The world is careening toward a cliff. There’s never been a better time for Joss Whedon’s Angel.
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The world is careening toward a cliff. There’s never been a better time for Joss Whedon’s Angel.

The cast of Angel season 3.By its third season, Angel had in place a cast that would serve it well. It just took a while to get there. | 20th Century Fox Television

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff about fighting the system has big things to say to 2020 audiences.

In the canon of shows created or co-created by Joss Whedon, Angel might be the problem son. Buffy is more obviously perfect, Firefly has that underdog charm, and Dollhouse is the weirdo youngest child who does whatever she wants. Angel? Angel hasn’t moved out of your basement. He broke your coffee table. He’s a little surly and all over the place, yes. But he has a good heart, ultimately, and you could never stay mad at him for long.

The comparison of this series to a child who cannot leave his parents’ basement because the world economy is in the gutter for the second time in his life is even more apt than I realized when I first made it: Angel speaks to our current era better than any other Whedon series. It’s time to let this oddball private eye show/rumination on the problems inherent to capitalism and the corporate state, a show with one of the best finales ever made, have its moment in the sun.

(Except not literally in the sun, because Angel is a vampire, and he probably wouldn’t appreciate that.)

Angel is a show about how working within the system inevitably corrupts — and yet we’re all doomed to work within the system

When it began in 1999, Angel took Buffy Summers’s brooding and handsome vampire love interest (David Boreanaz, an actor whose big break came because he was literally so hot, he made a casting agent approach him out on the street) and moved him to Los Angeles from the smaller city of Sunnydale.

Whedon and David Greenwalt, Whedon’s right hand on the first three seasons of Buffy, first imagined Angel as a supernatural spin on the private-eye drama. Each week, Angel and his associates would take a new case that inevitably had something to do with vampires or other ghouls, and the series’ larger mythology, involving a mysterious law firm named Wolfram & Hart that had ties to the occult, would inch forward.

That … didn’t really last. Angel’s early going is a little stiff and boring, so Whedon and Greenwalt decided to shake things up. And keep shaking them up. And keep shaking them up.

One of the things that makes Angel so fun is that it’s essentially a completely different show with each new season. The first year is that straightforward PI show, while year two brushes up against glum ensemble drama. Season three is more of an antihero drama, where Angel’s dark and terrible past keeps coming back to haunt him, and season four is a byzantine blender that throws dozens of plot elements into its soup and completely falls apart. Finally, season five is a workplace drama (??) where Angel and his pals become lawyers (???).

The show began simply, with Angel and fellow Buffy transplant Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) working in Los Angeles. (It’s here that I’ll note that Carpenter has strongly suggested she was eventually fired from the show in its fourth season for getting pregnant, something that nobody involved in the series has really refuted, so … about Joss Whedon’s reputation for progressive feminism … ) Very quickly, however, the series’ writers realized that one of the strengths of Buffy was its deep ensemble cast, and they began adding more and more new and crossover characters for Angel and Cordelia to bounce off of in the hope of recreating that same magic.

My favorite of these characters was Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), who had also originated on Buffy but who became so much more compelling on Angel. Wesley (an effete Brit played by an American) joins late in season one, and his character arc takes him from largely helpless naif to hugely competent monster slayer. Wesley is also sometimes forced to be at odds with Angel for supernatural reasons across the show’s five seasons.

But there are so many other good characters on this show too, from a demon who can intuit things about you from hearing you sing karaoke to a human woman from Earth who became lost in another dimension and slowly unraveled, only for Angel and company to bring her back. When the show’s ensemble is mostly in place in its third season, Angel really starts cooking with gas.

What makes Angel such a good fit for this particular moment — and I mean “this particular moment” beyond just the Covid-19 of it all — is the way in which it talks about capitalism and corporations as a corrupting force. Across the series’ 110 episodes, Angel and his friends go from outsiders challenging the supernatural order to insiders who’ve been literally co-opted by that system, saying they’re working to change it but also realizing at every turn how badly they’re failing at that.

That invigorating fifth season is what takes Angel from enjoyable TV show to all-timer for me, and it can largely be watched in isolation, if you’re so inclined. (It will help to know about the character relationships going in, but I know how little time you have.) In particular, the series’ final episode is one of the boldest TV finales I’ve ever seen, daring to make the audience believe that the show was canceled unjustly in the name of suggesting that the fight to make the world a more equitable place will never, ever stop.

I was recently talking with a friend about how geeky women who grew up in the 1990s will always have to reckon with the ways that our pop culture tastes have been shaped irretrievably by Whedon, one of the best storytellers TV has ever seen but one who isn’t always aware of his own shortcomings when it comes to telling those stories. Angel is a series that stands out because it saw its own shortcomings and kept trying to change them. From its willingness to keep reinventing itself in the name of improved quality to the ways its creators’ larger fears about propping up blood-sucking corporations become baked into the very text, it is a show that somehow never stops feeling relevant, even though it ended in 2004. Angel speaks to the here and now because the fight, such as it is, never ends.

Angel is available to stream in its entirety on Hulu.

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