Angel: Looking back at the Buffy spin-off that slayed
Martyn Conterio | On 31, May 2021
Angel (1999-2004) was as much a gamble for breakout star David Boreanaz as it was for show creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt. Angel, the vampire with a soul, became one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s most popular characters during his three-season run, the romance between Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the mysterious stranger pitched as grandly and tragic as Romeo and Juliet. After all, as Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) noted, there is something poetic about a vampire falling in love with a vampire slayer. It’s a thing that should not be. However, by the end of Season 3, it was clear Angel’s time in Sunnydale was reaching a natural conclusion. He couldn’t stick around. Especially not after his antics in Season 2, where Angel became his evil alter-ego, Angelus, and caused absolute mayhem in town. When his soul was restored in Season 3, amends were made but Angel and Buffy’s future looked bleak. For vampires are stuck in a time loop, in a way. They don’t age, they can’t settle down into domesticity, nor live a normal life. Buffy is our put-upon saviour, but she also wants respite from such things on occasion, and dating a bloodsucker isn’t exactly going to give her that. Angel and Buffy was always going to be a finite and complicated scenario.
Interviews in the years since tell us that during Buffy’s second season, Whedon began to recognise in Boreanaz star potential. The actor could be much more than an ensemble player. When the showrunner approached the actor on set one day, he originally thought he was being fired, about to be told the character would be killed off for purposes of drama. Instead, Whedon proposed Angel go it alone, as the character was naturally a loner anyway, but it allowed for his story to evolve away from the Buffy storylines. Angel was pitched to the WB as classic Los Angeles noir, only here the gumshoe was a creature of the night on a journey of atonement for his murderous sins committed as Angelus. Angel would do his darndest to “help the helpless”.
And who else better to play sidekick to Angel than Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter)? The pairing is gonzo, and never should have worked. In Buffy, they were only ever part of Buffy’s circle, never friends of their own accord. The vacuous rich girl who somehow fell in with the nerds and realised there was more to life than manicures, football games, cheerleading and couture fashion, Cordelia had a welcome chance to change, too. Boreanaz and Gellar were indeed brilliant together on screen, but the chemistry with Carpenter was equally potent, and also a lot damn funnier. As Angel Investigations gets set up in the debut season, the dynamic shared is often one of pure comedy, with Cordelia hired as Angel’s ditzy secretary, ready to ditch him in a flash, if only her agent would call with an offer of an acting gig. She constantly gets on his nerves but likes having a familiar face around.
Carpenter is a fantastic comedian, and the writers clearly had a ball writing her dialogue. As a performer, she brought a light touch to the darkness and, in opening episodes, Cordelia is slumming it as a wannabe starlet but, importantly, it opens her eyes to the sordid side of celebrity culture and how LA isn’t all that different from Sunnydale. Angel and Cordy’s unlikely reuniting leads to a beautiful friendship and emotional growth.
Unfortunately, as the seasons went on, the writing room thought it would be a good idea for Angel and Cordelia to become an item. (Arrested Development Narrator: “It wasn’t.”) It’s the sole misstep, mind, because as a tale of unlikely friendship, the show learned how to smile while still having the ability to be serious and moody.
Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, originally the show opted for a story-of-the-week first season, so that Angel was allowed to find its feet before it found its voice and developed a sprawling narrative. It’s a far moodier show, cynical, sometimes bleak, with Los Angeles depicted as the fragmented metropolis it very much is, a place where vice and crime and social problems are hidden away from celebrity enclaves and the wealthy. But as Los Angeles is close enough to the Hellmouth, just up north a bit in Sunnydale, it’s like Mos Eisley in Star Wars: a hive of scum and villainy. Angel soon learns a law firm, Wolfram and Hart, represents most of the city’s biggest movers and shakers, meaning the private eye butts heads with Satan’s attorneys on more than a few occasions.
Season 1 featured Doyle (Glenn Quinn). As a half-man, half-demon seer, Angel Investigations was launched as a trio. Doyle brought cases to Angel’s door. Quinn, Boreanaz and Carpenter had a winning chemistry, but it was not written to last. Part of Cordelia’s progression involved her becoming part-demon, so Doyle made a sharp exit in Episode 9 (Hero), and another unlikely Sunnydale reject made his way into the show, and quickly established himself as the MVP: Wesley Wyndam-Price, Buffy and Faith’s former Watcher, who was sacked by the Watcher’s Council for failing in his duties.
The nerdy Brit pitches up in LA passing himself off, unconvincingly as a “rogue demon hunter”, dressed in Terminator leathers and posing as a badass killer. Alexis Denisof’s English accent and manner is so convincing that it’s a shock to learn he’s actually American. Wesley sticks around because he’s got nowhere else to go. Like Angel and Cordy, he’s a person in transition and, as the seasons move along, Wes’s narrative arc is positively stunning, verging on Shakespearean tragedy.
At the end of Season 1, Charles Gunn (J. August Richards) is introduced. The trio becomes a quartet. Gunn is a crucial addition because he’s a local, and a tough dude. Gunn’s rough upbringing brought a distinct working-class flavour to the team. Gunn is the one with the street knowledge, which the others, being out of towners, do not really possess. Angel needed muscle for the dirtier jobs that come across his desk, Richards was perfectly cast, a fresh face with no connection to Sunnydale, unlike Boreanaz, Carpenter and Denisof. The foundation of the ensemble was rock solid, each character bringing something unique to the table and all proving indispensable.
In the second season, Angel began to find its own voice. Individual episodes are often excellent, full of excitement and witty banter between the cast, but we also see a mythology and identity forming more and more. Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t exactly disappear like the road in a rear-view mirror, and if you’re worried Angel cuts ties entirely with its originator, you can rest assured, Buffy does make an appearance or two. Angel and Buffy would never be out of each other’s orbits forever. And Boreanaz still made guest appearances in Buffy, of course. What Angel managed to do was carve out its own niche and that’s what made it a successful spin-off in its own right.
If Buffy the Vampire Slayer was focused on the metaphor of high school as a horror movie, situated on the travails of growing up and finding your identity, Angel was a show about family and navigating our confusing and dangerous world as an adult. And guess what? The world is a terrifying and horrible place full of exploiters, maniacs and generally dreadful people – alive and deceased, human and demon. Angel and his team grow closer and closer, essentially becoming a makeshift family of strays. Amy Acker joined the team in its third season, having made a few appearances at the end of the second. Again, the casting proved exceptional. Her chemistry with Denisof sparkled right there from the start, and the romance between Wes and Fred complicated by many factors and obstacles along the way. Oh, the drama!
Although an ensemble setup, Boreanaz is always the main man. If Angel in Buffy was a brooding type unused to mixing with folk, in his own television outing he displayed a lot more range. He becomes funnier, for starters. The use of humour allowed Angel to be more self-aware and rounded. He never for a minute loses his action hero appeal or darkness, it’s just a way to deliver different beats. There is something of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones about Angel in his own show. The same wry quality shines through, an ability to be serious and make a quip, often in the course of the same line of dialogue. Angel grows into the hero he was always destined to be, the path to his atonement always compelling because of a prophecy which says one day he might once again become human. It gives the show momentum and the character a goal to achieve.
Now it’s time to deal with Season 4. On the surface, it’s a very good storyline and certain episodes crossover with Buffy’s last run. Angel and his crew have to fight off a big demon who will bring hell on earth to Los Angeles, and maybe the world beyond. In recent months, news stories have appeared regarding Joss Whedon’s belittling and bullying behaviour towards Charisma Carpenter. When the actor announced she was pregnant, he reportedly accused her of ruining his show. Peevishly, it seems, he wrote Cordy out of Angel. Now we apparently know why Season 4 treats Cordelia Chase so poorly, why her actions seem anathema to the character and why she never returned, bar for a single episode in the fifth season. It sucked then, and it sucks even more now, in light of the accusations.
No two ways about it, Angel bowed out in style. Season 5 is a banger. With the apocalypse averted (well, “an” apocalypse), Angel is given the keys to the magic evil kingdom. He takes over the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart. Most of the gang are uneasy about this Faustian pact, but they all agree to sign up if it means having unlimited resources and great salary packages. Of course, if something looks too perfect, that’s because it is, and soon enough Angel finds himself butting heads with the baddies, but also given a shot at fulfilling his destiny. There is a lot going on in this final season, and some of its surprises are best kept that way. It’s a satisfying sayonara, a worthy send off. It tells us the hero’s fight is never over, battles are won, for sure, but the war between good and evil is eternal. The final shot of The Sopranos (1999-2007) is rightly acclaimed, but it’s worth pointing out right here Angel delivered something very similar three years earlier, but doesn’t get credit for doing something equally experimental. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s ending, in comparison, feels very much “story complete” and “they all lived happily ever after”. Angel’s bloodied, bruised, beleaguered final image encapsulates its themes more artistically, making it more impactful emotionally, although in a very different way than Buffy, which finished a year earlier in 2003.
What made Angel special was that it was far from a sure thing. It could have flopped after the first season, the network demanding Angel and Cordy return to Sunnydale after a one-season wacky adventure together. Instead, it proved strong enough to carve out its own identity within the Buffyverse and develop into something really special.
Angel is today a bit tarnished by Whedon’s behind-the-scenes treatment of Charisma Carpenter, although it does not detract from the quality of the storytelling, the acting and the hard work put in by the cast and crew. It’s still beloved, it’s still totally great, it’s always going to be cherished by the fans. If you’re new to it, there is so much to embrace and enjoy, while older viewers will return time and time again, like meeting up with an old friend.
Angel is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.