Spin-off shows are always a bit of a risk when it comes to television. For every resounding success, there's a failure. For every "Daria" or "Better Call Saul," there's a "Joey" or a "That 80's Show." They're a gamble at best, and a guaranteed failure at worst. But every once in a while, you'll get a good one. A great one even. A new series that not only honors the show from which it branched off, but also expands the universe and is able to succeed on its own merits.
And it should come as no surprise that co-creator Joss Whedon was able to deliver just such a series with the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spin-off "Angel." Running for five seasons on the now defunct WB, the series places its focus on the titular Angel, a vampire with a soul who uses his powers and enhanced abilities to hunt bad-guys and save the day. And thanks to a remarkable cast, a fantastically dark tone and some excellent writing, it succeeds as one of the best spin-offs in recent memory - a wonderful show that both compliments and contrasts with the original.
David Boreanaz stars as Angel, whom has just relocated to Los Angeles and spends his nights protecting random citizens from various supernatural threats. After a series of events leads to his reunion with former Sunnydale resident Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), along with meeting several new allies, "Angel Investigations" is created - a supernatural detective agency that seeks to protect mankind and help the helpless. And standing in their way is an increasingly dangerous assortment of demons and adversaries... many with ties to a mysterious law firm known as Wolfram and Hart.
Though the name Joss Whedon has practically become a piece of profanity as of late due to seemingly unending personal controversies, he and fellow co-creator David Greenwalt really struck gold when it came to this series. While Angel certainly had his place in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the fact is the character was ripe for expansion. And this series served as the perfect platform to do so.
David Boreanaz leads the series with a strong, brooding performance that sets the tone for the overall show. He gives the character so much pathos and humanity, though also wisely shows a sense of humor in just the right places. He's just sublime. Carpenter is a joy as the returning character Cordelia. She started as an archetypical queen-bee mean-girl on "Buffy," but she absolutely shines in this series, as the character is given much more depth and a greater focus. And then there's the various supporting cast members, who are all phenomenal in their own way. Perhaps of greatest note are Alexis Denisof as the returning character Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and the late Andy Hallett as a delightful demonic ally known as Lorne. Denisof's Wesley has a magnificent character arc over the show's five seasons, while Hallett brings such a warmth to the series. I also very much enjoyed J. August Richards and Amy Acker as newcomers who join the Angel Investiations during the course of the series. Both bring a lot to their characters. And a special note goes out to the late Glenn Quinn, Julie Benz, Mercedes McNab, James Marsters and Christian Kane, who pad out the cast in supporting roles, and each give very good performances.
The tone of the series is also very important, and is one of the key factors to its success. While "Buffy" deftly mixed drama with a near constant sense of humor, and often felt much more light-hearted with the exception of key episodes, "Angel" is by contrast a much grittier, inkier series throughout. It still has a sense of humor, but it makes no qualms about what it is - this show is incredibly dark at times, and deals with heavy themes. And it works very well. This feels like a more grown-up series than its predecessor, and is just as rewarding, but in different ways.
And this is aided by the typically expert writing. Whedon's shows are often praised for their witty dialogue and clever storylines, and that is very much the case with "Angel." While some seasons may be stronger than others, it consistently feels nuanced and mature, and tackles stories that will leave you feeling quite uncomfortable and questioning what you would do in the same situation. And these stories make it a very engaging watch.
That praise being said, this series is not without its faults. There are some minor - and occasionally moderate - issues that hold it just shy of perfection in my eyes. The chief offender of which is the show's notorious fourth season, which unfortunately just doesn't measure up in comparison to the other, much more rewarding years. While I won't spoil anything, I will say that the fourth season really damages some of the characters. Almost irreparably. And it makes it a rough sit. I also feel that on the whole, the show has a somewhat greater ratio of misses-to-hits than "Buffy" ever did. Several of the monster-of-the-week storylines fall flat on their face, while certain storylines often feel needlessly drawn out and over-complicated. And it does impact my overall feelings about the series.
But those complaints aside, "Angel" is a series that I'd still heartily recommend. Despite a weak fourth season and a fistful of bad episodes, the majority of the show succeeds wonderfully thanks to the excellent cast, sharp writing and deliciously grim tone. And it easily earns an excellent 4.5 out of 5. (Rounding up to 5 for MovieMistakes.) It's one of the best spin-offs in recent memory, and is still worth checking out twenty years later.
Trivia: About 7 seconds into the opening theme you see the face of a young man looking up (Just before you see Angel with the sword) That young man is Phantom Dennis. He is only seen once in episode 5 of the 1st season- Room with an Vu. After that he's an unseen "character" until season 4.
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