It was somewhat inevitable. With the runaway success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer somebody had to come up with the idea of a spin-off series, and luckily, in this case, that somebody was Joss Whedon, a man with enough savvy to pull off a concept that generally has a long history of ending in disaster.
With broody 246-year old vampire-with-a-soul hunk of tall, dark and handsome Angel needing to escape the emotional torture of being near his beloved Buffy (they canít be together, for due to a gypsy curse if he experiences 'true happiness' he becomes severely evil again), the perfect candidate existed. Transplanted to a rather seedily portrayed Los Angeles, the kind of sweetly unworldly not-a-people-person has the perfect landscape in which to pursue his eternal quest for redemption - a sea of helpless blondes to rescue (so much for the Buffy ethic) and an underworld of demons, gargoyles and other vamps to rival that of Sunnydale's hellmouthiest hellmouth days to wage war against.
Whereas Buffy circles around a sort of late teen, coming of age-type story vibe, Angel goes more for the 20-something dealing with the real world angle, and is generally much darker in tone. That special Joss Whedon brand of humour still rears its welcome head, however generally things are a tad less frivolous in favour of upping the drama - and if not for studio interference (Grrr! Argh!) things would have been even grittier than what we ended up with.
Any new series takes a while to find its feet, and thankfully Angel manages to do it with remarkable ease and speed. More episodic than the generally seasonally arced Buffy, some broad threads carry through the entire season, however if you stumble in half way Angel is a lot easier to get up to speed with. Opportunities are taken for crossovers between the two series' - which is a little awkward in this instance as Angel's first season runs concurrently with Buffy's fourth, and it ain't on DVD yet - however they are generally handled with enough aplomb to avoid the necessity of seeing both to know what's going on. Those who are familiar with both shows, however, will be rewarded with the occasional lightbulb-over-the-head, "so that's what that was all about!" moment. So, what's in store then?
City of Angels
Lots of scene setting as Angel meets Doyle, a half human/half demon sent to help by "the powers that be", and somebody who really should avoid sneezing. After Doyle's first 'vision', a rather vague portent that indicates something's up somewhere, Angel runs into Cordelia, and is introduced to the law firm Wolfram and Hart, an organisation even Johnny Cochrane is too ethical to join. We'll be seeing a lot more of them, too...
Angel Investigations is born, complete with Doyle as vision thing assistant and Cordy as an, umm, well - she's there! We meet Kate, the cop with a few trust issues who becomes a semi-regular character, and a rather icky and fussy eviscerating demon as we go off for a spot of '80s singles bar clubbing.
In the Dark
Spike's in town! Yummmmmmy! Ahem - he's followed that man of few words Oz from Sunnydale, who has a pressie for Angel from Buffy - the gem of Amara, which renders its wearer 100% unkillable. Needless to say Spike wouldnít mind this bauble for himself, and employs a rather nasty Mozart-obsessed king of pain named Marcus to help exact some revenge on the big fluffy puppy with bad teeth.
I Fall to Pieces
While Angel has issues with charging for his services, another of Doyle's visions leads him to Melissa, who is being stalked by a rather creepy and somewhat obsessed neurosurgeon who is keeping an eye on her every move...
Rm W/A Vu
Cordy needs out of her cockroach infested fleapit of an apartment, and lobs herself on Angel. Angel wants his space, so does a deal with Doyle, who is catching up with some unwelcome demons from his past - help Cordy find new digs and he'll take care of other matters. They find the perfect place, although it seems like it was all too good to be true - but then Cordy remembers who she is...
Sense & Sensitivity
After an encounter with an oopy tentacly thing, Cordy and Doyle are rather miffed at Angel's lack of appreciation of them. He's not the only one with issues, as Kate's tanties lead to her, and her workmates, undergoing sensitivity training. Meanwhile, underworld guy Little Tony (who needless to say is rather portly) wants revenge on her after being busted...
The Bachelor Party
A ghost from Doyle's past pops by in the shape of his former wife, so just why exactly? Could it have something to do with a KFC-munching bunch of suburban demons that like side orders of brains? Girls, if you ever had doubts about bachelor parties, this wonít change your minds. Meanwhile, Doyle has a Buffy vision...
I Will Remember You
Angel gets back from a quick trip to Sunnydale, only to face a rather pissed off Buffy and a goopy mutant ninja Mohra demon thing, after which he happens to get the munchies seriously big time...
Surprise, surprise, Angel is double broody after Buffy's departure. There's no time for sulking though, as he's seen as the 'Promised One' by a family of half-breed demon refugees who are being hunted by a rather nasty army of demon stormtrooper football-heads in town for a spot of ethnic cleansing...
While Cordy's having immense troubles coming to terms with a gift from Doyle, Angel sets out to help an empath demon who is being stalked. Oh goodness, Wesley Wyndham Price, a failed watcher of Buffy's and all round prig with a large pole firmly inserted fifty feet up his bottom, is back - masquerading as a 'rogue demon hunter'. He's still as wussy as ever though...
Angel's having some seriously vivid and nasty dreams, and when a serial-sucker is reported on the streets of L.A. loyalties are questioned - is Angel going all Angelus in his dreams and sleepstalking?
When you have a series where the eponymous character has the slightly bothersome problem of being daylight-phobic for fear of bursting into flames, it makes sense that you're going to be filming in lots of dark places. The best news with this transfer is how well it is handled, for if the shadow detail suffered we'd just see dingy, blurry, blobby things and little else. Mercifully though detail is more than present and accounted for. Unlike Buffy, Angel started life being shot on 35mm film, and detail-wise this appears to have helped no end, especially as grain is at a minimum - really the only bits that suffer from it a little are some of the stock establishing shots of buildings and the like, a few of which also display a little aliasing at times.
Colour and skin tones are pleasingly realistic throughout (well, we'll give the benefit of the doubt for the many demonic greeblies which we donít really have a reference point for), and those forays the show makes into the light of day come up just as splendidly as the dark stuff. No layer changes are visible as episodes are obviously placed two to a layer, and the only other quibble technically is the occurrence of a few white speckles throughout - they're certainly not in plague proportions by any means, but their presence can be mildly distracting at times.
So it all sounds pretty darned fabby, right? Well, as long as you are generously bighearted and can forgive the one seriously major flaw with the presentation then yes, it is. However, others of us canít help but scratch our heads until they bleed wondering just why on Earth this first series of Angel, which was shot in 1.78:1, has arrived on DVD in full frame. The official line from Fox offers some rather flaccid excuses such that none of the networks that took this first series wanted it in widescreen, so no masters were able to be found. Surely if it was made in the format then masters exist? It appears more as if somebody simply couldnít be bothered making the effort to keep the literally thousands of fans who petitioned for the widescreen release happy, which is both sad, disturbing and bitterly disappointing. Anyway, the video rating has been lowered to reflect this unfortunate disregard for fans and the buying public in general.
Unlike the Buffy box sets released so far, a certain amount of extremely disappointing slip-shoddiness seems to have crept into the creation of this first release of Angel, the worst being the inexcusable use of full frame masters rather than releasing it in the aspect ratio it was created in. Whilst promises have been made that season two, and indeed Buffy season four onwards (which saw the first move away from full frame use) will come to us in their correct ratios, we'll most likely always be stuck with this inferior first release.
Ignoring this one massive let down, technically what we get is fine. The mostly dark settings of Angel come up quite divinely on DVD, and sound is serviceable. Extras are rather thin on the ground, however a Joss Whedon commentary always adds to the value considerably - if only more commentaries were as engaging as this!
As an adjunct to Buffy, Angel is quite the success, and a series that any fans of the former should lap up gleefully. It manages to skilfully take the vibe of its parent, tweak it appropriately for its new environs and main story motivation - that of Angel's quest for redemption - yet manages to remain true to the humour, depth of emotion and general must see-ness that we've become accustomed to after three seasons of the sheer brilliance of Buffy - even if there isnít much in the way of Spike!