Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Angel

Here's your Starter For Ten. What was the Angel pilot called?

City Of...? Well, that's a given, but if you'd simply answered Angel, as in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season One story, you may have a point. After all, this story properly introduces the broody, enigmatic vampire who these days apparently makes do with biting into tubs of super-strength hair gel in order to to get the lid off.

Up until now, the character of Angel hasn't really done much – which may explain why I always found him a bit annoying in the beginning. For the most part, in the early days, Angel is no more than a frowning poseur. A wannabe pop star in his very own pop video of swirling dry ice and crumpled leather jackets. You half expect him to start crooning a bad cover of some random soft rock pop tune like Heartbeat by Don Johnson (mind you, given his future warblings in the Caritas club, this isn't such a stretch of the imagination). However, what this story does is to give Angel a great big back story that's crying out to be explored, and as a result, he becomes a character in his own right rather than a be-gelled lump of cryptic plot exposition.

Angel adds a great twist to the tale, and also cements the sad ballad of Buffy's love life that can never be. You can imagine viewers jumping out of their seats at the bit when Angel pulls back from a Buffy tongue sandwich and shows his real vampire visage. That's a great twist, and one that many fans probably couldn't have foreseen. As Darla later crows at Angel: “You love someone who hates us. You're sick. You'll always be sick.” It's the love affair that can never be, and as we'll see in future stories, Buffy will find this out at a huge cost.

So just who is the man with the leather jacket and the girly name? Well, it turns out that his full name is Angelus, “a vicious, violent animal”, as Giles describes him. He's a sprightly 240 years old, and originally hails from Ireland. During a chance meeting with an enigmatic siren called Darla, it turns out that he'd met his doom – worse than that, vampire Darla turned him into the undead, a monster who killed his family, his friends, their kids, and then embarked on a killing spree throughout Europe. “For 100 years, I offered ugly death to everyone I met and I did it with a song in my heart,” he later confesses to Buffy. All the clues are actually there in the first half of the story. When quizzed by Buffy about his family, Angel simply says that they are dead and that the cause of their death was vampires – a long while ago. It's not spelled out in big, bold letters, but Angel's history is summed up in a few words, the meaning of which becomes clear at the all-important climax. That's nifty writing, and just one little victory of David Greenwalt's excellent script.

In the end, it turns out that Angel's sudden exile from vampiric killing sprees across Europe was all down to a gypsy curse. After the brutal murder of a gypsy girl, the gypsy elders responded with the worst punishment possible for a vampire. They restored Angel's soul. No wonder Angel always walks around with the pained expression of a man who's just had root canal treatment without anaesthetic. All that guilt and remorse came flooding back in the wink of an eye. “You have no idea what it's like to have done the things I've done and to care,” says Angel. It explains why he's constantly seeking redemption – a theme that will be explored in greater detail in his own spin off-show. Again, it's a neat twist, and a smart variant on the stereotypical blood sucking vampire cliché. It's kind of a pity that Angel will largely go back to skulking in the shadows for the rest of this season, and for the first half of Season 2. David Boreanaz does a good job as Angel, and he'll certainly get to prove that there's more to his character than just deadly puzzle clues in the latter half of the second season.

With all this plot exposition and background, it would be easy to pass off Angel as a heavy-handed 45 minute infodump session. In fact, it's a fast paced and exciting bit of Buffy that successfully combines action with groundwork laying. Given that the last few stories have been concerned with school woes such as bullying, parent pressure and teenage angst, Angel is a surprisingly mature episode. It's a brave move to introduce a whole new dimension and mythology to a programme that, on the surface, is teenage bubblegum excitement candy. That it works so well is testament to the creator and the writing team, who had the shrewd knack of adding a bit of depth and making the series just that little bit more than a routine escapist programme.

There's two broken love stories for the price of one here. The obvious one concerns Buffy, the other concerns The Master's blondie second banana, Darla – Angel's sire, who's desperate to bring him back into the fold. I've not talked much about Julie Benz's performance – whereas she made the most of her limited screen time in Welcome To The Hellmouth/The Harvest, here, she steals the show and runs away with it in a swag bag. Benz does a brilliant job as the seductive Darla, purring with brittle menace. It's that butter-wouldn't-melt, little girl lost voice that makes her memorable. On the surface, she's the harmless schoolgirl, turning up on a study date with Buffy, and managing to fool Joyce. Underneath though, she's a deadly monster, who kills simply because it's in her blood. “Don't whimper and mewl like a mangy human,” she breathes to an unimpressed Angel. “Kill! Feed! Live!”

The irony of course, is that the monster that she created becomes her death. Angel proves himself to a cautious Buffy by staking his sire to dust. It's another great twist, and for the moment, it's sad that the character of Darla isn't explored further. It's another blow to the heart of the poor old Master, who's finding that he really should have paid greater attention to his lackeys' CVs. Not only do the feared warrior vampires, The Three, make a hash of their simple task to kill Buffy, his pet favourite Darla is reduced to ashes. No wonder he's in a funk at the end of the story – he's stuck with the vampiric equivalent of Callum from Neighbours. At least Joss Whedon would wisely resurrect Darla back from the dead at the end of Angel's first spin-off season to examine their turbulent history in greater detail.

There's very little to fault with this episode. Perhaps the only goof is Joyce's inexplicably weird excuse that she slipped and cut her neck on a barbecue fork. It's the first in a long line of extreme Joyce denials about her daughter's weird and wacky secret life. Defence mechanism? Or wilful blindness? You decide.

Otherwise, Angel provides concrete evidence of a TV show that's coming together in all quarters. The script is well assembled by David Greenwalt, who makes the lengthy expositions come to life with plenty of sparkling lines and piles of wit (“Willow's the Civil War expert, but then I was supposed to help her with the War Of Independence,” smirks Darla. “My family kinda goes back to those days.”). The acting from the regulars is uniformly strong. Aside from Julie Benz's scene stealer, David Boreanaz provides a quietly understated turn as Angel, and Mark Metcalf continues to entertain (“I am weary and their deaths will bring me little joy. Of course, sometimes a little is enough...”). And of course, let's not forget Sarah Michelle Gellar, who perfectly conveys Buffy's confusion, torment and sadness at the discovery of Angel's real identity.

Overall, it's one of the best examples of Buffy's premiere season. It stands out as a grown-up example of a TV show that's prepared to rewrite the rules and establish a long and winding mythology. It paves the way for things to come with Angel's future TV spin-off and does so with considerable style. A vital Buffy episode for both the fans and the casual viewer alike.

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