Why “Angel” Is One of the Best TV Shows Ever
In loving defense of the "Buffy" spinoff
Scores of people sing the praises of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking show. “Buffy” continues to garner attention, its cast regularly makes the convention circuit, and entire academic journals have been dedicated to the field of “Buffy studies.” The show is known for bringing serious teen issues into the conversation, offering stunning episodes such as “Hush,” and remains one of the only shows to kill off its title character — then bring her back. It is, without a doubt, one of the most influential shows in the history of television.
But what about its spinoff, “Angel”? This dark, thematic, and stylish show didn’t have the delightful camp and sexy horror of its original show. Like its title character, it was brooding, mysterious, and philosophical, while “Buffy” retained a fresh adventure vibe with its “monster of the week” approach. Many “Buffy” fans refused to watch “Angel” or found it dreary and pretentious compared to the original show.
The truth is that “Angel” is remarkable in its own way.
“Angel” rewards its viewers with a rich mythology, shocking plot twists, and most importantly, a real-world setting in the tempestuous city of Los Angeles, compared to “Buffy,” which takes place in a fictional town. More importantly, it has big ideas to express and never shies away from its role as “Buffy’s” darker cousin. Here are five reasons to love “Angel.”
It’s a Spinoff that Found Its Own Way
In television history, few spinoffs have been more successful than their original shows. Many simply evolved into something completely unrecognizable, but most spinoffs put a bad taste in people’s mouths. In “Joey” and “Time of Your Life,” the character producers chose to highlight simply wasn’t interesting enough to make the singular focus of the show.
Many people felt that Buffy’s brooding, depressive lost love simply couldn’t carry his own show. They couldn’t be more wrong. While Angel was sexy and mysterious on “Buffy,” the writers of “Angel” expanded his backstory and gave him a mission, which immediately made him more relatable. They also gave actor David Boreanaz a chance to flex his comedic muscles, which turn out to mirror his vampire strength. While Boreanaz never had a chance to be more than Buffy’s tortured boyfriend on her show, his spinoff gives him a chance to define his own future.
In “Angel,” he embarks on a mission of redemption and aligns himself with the mysterious “Powers That Be.” This is in stark contrast to “Buffy,” which shies away from ever identifying a guiding force in the universe. That’s because while “Buffy” is about individual challenges and growth, “Angel” is about growing _up_ and finding one’s place in the world. Serving the Powers That Be is a noble mission that one can take on themselves, rather than being “chosen.”
It Explores the Dark Depths of Humanity
In the first season alone, the show explores patriarchal abuse, drug addiction, psychopathic youth, rape, and supremacism. While “Buffy” couched these themes in a rather black-and-white portrayal of good and evil, “Angel” took a more nuanced approach by weaving the characters’ interpersonal dynamics into their encounters of all shades of grey. That’s partly because “Angel’s” main cast comprises characters who are lost and broken from the start of the show. Minor characters from “Buffy,” Cordelia and Wesley, come to L.A. with secret despair, and Angel is of course a tortured vampire with a soul. None of them are as innocent as how the “Scoobies” debuted on “Buffy”. In that sense, “Angel” starts off with an acknowledgment that people are flawed — and that demons are not always bad.
As the show progresses, it never loses sight of its core philosophy: that we are what we make ourselves to be rather than what our origins (or species) dictate. While the first season follows the “monster of the week” format, later seasons build elaborate stories that rely upon a highly mystical universe. Despite this, the show remains painfully relatable, exploring themes of parenthood, adultery, betrayal, epiphany, absolution, and destiny.
It’s Damn Funny
Despite exploring these heavy topics, “Angel” successfully balances goofy humor with intense themes. From an empathic demon who reads people’s emotions as they sing karaoke to Wesley’s ill-fated career as a “rogue demon hunter,” the show lets his characters have fun in a way that surpasses “Buffy’s” quips and one-liners. In fact, none of the main characters on “Buffy” are as funny as those on “Angel,” despite their clever dialogue. Perhaps that’s because “Angel’s” characters all carry a bit of twisted irony, and they’re uniquely funny rather than simply talking in “Whedon-speak.”
“Angel” also features brilliantly amusing episodes such as a four-episode arc in a “Princess Bride”-like world, an episode in which Angel is transformed into a Muppet, and parodies of several cult classics.
“Buffy” never had the sense of gritty grandeur and stunning visuals that “Angel” regularly deployed. It’s partly the setting in a real city and partly the imaginative use of strange creatures and striking shots. “Buffy” always focused on its cast and what they were doing. While episodes such as “Hush” and “Restless” featured strong visuals, “Angel” consistently demonstrated a strong, sometimes unsettling visual tone.
“Angel” also embraced the grand and terrifying scope of human experience. In one memorable episode, the characters attend the ballet, and Summer Glau of “Firefly” fame guest-stars as the cursed prima ballerina surrounded by perpetually grinning maniacs. In another, Cold-War paranoia sweeps over a statuesque hotel, all orchestrated by a lip-smacking, crooning demon who literally snacks on people’s fear. In yet another, a telepathic woman unleashes pent-up pain and fury from years of abuse by shattering every window in a building. From monster boxing rings to supernatural auctions to demon casinos to otherworldly dimensions, “Angel” never shied away from taking its characters into strange, morally intriguing, and ultimately beautiful settings.
It Has a Powerful Message
Every episode of “Angel” poses a moral philosophical question. What is the right choice? What defines something as good or evil? How can we better ourselves? While “Buffy” often pitted its characters against external forces and portrayed them growing stronger, “Angel” gives its characters a chance to weaken, crumble, and weep… then bounce back due to their choice to be better. That’s a far cry from “Buffy’s” core idea that someone must be chosen or “friends with the chosen” to be powerful.
In “Angel,” the choice is ours. How can we transform our lives into ones that matter? As Angel says in one episode, “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” Therein lies a powerful message for viewers: if our destiny is out of our hands, then we must conduct ourselves in a way that makes a difference. Whether that’s battling the demons of L.A. or the demons within, that’s a fight worth taking.