Monday, August 18, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Angel

(or "You Knew The Job Was Dangerous When You Took It")

At some point during Season Two of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', it became obvious to the show's producers that they had a spin-off on their hands. Angel, Buffy's boyfriend on the show, was also a fairly complex protagonist in his own right, with a story that could easily become its own series. The idea of a (say it with me now) "vampire with a soul", fighting for his own personal redemption by doing good's clever, it's got roots in popular culture ('Forever Knight' and 'Dark Shadows', for example) and it didn't hurt that David Boreanaz has some serious screen presence.

But if there's one thing that the eighty-three columns in this series has taught us, it's that a good protagonist is only the starting point for an ongoing series. Angel needed a setting, a modus operandi, a supporting cast, and some good antagonists...and they needed to give him all that without seriously disrupting the parent series. So what did they have for him? Cordelia, Buffy's sidekick's ex-girlfriend (who serves as comic relief and a damsel in distress, early on), and Whistler, a minor character introduced as Angel's old mentor. Then they found out that they didn't actually have Whistler after all.

As a result, the first season of 'Angel' does feel like a succession of false starts. Doyle is introduced as a Whistler-surrogate, then killed off (possibly due to problems with Glenn Quinn, the actor who portrayed him, although details are murky.) Cordelia then becomes the Doyle-surrogate, and Wesley, who was the Giles-surrogate for a while on 'Buffy', becomes the Cordelia-surrogate. (It's a running trend on both series that they introduce characters to act as the helpless victim who needs rescuing every week...then slowly make them more powerful and competent as they grow progressively fonder of the character, and introduce a new character to take their role of potential victim. So Giles is replaced by Wesley, Willow is replaced by Dawn, Cordelia is replaced by Wesley on 'Angel', and Wesley is, in turn, replaced by Fred. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) About the only thing that really seems to work right off the bat is Angel's nemesis, a law firm with a never-ending supply of evil called 'Wolfram and Hart'. This is a stroke of casual brilliance--by making the enemy a faceless corporation, they can establish individual villains, then dispose of them once they're no longer useful, all without getting rid of the central antagonist.

Other supporting characters show up as Season One progresses, but some find places on the series while others don't. Kate Lockley, a cop who discovers Angel's vampiric nature, never seems to really gel as a romantic interest and fades away, while Gunn, a street-smart vampire hunter, fits in quite well as a competent sidekick. By Season Two (and the arrival of fan-favorite Lorne, a demon with a nightclub and a karaoke obsession), you can see that the pieces are beginning to fall into place. More importantly, by Season Two, the writers seem to understand exactly what they're writing about, and what the concept of "fighting for his own personal redemption" means, and Season Two's storyarc is arguably the series' finest hour. (Well, it's more than an hour, but you know what I mean.)

Season Three seems to continue that trend, with Winnifred "Fred" Burkle added to the cast to replace Wesley as the smart-but-vulnerable one, but then they make a mistake that many a continuing series has made...they introduce a baby. Connor, Angel's son, is an interesting idea...but the problem with it is that creating a truly great storytelling engine is all about finding a point of balance, a setting that can generate ideas for stories without having to change the engine itself. And anyone who's spent any time around a child knows that they grow up at visible speeds. One day they're not walking, the next they are. One day they're cooing and gurgling, the next, it's "Mommy, give me milk!" A child can't be held in any kind of stability, not without making the series unbelievable.

'Angel' tries the time-tested trick all sci-fi/fantasy series pull, sooner or later, when a kid gets involved. Connor goes to a parallel dimension (the details of this handwave change, but the next bit is constant) and comes back all grown up and ready to become a regular supporting character. And that's when everything goes off the rails. Connor proves to be an unpopular addition to the cast, and Charisma Carpenter (the actress playing Cordelia) decides to leave the series to raise her own real-life infant (her pregnancy was worked into the series, but she can't send her child into a parallel dimension and pick him back up when he's seventeen.) Plus, parent series 'Buffy' is coming to a close, and 'Angel' is drawn into the events surrounding that whole mess. (And it doesn't help that many of the series' writers and producers are a bit busy trying to give 'Buffy' the send-off it deserves, and can't spare a lot of attention to 'Angel'.) The engine gets gummed up, and seems to stall completely as Season Four never quite takes off.

For the final season, they completely revamped the status quo, in ways that can best be described as "risky". Angel takes over Wolfram and Hart, trying to redeem it from within. Spike wanders over from the end of 'Buffy', which causes a problem as his character's spent the last three seasons becoming more and more like Angel (to the point where he also has a soul. As Angel put it, "I was doing that before it was cool.") There's a sense, almost from the beginning, that this isn't going to last. Sure enough, Season Five was the last season, and they go out in a blaze of glory, with many of the characters dying, and the survivors confronting the literal armies of Hell in one last, apocalyptic battle for the soul of the human race. The final line of the series..."Let's go to work."

And then they do. Remember the 'Buffy Season Eight' comics? The concept proved so popular that IDW decided to do an Angel Season Six in the medium as well. But unlike Buffy, Angel's finale didn't leave a storytelling engine there to work with, not even a radically altered one. 'Angel' ended with the Apocalypse. It's a little tricky to have a status quo after that, and sure enough, 'Angel: After the Fall' has so far been an exercise in picking up the pieces of the shattered engine and trying to put them together into a recognizable shape. Perhaps, once that's done, they can tell stories with the character again...but some finales are more final than others.


Austin Gorton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Austin Gorton said...

Thought-provoking and well articulated, as usual.

Though I have to confess, I enjoyed season four more than you give it credit for; despite some dodgy plot elements (Cordelia and Connor? Ewww) and a rough patch in the middle, I thought it was the closest thing we've ever gotten to a multi-issue, large scale comic book style epic on TV.

And I absolutely loved the development of Wesley's character in the course of the show, to the point where I was watching it for him as much as for Angel.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, season one was by far my favorite, and the only season I would ever consider watching again. There are several reasons for this, but they boil down to the change in story engine after season one.

To take one example, in season one, Gunn is allied with Angel, but he has own thing going on. This provides many useful storytelling opportunities: Gunn can help Angel with various things, but from time to time, he may need to call in a favor of his own. He also serves much the same function that Sunnydale High served in the early seasons of Buffy: he made the audience aware of a world beyond the immediate social circle of the protagonists.

From season two onward, however, Gunn is living in the Hyperion Hotel and is completely a part of Angel's group. His only real function in the story, at that point, was to provide extra muscle and some love-triangle wangst with Fred and Wesley.

This is part of a larger problem: in season one, Angel is characterized, as he was on Buffy, as fundamentally alone. He has one or two people to whom he's close, Cordelia and Doyle, later Wesley, and a number of allies to whom he isn't very close but with whom he can work, like Kate and Gunn.

This is a very different storytelling engine than on Buffy, wherein Buffy always had her scooby gang, and one frankly much more suited to Angel's character. When they essentially recreated the scooby gang in the Hyperion Hotel starting in season two, they gave Angel a family (which is what the scoobies were on Buffy, after all), and I think that sort of misses the point of the character.

Anyway, sorry for the overly long post. What can I say? As usual, you've given us a thought-provoking and interesting essay.

John Seavey said...

Thanks! I'll agree that Gunn's becoming a member of the team was a weak point of Season Two; I thought he worked better as an occasional member of the cast, as you did.

But I do think that giving Angel his own "family" worked very well for Season Two's arc, because it made it all the more powerful when he drove them away. Angel's descent into cold-blooded callousness is, I think, the strongest storyline that either Buffy or Angel produced, and the sequence where Cordy, Wesley and Gunn implore Angel to let him help them, telling him, "We're all that stands between you and real darkness," it's a scene that works because they've been established as his friends and confidants as well as his employees.

And his response..."I agree. You're all fired." That was just a jaw-dropper. It's the point where he looks at everything he's tried to achieve, the redemption he's worked so hard for...and throws it away. It's an astonishing moment in an astonishing episode.

Austin Gorton said...

Couldn't agree more; the first time I saw that episode, it blew my mind, and continues to do so each time I see it, even knowing it's coming.

Roberta Lipp said...

Not an Angel expert, so I don't have a distinction in my mind between seasons 2 & 3.
Your description of S1 is accurate. (I never realized, though it makes perfect sense, that Whistler was supposed to come along for the ride.)
S4 was a train wreck. S4 could have been accomplished with a big bus accident. Right there in the season opener; a bus accident that kills Connor and leaves Cordelia in a coma. The writing was so bad, and it led to bad acting--I always thought that the big reveal was gonna be that Angelus was faking his soul-lessness.That's how unconvinced I was.
S5 was controversial, but I liked it.
Kartheiser has done an amazing turn. He was so awful on Angel, and now is brilliant on Mad Men (which I write about). Don't know now what was the cause of his awfulness. But he's genius.
Found your blog through Whedonesque, and now I'm going to have a poke around.

Roberta Lipp
Basket of Kisses

Anonymous said...

I think Season four would have run much smoother, were it not for Charisma Carpenter's unexpected real life pregnancy -- making Jasmine necessary, but that's not the main point I wanted to address.

I'm not sold on this concept of a "Storytelling Engine" where nothing really changes... sounds more like spinning your wheels in the muck, than storytelling and (to shift metaphors) looks like a sure route to Hacks-ville. One thing I've always admired about Whedon's shows is the willingness to upset the status quo. The shows create an illusion of a status quo that isn't really there... kinda like life.

Dan said...

Well said, mlpeters. Very well said. Putting both Angel and Buffy through difficult, undefined periods made them more human than most tv characters. Might not be the best thing ratings-wise or week-to-week, but having the DVDs around and being able to pick an episode where one of them is going through something eerily similar to your life (except, you know, with monsters) makes these series much more meaningful long-term. We didn't really care if Angel defeated the villain of the week. We cared about how he dealt with the latest major shift in his life, because that's what we have to do.

palinode said...

Season four was a crazy mess and featured some really terrible episodes, especially in the season's saggy middle, but for some reason I liked it. It was strange to watch the actors and writers ricocheting back and forth, trying to make sense out of the confusion.

For all that, though, the season also possesses a really elegant structure - you can break the story into three-episode mini-arcs and the coda that was intended to lead everyone into the fifth season.

For those who are interested, the season breaks down like this: 1-3, the gang reassembles itself; 4-6, tensions start to break them apart; 7-9, the Grand Apocalyptic Opera of the Beast; 10-12, Angelus awake and sucky; 13-15, Faith; 16-18, Connor brings forth Jasmine (and Gunn gets laid); 19-21, Utopia at too high a cost.

I also liked the way the season abandoned the theme of redemption and brought ideas of free will and choice to the fore, which I think are more interesting ideas than vampire-tries-to-do-good. Season five managed to fuse the redemptive strand and the free will strand into one storyline, which may be its real achievement. In conclusion, I really hated Eve.

Anonymous said...

Good Read--I rarely find Season 5 getting alot of appreciation whenever I read anything on Angel though. It is by far my favorite season, even though they had to scramble to make it a final season about halfway through.

I think a large part of Season 5 that's easily overlooked when people think of it in more of an academic fashion is the chemistry between the actors. This is the point where they're at their best, creating some of the most emotional episodes and moments of the show--"Lineage", "Destiny", "A Hole in the World/Shells" and "Not Fade Away" are all amazing.

The overall plot for the season I thought brought to the forefront exactly what Angel was all about as a series--It was always about 'Fighting the Good Fight' and how far they'd go for what they believed. Maybe it's just that it ties up all of their stories, but I always thought that Season 5 did a great job of showing this for every character.

David said...

Hey, long time no see. Followed a link over from Whedonesque. Shoot me an email at jesterinacastatgmaildotcom. We oughta catch up.

jeffk said...

Actually, Doyle was written out of season one when Glenn Quinn died of a drug overdose during production.

armchairdj said...

@jeffk: No, Glenn Quinn died years after leaving "Angel."

armchairdj said...

It's easy to break TV shows down into the "good seasons" and the "bad seasons," but it's spurious to do so with "Angel." Even its best seasons had long stretches of awfulness, and even its worst had frequent runs of brilliance.

Season 1 was, indeed, a series of false starts, but some standalone episodes were brilliant, and it set up many of the themes and relationships that would power later seasons. It took a long time for the ensemble to gel, but the individual moments of character development really stand up even when the eps themselves are flat "X-Files" ripoffs.

Season 2's Darla storyline worked brilliantly as an ongoing, season-long plot ... until casting problems led to a premature climax and a truly awful, tacked-on mini-series (the Pylea episodes). I'll never understand how the writers thought they cold make the Pyleans comic figures and also milk them for the drama of slavery. Every time Fred whined about "human cattle" in later seasons, I'd think back to the Dance of Joy and throw up a little.

Season 3, the only truly great season, exhibited fewer missteps and more consistency. But leading lady Cordelia disappeared for weeks at a time; Groo showed up for a really stupid romantic triangle; and huge chunks of "Uncanny X-Men" plotting were lifted for Connor's storyline. Still, the theme of redemption was never explored as fully as when Holtz appeared, bent on revenge, and destroyed Angel's life. The sins of the father .... perfect metaphor.

Season 4 was a wonderfully satisfying gothic soap opera hampered, again, by behind-the-scenes casting drama. Charisma-as-supervillain was a terrible idea, and she had no idea how to pull it off. Boreanaz overacted terribly during the Angelus eps. But so much cool stuff happened - Faith! A real apocalypse! W&H zombies! Betrayal at every turn! - that it hardly mattered. Jasmine was an inspired wrap-up to a seriously all-over-the-map season. A very different kind of villain, but an awesome one. "Home" was a flat-out brilliant, game-changing move.

Season 5, again, suffered due to casting issues. Spike felt grafted in, and way too much plot time was spent explaining his presence. But by midseason, things fired on all cylinders. Once Lindsay showed up, there wasn't a truly bad episode till "Why We Fight." Whedon wrote some of his worst dialogue ever in "A Hole in the World," but it and "Shells" are truly awe-inspiring otherwise. And "You're Welcome" is perhaps the most emotionally resonant episode in the entire Buffyverse, with the exception of "The Body." The finale stands as one of the all-time great series sendoffs.

The whole point of that entirely subjective run-down is this: The storytelling engine on "Angel" was never particularly consistent or well-run.

Anonymous said...

I loved both Angel and Buffy but can't really find fault with your assessment. I loathed season 3 of Angel for many reasons, the baby plotline just one of them. Season 5 was good but as you said, they had Spike as another Angel "wannabe" - though I still think Spike was a better fit on Angel than he ever was on Buffy. (Spike dragged BtVS way down, imo). Season 2 of Angel is pefection, imo, it had everything the series was about and was just brilliant from start to finish. Season 1 is my second favorite even with a series of false starts because it establishes all that Angel is and will be about - family and redemption. Lovely.

John Seavey said...

Wow, all these comments...hi, Joss Whedon fans! :)

I hear what you're saying, mlpeters, but unfortunately, my full discussion of your comment is a bit long to put here. Plus, I already wrote it up in this column a couple of years ago:

It's worth a read, I think, and it does explain some of my thoughts on why a status quo is more than just "spinning your wheels" (although it can be that, in less talented hands.)

John Seavey said...

And of course, I realize now that I've posted my comment that the link doesn't work. Just go back to July 2006, and look for a column called, "In Defense of the Status Quo".

(Oh, and now I'm double-posting in the comments section...for shame, John, for shame!)

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It has an awesome sense of humor and character development.It's really great seeing Angel change through out the show. Every character evolves, but Wesley was the most drastic change of all. He goes from a wimpy guy to this battle-hardened warrior. So wanna get this great & fabulous show then download Angel and watch it at your home.

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