“Los Angeles. You see it at night and it shines. Like a beacon. People are drawn to it.”
What's this? Is Angel now looking to be a tourist rep? To be fair to Angel, his initial sales pitch isn't actually too bad. Spoken over a swanky, fast cut, cross-fading set of LA nightlife shots, Angel's opening monologue could well attract the visitors.
It's too bad that Angel would probably be sacked on the spot, given that the impressive opening bid of this Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off quickly cuts to him getting drunk in a down-town bar. Fair enough, he's lamenting the break-up of his relationship with Buffy, but the slurred rambling about hair is a pitch wrecker if ever there was one.
Times are clearly hard for Angel. There's obviously hefty rent to pay, judging by his swanky new abode. Not only does it include office facilities, plush living quarters and a fridge, it also boasts one of those snazzy, old-style lifts. Evidently LA's lettings agencies tend to be all-day and all-night affairs – unless they accept prospective tenants who walk around swathed in blankets to protect them from the sun.
Not only that, but Angel's going through one of his 'lone wolf' phases. Despite saving the lives of two young women in the pre-credits sequence, he's not too keen on getting to know them better. Those pesky humans are no more than mobile snacks, and since Angel's still got soul, this leaves him in a moral quandary. So in order to resist the temptation, he cuts himself off in his appropriately broody pad. Maybe there's reruns of Happy Days on TV to cheer him up.
It's a good thing that a mysterious bloke called Doyle shows up to try and kick his sorry excuse for a life into gear. Doyle comes from Ireland and has a unique style of clothing. He also happens to be part demon, occasionally breaking out into green spikes, like a long lost relation of Meglos. With the Irish background, demon heritage and questionable style sense, Angel and Doyle are practically brothers. Maybe this is why the mysterious Powers That Be have chosen Doyle for the mission to transform Angel from a lazy, self-indulgent slacker into a formidable champion for good. It's possible that the PTB run their own version of the lottery, with Doyle being the latest lucky winner. Doyle's reward is less tempting than a big fat cheque with lots of zeros though – he's the somewhat unwilling recipient of head-cracking visions that conveniently warn him of oncoming danger to hapless individuals. It's no wonder that Doyle always clutches his head in abject pain: the head-spinning visions are normally accompanied by loud drum 'n' bass noise that seems to be relayed from some over-populated nightclub at two in the morning.
On the up side, Doyle's ability to relay the story so far is a lot easier. For newcomers to the whole Buffy/Angel story, it's done remarkably well. It's concise, humorous infodump, cleverly interjected with past shots of Angel, Angel with bad teeth and hair, Angel being resouled, Buffy, Buffy looking anxious, Buffy looking scary and then Angel looking scarier as he turns into a vampire. It's back story told in economic, entertaining style, and already holds out a lot of promise for this spin-off.
It also helps that Doyle himself looks to be a fun, entertaining character in his own right. 15 years after finishing the good fight forever, it's easy to remember the likes of Wesley and Gunn making up the quintessential Angel Investigations team. But Doyle is a key player in establishing the roots of the show, and he's brilliantly played by the late, great Glenn Quinn, providing a lot of down-to-earth charm and banter in his portrayal of Doyle. He's the likeable everyman, frequently mentioning sports bars, debts and of course, eyeing up the laydeez. Over the course of his time in the show, we'll find out some unexpected twists about Doyle, and these combine to make him a well-rounded and sometimes surprising character. As with many characters in Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the character you end up with doesn't always tally with first impressions.
With a new sidekick to help him out, Angel is given his first task: to meet a young woman called Tina who's in some sort of trouble. Like Buffy in The Freshman, we're seeing Angel pushed far out of his comfort zone. While Angel has to be around people, that doesn't mean that he wants to socialise with them. His brand new mission means human interaction, and it's not something that Angel relishes. Just look at his useless, faltering attempts at making contact with Tina in a coffee bar. “You don't hit on girls very often, do you?” she chuckles in response to Angel's pitiful efforts at making small talk. In Angel's favour is the super-human catch of a falling cup which is apparently enough to garner Tina's interest.
However, when Angel meets Tina after work, who for some odd reason is off to some swanky party, the mystery deepens when she mentions a man called Russell. There's reluctant body language and quick avoidance of the subject whenever talk turns to Russell. Evidently, this man does not mean well.
You can kind of tell, since Russell seems to have fingers in many pies. He also seems to have many contacts, including many of the party people such as Margo, an over-excited Julianne Moore lookalike and Stacy, an over-gelled henchman who later attempts to kidnap Tina. About the only non-member of Russell's shady cabal is a surprise blast from Angel's past. Cordelia has also come to LA in a supposed bid to embark on a successful acting career. You can take the girl out of Sunnydale, but Cordy will never change. “Are you still... grrrr?” she asks Angel before brushing him off with a subtle “I've got to get mingly. I really should be talking to people that ARE somebody.”
Away from the party though, Cordelia's life is less extravagant. She's living in what seems to be a run-down shack, a kind of show home for those who only have a budget of $10 dollars. While the company she keeps is chattering insects and the food on tap turns out to be star-shaped sandwiches snaffled from Margo's party, Cordelia does at least have optimism on her side. Meditating on the power of positive thinking, Cordy does get a breakthrough when Margo arranges a meeting with the mysterious Russell.
It's interesting in that we don't actually get to see Russell until the third act. We're given plenty of warning about what a bad guy he is. “He likes pain,” says Tina at one point – whether or not this means he likes people hitting his kneecaps with a heavy bat is up for debate, but given Tina's tears, there's darker stuff at work here. It's too bad that Angel's stumbling steps into helping people backfire when Tina discovers a crumpled piece of paper with her name and contact details written in black pen. Clearly Angel has been out of the game too long.
It's this blunder that causes Tina to run away in panic and straight into the teeth of the man himself. Russell unsurprisingly turns out to be a deadly vampire. He likes to prey on helpless young women by luring them in with dreams of career prospects and healthy futures. In a sense, Angel's inability to save Tina echoes Buffy's inability to save Eddie in The Freshman. Because both characters are struggling to adapt to their new surroundings, they're off the ball. The main difference is while Buffy's confidence is still shaken after Eddie's death and conversion, Angel is spurred on to find this guy and somehow defeat him.
Maybe it's a bit too convenient that Cordy happens to be Russell's next target. While Angel hasn't changed his hairstyle to gold-rinsed bouffant, there's still a bit of a Jessica Fletcher thing going on here. Or maybe it's some secret oudja manipulated by The Powers That Be (see the wretched Inside Out episode for more on this) to bring Cordy into the fold. But it's good to see Cordelia give as good as she gets when lured into Russell's Palace Of Sleaze - “Hey, you're a vampire!” she shouts at Russell who gives possibly the weakest denial ever seen on TV. Finally, Angel gets to save the day by breaking into Russell's abode to rescue Cordelia in typical superhero fashion (there's a touch of Batman when he takes Cordy in his arms and leaps several feet over a balcony).
I also like the way in which Angel kills Russell. It's done in the most casual fashion possible. Russell declares that because he pays his taxes and doesn't make waves, this gives him the right to anything that he wants. Putting a foot on his seat, Angel quietly asks a slightly nervous Russell if he can fly – and before he can answer, Angel kicks his chair with such force that Russell ends up crashing through a window to fall umpteen feet in board daylight, gradually burning and blistering to become nothing more than dust that spills off the broken chair on the ground. It's a great sequence that shows that this spin-off means business.
There's also a new set of foes for Angel to come up against: Lawyers. These types are essentially shorthand for pure evil, so it's logical that they get to face off against Angel. Wolfram And Hart are already represented in the scowling, charmless form of Lindsey McDonald, a walking haircut in a suit. As the season progresses, we'll get to see Wolfram And Hart do their level best to become thorns in Angel's side, and from this brief coda alone, it looks to be a long and bitter struggle.
City Of establishes Angel in supremely confident style. The look of the series alone marks it out. The story is told in what seems to be twice as many camera shots as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, quickly cutting back and forth between characters and scenarios from as many camera angles as you can comprehend. There are also lots of nice, arty link shots that dissolve from one scene to the next – whether it's shots of the sun rising or going down superimposed over the action, panning, tracking swoops over the city or fast, Doyle-Vision-style scattergun cuts. Angel manages to bring its own unique visual style to the table, and successfully conveys the more upmarket, cosmopolitan and adult setting/ethos of the show. Also a quick mention for the moody opening titles and memorable theme tune. The violin rock provided by Darling Violetta is both dramatic and also hummable, especially that noirish guitar twang in the middle.
And let's not forget this new team coming together to fight the good fight. In addition to Glenn Quinn's Doyle, it's great to have Charisma Carpenter on board for this spin-off. It made sense, given that the more mature and streetwise Cordelia didn't really belong in Sunnydale any more. With a new show, there's now more room to explore what makes Cordelia tick, and Angel will not only push Cordy's character into unexpected new avenues, it will also push Carpenter's considerable acting abilities into brand new spheres. As for the leading man himself, David Boreanaz delivers the goods. Providing a healthy dollop of intense drama, Boreanaz can also provide surprising moments of understated humour – such as his plaintive cry of “Damn!” when he's in the wrong car.
Altogether, it's a dynamic new team with plenty of promise. Just like the show itself – it's aimed at a more grown-up audience than Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and with its unique visual style and dark atmosphere (albeit with a hefty twist of black humour), Angel is already on course to be a massively enjoyable and exciting show in its own right.