Angel Reviews: I Fall To Pieces

On the surface, Dr Ronald Meltzer has it all. He's a brilliant surgeon, one of the best in his field, having specialised in re-attaching severed nerves. He probably has enough money to buy the swankiest property that money can buy – or at the very least, a fancy speedboat. He's even thinking about settling down with his girlfriend, a woman called Melissa Burns. So what's grating his cheese?

Well, it turns out that Melissa's only his make-believe girlfriend. The two had one platonic date after Meltzer saved Melissa's sight, but Meltzer's deluded himself into thinking that one day they'll be walking down an aisle, cutting a three-tiered cake and jetting off to the Bahamas for a honeymoon. In the real world, despite his medical brilliance and sackfuls of money, Melissa isn't looking to get to know Meltzer better.

If only someone would tell Meltzer, given that he's gone all creepy stalker on Melissa – and when he has the power to sever body parts and limbs through the power of the mind, that's bad news.

Who better to step into the breach than Angel and his merry duet of followers? Melissa's predicament couldn't have come at a better time, given that Angel Investigations badly needs the money. The coffee's over a week old. The office could do with a lick of paint. Cordy's credit cards are presumably maxed out. Helping the helpless involves a fair degree of personal risk, so it's only reasonable that Cordy asks her boss to incur a fee for all future clients.

It's ironic, though, that their first paying customer seems to be dogged by bad luck – Melissa must walk around with a cartoon cloud perpetually hanging over her head. Her workmates can't spell her name properly on a birthday cake. She's had a narrow escape with blindness. And to cap it all, the guy who saved her sight turns out to be a creepy, stalking freak.

I Fall To Pieces is a classic example of using old horror clichés to make a point. Initially, the first glimpse of Meltzer sees a rather pathetic middle aged chap who has somehow managed to change Melissa's PIN code to the date that they first met. Despite just the one date, Meltzer's convinced that the two are in some sort of committed relationship. The creepiness factor is heightened only minutes later when we find out that Meltzer has somehow detached one of his eyeballs, which is now hovering in Melissa's bedroom as she gets ready for bed. It's the sort of thing found in your archetypal horror flick, and the idea of a detachable creep is a suitably disquieting one.

Admittedly, some of the effects are a wee bit hit and miss. While the floating eyeball is memorably gross, the detached hands clamping down on the luckless cop's neck and the flying teeth are unintentionally funny.

Fortunately, the guest performance from Baddie Of The Week is better. Andy Umberger is better known to Buffy fans as Anya's sarky demon boss, D'Hoffryn. Without the heavy make-up, he uses awkward body language and subtle facial expressions to convey a bad guy who's simultaneously unnerving and pathetic. For the first time this series, Angel isn't dealing with a demon or a vampire – he's dealing with a human being, albeit one who's turned himself into a freak show. It's a chicken and egg situation at play here. Meltzer's single-minded pursuit of Melissa seems to be a desperate attempt to get any woman to fall in love with him – but he manages to repel and creep out Melissa in the process. Meltzer is essentially a weak man, drowning in his own self-loathing and desperation. In the end, it's not a fantastical ray gun or a stake that gets the better of Meltzer – it's a few home truths.

What's driving Angel in this particular case is not money, but the fact that he's recognised an unwelcome kindred spirit in Meltzer. Only a couple of years ago, his evil alter ego was doing the same sort of thing to Buffy. Think back to the events of Passion, when he'd quietly stalk Buffy, her friends and family. It's the same sort of deal, although there's one glaring difference between Angelus and Meltzer. If Meltzer's stalking Melissa out of some twisted, misguided love fixation, Angelus was stalking Buffy out of pure hate.

Perhaps Angel's investing himself in this case in order to continue down the path of redemption. Having destroyed the Gem of Amara, he feels the need to right his past wrongs. Melissa's case provides him with a scenario that he recognises all too easily. This time around though, he's championing Melissa all the way, quietly giving her the self-confidence that she's lacking: “You’ve survived a living hell these last few months and you’re still standing, while he’s coming unhinged at not being able to control you. He’s the weak one. You’re the strong one.” Angel isn't just rewarded with a cheque and a gaudy flower pot, but with the satisfaction in that the man rather than the demon won out this time around.

I Fall To Pieces is a smaller scale story than say, the flashy season opener or the mini-reunion of In The Dark. It's also a lot more talky than normal, as characters sit around either musing on the darker side of Meltzer or working out how to stand up to him. As a result, it's a story that tends to be forgotten when discussing Angel, given that it's buried under many season arcs, grisly demons and demises and karaoke bars.

Despite its low-key approach, there's still quite a bit to enjoy here. Andy Umberger's creepy performance. Some atmospheric set-pieces, especially when Doyle and Cordelia hunt in the shadows for the moving disassembled Meltzer.

The story really wins out in two fields though – one of these is the dialogue. We're in safe hands with the team behind the story. David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon are credited with the story, although Greenwalt's teleplay ensures that he can provide many amusing lines. There's Angel musing on his imposing taste in clothing, Doyle taking his bromance with Angel just a step too far in the opening pre-titles teaser and Cordy's usual sledgehammer tactics when interviewing the nurse: “So he is good at the cutting and the sewing. Did he ever strike you as a big dangerous creep?”

The interplay between the regulars is the second major strike of I Fall To Pieces. Only four episodes in and they've quickly settled into a comfy groove. I'll freely admit that I think that the series works better with a small group of three rather than the larger team format that would take place later in the series. There's a sense that both the storylines and dialogue are rationed out in subsequent seasons, which is weird given that Buffy The Vampire Slayer can give equal slices of the action to a bigger group of regulars.

So it's nice to see a smaller group of three in the first season, since it allows for a greater dynamic between Angel, Cordy and Doyle. There's still that little bit of tension between Doyle and Cordy at this point – although slowly but surely, they're coming to respect and like each other more. It's good to see Doyle take a more pro-active role, acting as Melissa's rather nervous bodyguard and taking arms against the crawling body parts of Meltzer in Angel's pad.

It's interesting to see Cordy in these early Angel episodes – she's at that transitional stage between being the shallow airhead from the Buffy The Vampire Slayer days and the more mature character that's gradually coming through. While she's prone to outspoken outbursts, she's also capable of showing intelligent insight, such as her musings on the injustice of Meltzer's treatment of Melissa. Because there's no season arc, this allows the writers to concentrate more on developing the regular characters. We're getting to see what makes them tick, and thanks to a combination of intelligent scripting and top-flight performances from David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter and Glenn Quinn, the initial Angel Investigations team is one of the most compelling.

After the heady rush of the opening trio of stories, I Fall To Pieces sees the Angel series taking a calmer moment to breathe a little. It's a tale that's closer to home as opposed to the traditional Demon/Vampire Invasion tag. That means that it's a good opportunity to get to know the regular team and to see how they work against amoral crazies like Meltzer. Even Kate's reasonably subdued this week, keeping the whiny paranoia on the back-burner for a change. It's not one of the best remembered episodes of the season, but thanks to a crisp script from Greenwalt and good interplay between the regulars, I Fall To Pieces still stands up well.

Unlike poor old Meltzer.