Angel - The Vampire Anthology - Cordelia Review
I admit I had never watched an episode of Angel before receiving this review copy. There was a time when Buffy the Vampire Slayer became must-see viewing, but by this point the brooding presence of her old boyfriend had vanished, and for reasons unknown the spin-off series on Channel 4 didn't grip me in the same way.
As such, I researched for this article by ploughing through the first couple of seasons of Buffy, stacks of Angel, and numerous fansites for both series (and there are loads) just to try and grasp the mythology and various plotlines. It doesn't take long to get swamped by these shows. Though your casual viewer can take in a random episode and walk away feeling entertained, stay for a couple more and the overarching narrative starts to kick in. What are Watchers? What are the Powers That Be, come to that? How does the relationship between vampires and demons work? What's the deal with Spike? Why did Buffy ditch Angel for that boring bloke who worked for this kind of underground military unit? And so on. Considering both Angel and Cordelia have backstories that were played out in early seasons of Buffy, and that their meeting in the former's eponymous show was, for many viewers, more a resumption of duties than the start of a beautiful friendship, painstakingly working through past events had to take place.
Fortunately for me, Angel and Buffy are fantastic television shows, so it wasn't too much of a chore.
When Angel walked out of Buffy's life, a series of his own was the next logical step. One of the most rounded characters from the Sunnydale series, not to mention its most enigmatic, Angel (David Boreanaz) was at his best when brooding on the sidelines. Considering his long bloody past, gaining of a soul, and the tortured relationship he had with Buffy, the existence he was to lead would always be unusual. So it was, in Angel, he moved to Los Angeles and started Angel Investigations, a kind of detective agency for lost souls. As an Assistant, the producers gave him Doyle, a half-Demon, half-Human character with 'the Vision', telepathic impulses that gave him insights into terrible deeds. These had been bequeathed by the mysterious Powers That Be, and it was these that Doyle and Angel acted upon in their efforts to help others.
The first episode of Angel showed it to be much darker fare than Buffy. Whereas the latter was based in a high school and aimed primarily at teenagers, Angel's show was for adult viewers, and came suitably themed with real scares, tougher issues and a lack of easy redemption (which, to be fair, in the latter instance was present in Buffy also). It also co-starred Charisma Carpenter, making her return to the 'Buffy/Angel World' as Cordelia. Regularly seen in Buffy as the school's It Girl, an airheaded fashion victim as if one of Alicia Silverstone's Clueless crowd had landed in Sunnydale, here she was grown up and trying to make it as an actress. Instead, she was to develop into one of Angel's friends, a member of the team who gradually was to become less the foil for his darkness and more essential in her own right. All the same, she was introduced to the story as light relief, to make the show less grim, which was a success depending on how much she irritated you. Personally, I found her to be very annoying, though the writers made good use of her presence, giving her things to do and increasing her importance.
In this Anthology, four episodes plucked from the first three seasons focus on key developments in Coredlia's character. These are:
Episode One - City of
The first ever episode of Angel sets up the show's loose premise. Your 'man' is in LA, and drifts through the city, righting the occasional wrong but essentially without purpose. That is until he meets Doyle, whose foretelling ability combines with the soulful vampire's strength to save souls in the City of Angels. At a party, Angel catches up with Cordelia, who is nowhere close to achieving her Hollywood dreams. By the end of the episode, he has to save her from a vampire, and she's subsequently recruited as part of the team, presumably because every business needs some administrative back-up. A strong opener to the new show, which is just the right shade of black i.e. not too frivolous, yet neither is it so grim that Bauhaus supply the music.
Episode Two - There's No Place Like Plrtz Glrb
The third and concluding part in an ongoing story from Season Two. Cordelia is trapped in a parallel world. While her friends try to get her back, she has graduated from human slavery into being a princess who is doomed to pass her 'visions' (she inherited them from Doyle when he died) on to the Groossalugg, a champion of the people. It's a fun episode, but Angel doesn't work as well when the characters are moved outside their natural surroundings. In this new dimension, which reminded me a little of Army of Darkness, the third instalment of The Evil Dead, the action is similarly played for laughs and loses some of its impact in the process. All the same, Cordelia is good value, bridging the gap between someone who would kill to be a princess and the more practical, hard-edged character she will become.
Episode Three - Birthday
Cordelia's visions are getting more and more painful. After an especially bad experience, she falls into a coma, and her incorporeal spirit rises to watch her friends as they attempt to revive her prone body. A behorned figure calls Skip appears, who explains he is from the Powers That Be (the organisation responsible for the visions) and offers her an opportunity to experience an alternative life, one without visions and in which she becomes a famous celebrity. We get a glimpse of her as the star of her own sitcom (Cordy!) before slowly, she begins to understand her true purpose. I couldn't help but suspect the concept of Cordelia as having her own 'Caroline in the City' type show was something of a wish fulfilment exercise for both the star and her fans, but it works all the same within an enjoyable eipisode that grows steadily darker. Essentially, it's an episode that highlights the delicate balance of love and respect that friendship provides - take one element away, and it's worse for everyone.
Episode Four - Waiting in the Wings
Like Birthday, this Season Three instalment shows Cordelia to be a more mature and key character in the show. By now, she and Angel are falling for each other, and during a trip to the ballet they come close to consummating their feelings. However, this is part of an investigation, one in which the ballerina is the same person as Angel saw in an identical performance one hundred years previously. As in the previous episode, Cordelia and Angel 'getting it on' is surely manna for the fanbase. The way the producers engineer their 'moment' together is by anyone's definition cheating, but it's good fun all the same, within a chapter that has its definite creepy bits.
All four episodes were good, quality viewing, with perhaps only the one from the second season (Episode Two) coming across as weaker than the rest. Most likely, this is because the others were self-contained yarns, whilst the Plrtz Glrb chapter was part of a continuing tale, and required much more catching up from the viewer. In a sense, this highlighted the Anthology's fundamental weakness. What you get is snapshots from a character's life, key episodes that focus on that person and gives you an insight into their development, but still there's no attempt to plug the gaps of plot between them. In the Cordelia Anthology, virtually two seasons have elapsed between Episodes One and Two, and an awful lot has happened in the interim. By Plrtz Glrb, Doyle is dead, and Wesley and Gunn have been introduced as major characters. If you're watching these without any knowledge of the overarching narrative (as I did originally) the jumps are very frustrating.
Given the above, I would argue the Anthology is practically useless when you can simply go out and purchase the Season box sets. Fans of the show will surely do that anyway, leaving this disc largely for the completists and massive Cordelia fans. Despite that rather damning criticism of the format, Angel is never less than a quality show, with rather more meat on its bones than in much of the Buffy series. Those who want a taste of its blood rather than the whole stream might like to consider an Anthology, though be warned - the set-up inevitably means that whole swathes of spoilers are revealed along the way.
In terms of the quality, I should note that whilst watching this I was also working my way through Season One of Buffy. The differences in the transfer are incredible, with the latter - a much earlier show, of course - coming across as a reasonably cheaply made piece of television, whilst Angel looks and sounds great comparatively. The anamorphic transfer makes it excellent viewing in widescreen, with a sharper clarity than I might have expected and the night of Los Angeles not looking too overbearingly dark (something that was a problem in that Buffy series). Soundwise, it's the familiar two-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack that is probably as good as it's going to get from a TV show. It's clear enough, with some decent surround effects that only hint at how good it might have been with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Still, less is more, and Angel can surprise and stun the viewer with its judicious surround activity, adding some level of ambience.
There isn't much in the way of extras, with a fifteen-minute character profile of Cordelia making up the sum total of decent material. Charisma Carpenter makes for an engaging interviewee, though she doesn't say much you can't already work out for yourself where her character is concerned. An advert for Buffy and Angel season DVD box sets is also here, and I guess with these things what you want is either a very brief and humourous glance at what's in store, or some in-depth analysis of the DVD's contents. Perhaps mercifully, they take the former approach.