Angel Reviews: Lonely Hearts

If there's ever a type of TV show to make an executive rub his pudgy hands together in evil laughing glee, it's the dating programme. Attempting to successfully matchmake on TV is like trying to teach a hamster to juggle. That's where the 'fun' lies, I guess – seeing mismatched couples navigate their way through glacial silences, ill-advised attempts at flirting and the usual nonsense about how the other half isn't attractive/tall/loud enough (delete as applicable). From the staged replies and convenient post-date antagonism of Blind Date through to the three course culinary disasters of Dinner Date through to the cackling fake tan and hair extension mob of Take Me Out, dating shows just will not take no for an answer.

Which leads me to Lonely Hearts, the second thrilling instalment of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off show, Angel. While Buffy The Vampire Slayer tackled the common problems of being in high school, then Angel is doing the same thing for the dreaded years of the 20s. It's a funny old decade – you've finally got your wish of being an adult, but you're not quite sure which way to turn in life, whether it's friendships, career or dating. A bit like being stuck in the middle of a maze with no handy map to help you out.

Angel tackles the thorny issue of dating and applies the well-established Buffy trick of using a monster metaphor to convey the problem. In this case, it's established by a gruesome and highly suspect looking creature that burrows its way through hapless singletons, leaving them decaying, curdling messes. See what writer David Fury did there? The Burrower equals that serial dater who works his or her way through hopeful partners, leaving them high and dry after they actually don't turn out to be “The One”.

The main backdrop for Lonely Hearts inevitably turns out to be a flashy, gaudy tin can of a nightclub called D'Oblique. Here, furtive looks are exchanged, sorrows are drowned and music dismantles the eardrums. I say music – it's actually more along the lines of what sounds like a man kicking a defective pop-up toaster in the middle of an amusement arcade. It's a grim reminder of the horror of virtually all nightclubs, and a classic warning that true love can never be found in these sorts of places. For starters, you'd need to delve into your musty VCR copies of creaky mime gameshow Give Us A Clue to be in with a shot at getting the best out of these locales. Since the loud music means that conversation is either misunderstood or in worst case scenarios, unheard, then you need to be a supreme mime expert along the lines of Lionel Blair or Una Stubbs in order to stand a chance of wooing the opposite sex. On top of this, you need to be highly proficient in dancing (and that means no Saturday Night Fever hip-to-air pointing, please) and dodging the obligatory drunkards who are doing their bit for the environmentally unfriendly crusade to release near-poisonous beer breath smog into the air. No good can come from any of this madness.

As Angel himself later notes, the dating game is “brutal”. Being the poster boy for brooding introspection, Angel isn't exactly enjoying his weekend night out at D'Oblique. Having made a few tumbles in his initial assignment to help a coffee bar waitress, Angel isn't faring much better in this episode. He's either making blokes think that he's “hitting” on them or failing drastically to make small talk. When he finally looks like he's getting somewhere, the grilled girl in question also misunderstands Angel's 'strictly business only' approach.

Enter Kate Lockley, future sparring partner for Angel and surprise policewoman. Angel is starting to take inspiration from its sister show by building up a network of secondary semi-regular characters – some of whom work very well, some of whom don't so much. Kate herself probably falls between these two stools. While Elisabeth Rohm turns in a good performance, the character of Kate is, more often that not, hard to like. Whiny. Judgemental. Holier-than-thou. Just three of the many downbeat descriptions you'd link with Kate, who over time, will go from being a sceptical helping hand to a self-absorbed, bleating thorn in the side. Even in Lonely Hearts, she classically misreads the situation and falls back on self-righteous grumpiness: “I can go where ever I want – and you can, uh, go to hell,” she huffs at Angel outside the D'Oblique club (Angel's wry “Been there, done that” is a great, silent comeback). While it's a refreshing change to feature secondary characters as frosty and hard to trust or empathise with, the down side is that it's never fun to spend time with characters such as Kate – despite Rohm working her hardest to inject her on-screen persona with a bit of personality, and even vulnerability.

The other problem with Lonely Hearts is that while the episode gives Angel a lot to do, its leaving its other two regulars standing waiting at the bar. There is admittedly a bit of friction building up between Cordelia and Doyle. He's evidently looking to get to know her better – while at this point, she definitely doesn't want to know. Cordelia, at this moment in time, is only looking for someone who fits the usual shallow cliché of tall, dark, handsome and with more money than a champagne-spraying Lottery winner. Since Doyle doesn't quite fit Cordelia's current partner requirements, the two are resigned to be grudging book researchers. It's a shame that Lonely Hearts doesn't provide more substantial material for these two, although Glenn Quinn and Charisma Carpenter ensure that their original fantastic performances in City Of... weren't flukes. Fortunately, better material's waiting around the corner for Cordelia and Doyle.

On the positive side, Lonely Hearts' plot is well worked out. It's constantly keeping you guessing as to who or what the threat is. The pre-credits teaser suggests it's the cheesy guy who chats up poor, lonesome Sharon Richler. The end of the first act knocks that assumption on the head, when we see a predatory-looking Sharon leave behind the fast-decaying body of the cheesy guy in bed. It's a great plot that makes the most of its mystery – even if Sharon looks to be the favourite suspect at one point, this is flipped around to reveal that she's been momentarily possessed by the Burrower. And when the Burrower concludes that Sharon isn't the right body, it then moves onto a nerdy guy nicknamed the Screech, and then onto Screech's one night stand. In the end, it all tracks back to the bartender, whom I certainly wouldn't have originally figured as being involved in these shenanigans on first viewing.

That's the secret of a good plot, and altogether, the Burrower metaphor equates well with the ongoing quest to find that one true love. Angel is already showing its higher gore content than Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The scenes in which the Burrower bursts its way through the luckless victim's body are quite graphic and grisly, and the make-up for the decaying cadavers is also very effectively realised. The bartender's gradual physical breakdown is particularly memorable, especially the way in which he tries in vain to stick down his flapping head skin.

Another thing that Lonely Hearts gets right is... well, the clue is in the title. If Buffy The Vampire Slayer flirts with the notion of the outsider, then Angel fully embraces it in a tightly hugging clinch. This is a brand new world that we're in, a dark adult universe in which loneliness seems to be more common than wasps buzzing round a picnic spot on a scorching July day. It's telling that the main thing holding back pre-Burrower Sharon and Screech is their staggering lack of self-confidence. Sharon's initial body language when sipping a jar with cheesy guy runs along the lines of eyes staring down at the table and quietly mumbled, clipped speech. Screech brings his own brand of loser-dom to the party by harking back to his unhappy days of school – evoking images of braying Jock types hanging him up from the school goalposts. It's not just Angel trying to make bewildered sense of the world around him, it's virtually all of the population. It's a stark reminder that shy outsiders ain't in the minority.

Talking of which, Angel does at least get plenty to do in his second adventure. He's amusingly goofy in his hapless attempts at interrogating the D'Oblique clientèle. He gets to do the Batman thing again when trapped in the D'Oblique cellar (Kate even asks “Who are you?” just like in the 1989 movie). He also gets the chance to beat the wind out of the baddies far more than when he was in Buffy The Vampire Slayer – the difference being that most of the time, he's doing so while rolling false vampire dentures around in his mouth and looking at the world through (presumably) barely visible contact lenses and overhanging vampire brow. David Boreanaz has made the part of Angel his own and has confidently established himself as the leading man with equal measures of dramatic gravitas and humour.

Lonely Hearts tends to get overlooked when sitting down to look back over the five seasons of Angel. Which is a shame. While there are one or two faults with some of the supporting characters, overall, it's a confident and slick production, taking a familiar everyday theme and putting a demonic spin on it. Possibly, this lack of recognition is down to the story not being part of a running arc.

In fact, I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that the first season actually ranks as one of my favourites because of this. It makes for a change to have a string of separate, unconnected adventures that are there just to entertain and grip the viewers. Angel's attempts at handling a story arc tend to be a bit spotty, for me personally. Either they're over and done with too soon (Season 2) or completely fudged (Season 4). About the only season to get the story arc right is the third one, while the bookending seasons mainly comprise stand-alone tales that can be enjoyed in their own right.

Lonely Hearts is a good, enjoyable yarn that manages to get its underlying message across through dark visuals and well-written dialogue. It's got plenty of flashy visual effects, neat directorial touches (such as the musical montage of Angel battling to locate the Burrower and the monster claiming more victims) and humour (the ongoing joke of whether the new calling cards feature an angel, a butterfly or a lobster). This spin-off show is already shaping up to be a compelling winner – and there's an old enemy of Angel's waiting in the wings to shake things up further...