Angel: Season One Review
Very few television series spawn spin-offs, and very few of those are successful. In fact, other than the Star Trek franchise and Frasier I struggle to think of any more off the top of my head. After Joss Whedon had worked the magic of converting the idea behind a big-screen flop into a successful TV show once, many people felt that to try and make something even bigger with a spin-off would fall down flat.
How could a character on the sidelines of one show carry an entire series on his own? I'm not sure how it happened, but it seems to have worked. The success may lie in the shift of target audience - so obviously displayed by the presence of a big red 18 certificate on the packaging of this box set - Buffy's target audience is the teen market, Angel aims quite a bit higher and tries to appeal to twenty-thirty-something's. That's not to say that Buffy is a kids show (it's not) and Angel isn't, it's just Angel certainly has a little more of an edge to it.
Angel is set at the same time as Buffy's fourth season. Angel, a vampire with a soul has moved away from Sunnydale to LA and decides to fight the 'good fight' in the big city. Joined by another ex-Buffy regular, Cordelia and half-demon Doyle he sets up a front for his demon-fighting enterprise as a 'private investigator' tackling the cases no-one else will. If you imagine Buffy with slightly more adult storylines, a touch more violence and a sprinkling of Whedon humour and you'll get the idea.
Is it better than Buffy? It's hard to say - it's a different show that just happens to be set in the same universe. There are also plenty of ties back to the original with crossovers sprinkled throughout. The harder edge of Angel may put off some of Buffy's younger fans, but the older viewers will probably appreciate that Whedon and co realise that their creation appeals to such a wide range of people.
As far as the first series is concerned, it started out with a bit of a stumble and seemed at first to be a little unsure of where to go. However, looking back it's obvious that a clear, long-running, storyline is there from the start in the form of 'evil' law firm, Wolfram and Hart and their clandestine activities in LA. Also there is a surprising and fairly big shake-up midway through the season that leads to the introduction of another ex-Buffy character - Wesley. There are some very strong episodes - the ones that stand out after watching the series from start to finish are those that feature Faith, Five by Five and Sanctuary, and tie up a minor story-arc which shift's across from Buffy. There are some genuinely scary moments - the Exorcist-like I've Got You Under My Skin is particularly daring for a weekly TV show and the season finale To Shanshu in LA sets up the second season very nicely.
There are as always weak points to consider, although they're few and far between - I Fall To Pieces is probably the weakest episode and deals with a stalker who can detach and reattach pieces of his body at will and Bachelor Party, which sees Doyle's past love return to tell him she's getting married, again seems a little out of place. All in all though the good outweighs the bad by an impressive margin.
Oh dear. It seems that Fox haven't listened to all the criticism that's been directed their way over past Buffy releases after all. Many of the problems that plagued the season two Buffy discs reappear here with a vengeance. First up we have the major issue of a cropped transfer - Angel has been filmed in open matte from the start with a small portion of the overall picture being picked out for 4:3 broadcast, however no widescreen masters have ever been struck for TV transmission. Instead of taking the opportunity to create widescreen masters for this DVD set and open up a bit more of the picture, improving immeasurably over the VHS releases, Fox have decided to take an existing 4:3 master and use that. Hence no widescreen.
To make matters worse, it appears that the master used misses most of the recaps of previous episodes - not a problem you may think, but when these recaps are scored as an integral part of the episode the fact that they are not present is far too obvious. This is exactly the same as what happened to the Season Two Buffy discs and something Fox promised wouldn't happen again.
One other small problem I noticed was the title of the pilot episode on the first disc - it should be City Of... and NOT City of Angels!
Other than that things don't actually look too bad. The picture quality is uniformly good - another step up from the Buffy discs we've seen so far. It's by no means perfect with some grain and again very (I must stress very) slight smearing and minor posterisation noticeable on one or two occasions. However shadow detail is at last becoming reasonable and flesh tones are as accurate as they can be so it's not all bad news!
The audio is again functional. The two-channel pro-logic soundtrack does its job admirably with a reasonable amount of surround action adding atmosphere to the proceedings. Plenty of bass gives your surround set-up something to get its teeth into and barring the obvious limitations of a pro-logic recording, there aren't any complaints. A 5.1 channel remix may have been nice, but it's not really missed.
Now onto the extras. As is always the case, the commentary tracks are the most interesting extras present on the disc so I'll look at them first. The first commentary - on the season opener, City Of, by Whedon and co-creator, David Greenwalt, is by far the best with plenty of observation and information flying backwards and forwards between the two contributors. The focus really is on the episode itself, but as a part of this we get an insight into their goals and the ideas behind creating a whole new television series.
The second commentary is for RM W/A VU and is by Jane Espenson. As is the case with many one-person commentaries, this one is a little less active than the last, but at the same time it benefits from getting her full attention. Running at a far more leisurely pace, this one looks much more closely at the writing of the episode - being essentially a character focussed episode this is ideal. It's a different style to Whedon/Greenwalt's, but it's still equally as valid.
There are four featurettes - one on disc three and the others on disc six. The first is an overview of the season featuring interviews with the cast and crew presented with a liberal dose of behind-the-scenes footage. Running to around 11 minutes, it's an interesting, if fairly perfunctory featurette. The other featurettes are 'Introducing Angel' is exactly that - an introduction to the character of Angel. There are plenty of interview clips along with a running 'commentary' by Boreanaz in character. 'I'm Cordelia' is pretty much the same again focusing on Charisma Carpenter's character. More interviews and footage explaining her character, role and how she has developed as a 'person' so far. Particularly galling is the fact that a few of the clips are in widescreen in this one. Finally 'The Demons' looks at the 'bad guys' of the series and sees members of the cast and crew identifying their favourite demon.
In addition, there is a stills gallery with publicity shots and blueprints, a serious number of text biographies for the main actors, a couple of scripts for the 'Faith' episodes and a trailer for the video release of the season. All in all it's a nice package.
This is a difficult one - the problems identified above are quite serious, but still this is the best the series has looked so far and the extra features, in particular the commentaries, are certainly worth listening to and add that little bit more to the series. It all comes down to the question of whether you think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. And £79.99 is a lot of money to shell out on something that isn't perfect.