who was threatening to mystically unleash a killer retrovirus (which he had planted on his innocent school-age son) if he was judged guilty of his crimes in a courtroom. Angel et al wrestled with their consciences, wondered what Wolfram & Hart was up to, agonized over their decision to join Wolfram & Hart, etc.

Although I had to almost force myself to sit through this entire episode, there was enough going on with the developing plotlines to keep me interested.

A New Series. More than one Mutant Enemy DVD commentator noted that Season 5 of Angel was somewhat like the beginning of a brand new TV series. The producers had made their pitch to the WB network in the "pilot" episode of the Season 4 finale, "Home", and, after having been given the green light, continued on with the "series premiere" of "Conviction". Whereas Season 1 started out fresh and exciting as the producers enthusiastically explored uncharted territories, Season 5 started out tentative and sclerotic, as if Mutant Enemy personnel knew their backs were to the wall and were afraid to take any chances.

Joss Whedon made it clear in his commentary for "Conviction" that Mutant Enemy had to take Angel in a completely different direction in order to avoid cancellation. One of the changes mandated by the executives was that there needed to be more standalone episodes, or shows with storylines that resolved themselves within a single episode. The purpose was to allow new viewers to tune in without feeling completely lost. Throughout Season 1, Mutant Enemy seemed to be making changes for the better, whereas in Season 5 Mutant Enemy seemed to be making changes simply for the sake of making changes. Fortunately for us viewers, the creators finally got their acts together roughly in time for Charisma Carpenter's guest return in "You're Welcome".

The plot for "Conviction" itself was nondescript (I'll let you read the synopsis in the Wikipedia link above), but the real value of the episode was that it was quietly setting the groundwork for the rest of Season 5. Charles received his brain upgrade from the mad scientist, Eve schooled everyone in how the world really operates, Angel and his gang wondered if they made the right choice when they decided to join Wolfram & Hart, the storylines for some new characters (Knox, Eve and Harmony) were established, and ghostly Spike made his dramatic debut at the very end of the show.

As an aside, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the early episodes of Season 5 the first time I saw them. However, I quickly lost my enthusiasm on subsequent viewings. Which always brings up the question, is it fair to criticize episodes just because I don't enjoy them as much after I've seen them a few times?

Faceless Bureaucrats. Continuing on with the theme of Season 1 versus Season 5 premieres, Joss Whedon mentioned in his commentary that it was important to show in "Conviction" where Angel had started from at the beginning of the series and just how far he had gone by the beginning of Season 5. Whedon's brilliant solution was to have a heroic Angel save the girl from the evil vampire in the dark alleyway, only to be descended upon by hordes of Wolfram & Hart employees securing the area and otherwise documenting his every move. The girl incorrectly accused Angel of engineering a publicity stunt, but we certainly can't fault her for reaching that conclusion. By the way, I absolutely adore actor T.J. Thyne, and I was happy to hear Joss praise his performance as the weaselly lawyer who orchestrated the whole event.

I obviously can't reconcile how the entire staff of the LA branch of Wolfram & Hart could have been murdered by The Beast in Season 4's "Habeas Corpses", only to be mystically replaced by hundreds of more employees who somehow managed to gain several years of experience within a few short months. Truthfully, I don't mind a little bit of magic to explain an unlikely event in a series like Angel if it will help move the story along. However, if someone could have said something along the way like, "The top employees of Wolfram & Hart offices around the world were transferred to the LA branch" I would have been a bit more satisfied.

There was always something a bit unworldly about Wolfram & Hart employees, as though I was never completely convinced that they were human despite all evidence to the contrary. (Lindsey McDonald was about the only one who seemed real to me.) There's the obvious metaphor of losing one's soul to Wolfram & Hart that could easily explain the personality changes. And this brings me to what I thought was always a rather unsettling premise that Mutant Enemy may have been pushing, that anyone who hired in with a big, powerful corporation was either already evil or automatically became evil once he or she signed on the dotted line. (Although, quite significantly, I don't think Lorne found large numbers of out-and-out evil people working for Wolfram & Hart when he was reading their auras. Perhaps being apathetic is worse than being sincerely evil?) The character of Knox probably personified the majority of Wolfram & Hart employees in that he, according to Whedon, existed within a "moral vacuum".

Am I overly paranoid in thinking that Mutant Enemy, by emphasizing the "human" face of Wolfram & Hart throughout Seasons 4 & 5, was casting aspersions on ordinary working men and women around the world who trade off a few of their values by working to provide for their families and their futures? How many people have the luxury of turning down job offers where some of their duties might involve performing a few personally distasteful tasks? How many of us spend more than a few days on the job at a time without having to at least briefly set aside our scruples all in the name of advancing our employer's interests?

Rather than having Angel et al being contemptuous of the Wolfram & Hart rank and file staff (think of Fred's hissy fit here), I would have liked to have seen more of an exploration of how at least some of these workers might have felt compelled to work for Wolfram & Hart simply so they could get a little bit ahead in life or at least be able to keep treading water. I can't help but think that the message being foisted on us is that it's better to live in sackcloth and ashes and keep our values intact rather than work for a Big Corporation.

Bureaucratic Inertia. Newton's laws of motion are often used to describe what it's like to try to effect change in a bureaucratic organization. It would be kind of silly to go into great detail about how these concepts of "inertia" and "force" and "actions and re-actions" relate to Angel and Wolfram & Hart. However, Season 5 did successfully portray just how difficult it is to change the status quo in a corporation.

It's easy to think that you can go into a company like General Motors and shake things up by firing a bunch of staff, moving others around in massive reorganizations, and canceling projects and starting up new ones willy-nilly. The reason why a lot of these shake-ups fail is that the new foundations for the continuation of these new projects and policies have not been adequately put in place. In other words, you almost need to install a new bureaucracy before you can dismantle the old one. Unglamorous worker drone tasks like production and sending out and paying bills have to continue unabated or else the whole company could sink into a quagmire. Bureaucracy is a necessary evil, and it's up to management to try to find a way to work it to the company's best advantage.

Another realistic touch Mutant Enemy brought to the series was the sheer number of hours Angel and his gang had to put in while they were on the job. Even if they had a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish, there just weren't enough hours in the day for them to be able to complete even the most minor tasks, which ties into how hard it is to change an established bureaucracy. When Angel was wondering in the above-referenced scene if he had a secretary, Wesley mentioned that "I imagine they'll find you someone who can stomach the idea of working for the side of the righteous."

I've often wondered why Angel Investigations didn't actively recruit more people into their inner circle to help out with the workload. Many people would have jumped at the chance to help out the forces of Good. If the premise that the employees of Wolfram & Hart were ordinary working stiffs is correct, even some of them should have been more than willing to help out Angel with his plans. (Although I can understand the mentality that all existing Wolfram & Hart employee would have automatically been suspect. I can also certainly understand how morally incorrect it would have been to bring in innocent outsiders into an evil outfit like Wolfram & Hart.)

Bureaucracy Unchecked. Angel's conflicts with Special Ops. Chief Hauser looked like a classic case of a rogue general operating behind the back of his Commander in Chief. It was one thing for lawyers to jump in to ask victims to sign release forms without checking in with Boss Angel first; it was another thing for security men to move into an area and attempt to obliterate an innocent (albeit lethally contagious) young boy and his classmates. It didn't take too long for Angel to size up the situation and deal with it the only way possible, by killing Hauser and most of his men. Although the above-referenced dialogue is worth a post in its own right, I'll just add that Angel was put on notice yet again that he really didn't have a lot of control over his own branch of Wolfram & Hart.

Within the Context of After the Fall. In my last real post "Season 5 Overview", I mentioned that I would be reviewing Season 5 within the context of what happened later on within the After the Fall comic continuation series. I'm actually not all that interested in dissecting all of the significant events and trying to figure out how they fit in within the plans of the Apocalypse that was ordered up by the Senior Partners. I will say that everything that happened in Season 5 could have either been carefully orchestrated by the Senior Partners, or could have come up as complete surprises but quickly turned to the Senior Partners' advantage. For example, the Senior Partners might have wanted Angel to kill Hauser just to bring him that much closer to the moment when he went into full revolt against Wolfram & Hart and started the Apocalypse.

Joss Whedon made an excellent point in his commentary about how Wolfram & Hart acted like any other powerful group when faced with a direct threat. First, they tried to destroy the threat, then they tried to co-opt the threat and bring everyone into the fold. It's too bad that this all became a moot point within the context of After the Fall, and that this knowledge somewhat diminishes the lustre of scenes like these where Angel and his crew were wondering just exactly what the Senior Partners were up to.

Angel and Eve. I never bothered to hide my dislike of Eve, who was the liaison between Angel and the Senior Partners. Although I admit that she had several wonderful lines of dialogue throughout Season 5, more often than not it seemed like her job was to explain the obvious to some of the more dim-witted members of the viewing audience.

I had often thought that Sarah Thompson had been horribly miscast as Eve, but Joss Whedon praised her for being very sweet and very professional while she was on the set. He also made it very clear that he wanted a young and very non-evil face to represent Wolfram & Hart at this time, presumably in another attempt to "humanize" the law firm.

One of my biggest questions has been, were Eve and Angel supposed to be attracted to each other, or was she supposed to be that annoying? Joss Whedon cleared that up in the commentary when he mentioned in this scene that there was some "chemistry" between Angel and Eve. I certainly didn't sense any "chemistry", but now that I know that there's supposed to be some attraction between the two characters I won't be quite as puzzled about what's happening in their upcoming appearances.

As an aside, for someone with somewhat of a Lothario reputation, David Boreanaz seemed to have a particularly difficult time establishing "chemistry" with a few other females on the set of Angel. I can't help but compare his appearances with Sarah Thompson to his completely disastrous pairing with Bai Ling (Jheira) in Season 1's "She".

Lorne. Joss also mentioned that Lorne was "in his element" since he was always on the move while wheeling and dealing with all of the Hollywood personalities. I always thought Lorne looked awkward throughout Season 5, as though he had been put in somewhat of a "Peter Principle" situation where he had been promoted to his level of incompetence. My problem is that I always thought the character of Lorne reached his apex with his non-judgmental and neutral Caritas Host persona, where he was laid-back and warm and inviting, yet still very sharp and incisive.

I understand that for both the character Lorne and actor Andy Hallett, being the Host of Caritas was simply a stepping stone to bigger and better things throughout the series. It's too bad I always thought Lorne looked somewhat like a fish out of water in Season 4 (with a few exceptions) while he was living at the Hyperion Hotel, and never really found a niche for himself. Perhaps he "found" himself in Season 5, but I could never reconcile how someone as savvy as Lorne/The Host in Seasons 2 and 3 could completely lose it all by Season 5. Perhaps that was a metaphor for the corrupting influences of Evil? Regardless, I never faulted Andy Hallett's acting performances. I just thought he did the best he could with what turned out to be an unfortunate turn for his character.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Wesley's character also took somewhat of an unfortunate turn in that his personality seemed to regress in early Season 5. Although I dubbed him the New and Improved Wesley in Season 5 in contrast to his Dark Wesley persona of Season 4, it still seemed as though his character was incomplete. It's well-known that actor Alexis Denisof was still suffering from the effects of Bell's Palsy when he filmed "Conviction" (resulting in Whedon having to film Alexis as much as possible from his right side), but I don't think that affected his acting at all.

For one thing, it was as though Wesley woke up at the very beginning of Season 5 and found all of these cool-looking clothes in his wardrobe but didn't know what to do with them. Also, if bad-ass Wesley from Season 4 had stuck around, Spike would have never remarked that "I always thought Wesley was grown in some sort of greenhouse for dandies", and the office girls wouldn't have questioned his manhood. I just can't help but think that either Wesley's character had been put on ice for a while, or the creators made a conscious decision to take away some of his better, stronger qualities to clue us in that something was "missing" from him after the Connor mindwipe had been performed.

Regardless, his change from the end of Season 4 to the beginning of Season 5 was similar to what happened to his character between the end of Season 1 and the beginning of Season 2. Whereas I was amazed at how far Wesley had progressed throughout Season 1, it seemed as though the creators purposefully made his character regress in the beginning of Season 2 just because they felt they could get more mileage out of making him act like a buffoon.

It was totally out of character for Wesley to bring in vampire Harmony Kendall as Angel's administrative assistant. We may recall that he totally despised Harmony in Season 2's "Disharmony", while she failed to give him (or anyone else in Angel Investigations) any reason to trust her again. I'll go over this topic in more detail when I review "Harm's Way", but on the surface it just looked like an exceedingly clumsy way to introduce her as a regular character to the series.

Idle Thoughts
. I always thought actor David Boreanaz was at his best when he was portraying Angel as being put-upon, befuddled and confused. In "Conviction" alone think of his reactions when the lawyers descended on him after he rescued the woman in the alleyway, and when Wesley introduced Harmony Kendall as his new assistant. Joss Whedon nailed it in this commentary when he said that Boreanaz was "extraordinarily good at being bemused". One of the highlights of Season 5 was being able to enjoy Boreanaz' "bemused" performances as the man who was quite unwillingly thrust into the high-pressure position of being a CEO of a major corporation.

Speaking of Whedon, this marked the first time that I failed to be overwhelmed by one of his DVD commentaries. Did he sound tired and perhaps dispirited, or was he just battling a cold?

What was going on in this scene when Harmony said "Um, boss?" and both Angel and Wesley answered "What?" Was it just a throw-away joke, or was it meant to set up how Wesley may have been suffering a few delusions of grandeur? I don't recall Wesley acting in subsequent episodes like he resented Angel's top dog status. On the contrary, I thought he was the perfect second-in-command!

Although Whedon et al were perfectly cognizant that it could have been the last year for Angel, Season 5 still seemed to exist mostly as a transition year towards a non-existent Season 6. It's too bad the writers couldn't have introduced the Apocalypse halfway through Season 5.

I thought it was interesting how Whedon compared turning Charles Gunn into a polished lawyer to turning Fred into Illyria. I didn't write down the exact quotes, but I thought the implication was that Fred transitioned or evolved into Illyria, whereas I always viewed Fred and Illyria as being two distinct and separate characters.

I thought that this reference to the "D.A.'s shamans" conjuring up a "mystical shield" around the jury gave us an intriguing glimpse at how the supernatural world existed within certain echelons of our criminal justice system.

Although I liked the Season 5 sets of Wolfram & Hart on my first viewings, I recognized the sets as looking kind of cheap upon subsequent viewings. Regardless, Whedon, and probably the other directors, really enjoyed setting up the fancy camera angles that looked up, down and through the open staircases. I couldn't help but be reminded of this wonderful Daffy Duck cartoon, "Drip-Along Daffy", with the "artsy camera angles" at roughly the six-minute mark as Duffy advanced towards his shootout with "rustler, bandit" and "square dance caller" Nasty Canasta.

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