On The Jazz #19: Bye Bye Angel

Enjoy the timeless void.

By Matt Springer
September 16, 2004

And so, with a quiet WB-level whimper, Joss Whedon’s imagination leaves television screens on Wednesday night.

The final episode of Angel marks the end of 12 seasons’ worth of original television straight from the fresh brains of Whedon and his consistently excellent casts and crews. (And that doesn’t even count the sorta-half season thatFirefly got on Fox before it was banished into fervent cultdom.) The finale and Whedon’s exit from first-run weekly series television has garnered a few newspaper stories, but nothing earth-shattering. It’s likely all those hard-working TV critics in Medialand are so tuckered out from kissing the collective asses of Friends and Frasier that they don’t have the energy for covering a show that’s actually ending on a high note, as opposed to a “Well, it USED to be good…” shrug.

That’s right, nerds. There will be no Katie Couric weepfests for Angel, no two-hour sweepsfest self-love orgies, no endless parade of stories in newspapers and magazines, on websites and Access Hollywood. David Boreanaz will probably not be stopping by Jay Leno’s couch; he’ll be lucky if he can crawl into Sharon Osbourne’s bed. In fact, if you don’t watch Angel or if you don’t obsess over one of the WB’s many teenybopper cheezefests (where, to their credit, the WB has been hyping the heck out of Angel‘s goodbye), you probably don’t even know Angel is over. Hell, you may not have ever known it was on in the first place.

That’s a goddamn crime, because Angel is a great show, and yet it somehow fits, because Angel has always been the kind of show that belongs under the radar, and barely seems to fit on TV period. It’s always been there in the slums of the WB Wednesday night, doing its weird and wonderful things, flitting along with low ratings and high price tags…and only the initiated ever cared. From the point of view of your average TV executive, it’s a blessing that we’ve had Angel at all, and an extra blessing that it’s lasted for five seasons. (From the point of view of your average TV fan, your average TV executive should be tossed into speeding traffic and mocked as his or her body is bounced from car to car.)

Buffy was a show that belonged on television and defined the WB. Series after series on the network have bastardized and stupidized the unique soapy, funny, teeny, scary, genius mix of Buffy, but Whedon did it all first, or at least better (his first gay kiss? LOADS better than the overhyped smooch on Dawson’s Creek). It was television with an epic, almost filmic scope, with compelling characters and mindfuck stories and hilarious one-liners…and it was always a TV show. In a good way.

Spun off from Buffy during the mother show’s fourth season, Angel from the start somehow didn’t seem to…belong. Oh, it was its own brilliant and grand thing, and it had many of the familiar elements that we loved on Buffy. In tone, it was often classic Whedon, a style that fans can easily recognize and that became the earmark for all of his series television work.

Then there were the moments that didn’t seem to fit. Brutal, real, occasionally cruel and often just plain trippy events that thrilled and confounded viewers (well, THIS viewer at least; I can’t speak for y’all). Angel dusting Darla as she carried his child in her womb. Holtz leaping into an alternate dimension with Angel’s child in his arms, a cruel vengeance against the vampire with a soul. The Fang Gang finding themselves in another alternate dimension for four episodes, where they discovered the origins of their green demon pal Lorne and brought back their newest member Fred. Moment after moment that shocked and moved viewers in ways that Buffy never really did.

Because while Buffy had its share of shocking and moving moments, they always somehow fit within the world Whedon had created. And since that world was built around themes of empowerment and friendship, they were easier to understand. Not always easy to tolerate, especially when one of your favorite characters would suddenly bite the big one, but easy to understand. Through each of those moments on Buffy, you knew that there was something good on the other side of the pain, the anguish, the chaos. Things may not get better; things may never in fact be the same again. But things would not always be bad, because the Scoobies had each other, and that gave them hope in the world.

In Angel, Whedon dared to create a worldview where hope didn’t always exist, and where friends weren’t always really there. It was easy enough for Wesley and Fred and Gunn and Lorne to stand by their boss when the world was collapsing and they had to save it. It wasn’t always easy for them to see each other through the tough, quiet realities of everyday life. They weren’t buddies who could unite in a magic spell that would help them save the world from the onslaught of a half-demon, half-machine beast named Adam. They were unlikely and occasionally unwilling allies in a constant, relentless war against pure evil.

Because Angel was built on an entirely different philosophy than Buffy, the same types of twists and turns played far differently. They hurt us, because we rooted for these heroes, but there was no glowing deep within that let us know the wisecracks and hugs would commence again soon enough. Even when they defeated the bad guy and saved the universe, there were still no hugs, and only bitter wisecracks. The plot may play out with a stunning victory of good over evil, but there was an essential darkness to Angel as a character and a show, one that no light could dispel.

Their means have not always justified their ends. They’ve dared to unleash darkness on the world (in the form of Angelus) in the hope that it would help them defeat their enemies. They’ve embraced the ways of their archenemies, Wolfram & Hart, thinking they might be able to brighten it from within. They’ve always been the “good guys,” except when they weren’t, when Wesley was keeping Lilah locked up in his closet or Angel was leaving a room of lawyers to be devoured by Darla and Drusilla. They do good, ultimately, but they’re not truly good…just dedicated to fighting evil. Within that battle, they’re usually willing to do anything to win.

I will miss a lot about Angel, and I will very much miss knowing that no matter what other shit my TV would squirt out onto my uncaring eyes every week, there would be at least one Whedon hour to anticipate and enjoy. But what I will miss most is that darkness, that ruthlessness, that bravery. The willingness of this show to NOT let the hugs commence, to NOT let these characters let go of their doubts about each other, to NOT let Angel somehow gain the trust of his workmates so that they weren’t living in constant fear that he’d ditch his soul and become one of the most joyously evil beings the world has ever known. This was always a show where you knew every character didn’t totally connect with each other, one where the employees had a wooden stake in their desk drawer in case their boss became his diabolical alter ego. It’s been a fierce, unrelenting ride with little relief, and it’s something we won’t see again anytime soon.

So bring on the Angel TV movies, bring on the Firefly feature film, and please bring on some new Whedon series that I can’t even imagine yet. But let’s never forget what Whedon achieved with these five seasons of Angel: A never-ending fight for truth and justice that was TRULY never-ending, and where “truth” and “justice” were both absolute shades of grey.

Originally published May 18, 2004