Angel: Season 5 Review
Warning: This review contains spoilers for Angel Seasons 1-4, Seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and some mild spoilers for Angel Season 5.
In the last two years, the mighty television empire of Joss Whedon has come crashing down, tumbling from being one of the most popular cults in recent years to a big heap of nothing in little more than the blink of an eye. Season 5 of Angel marks the end of the last of his three series, surviving both its own parent series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the short-lived Firefly ("Fireflop" to the less generous). With his production company, Mutant Enemy, shuttered, and seemingly no prospect of further adventures in the Buffyverse (except in book and graphic novel form), the time has come to look at the last remnants of what was once one of the greatest franchises of the last decade.
At the end of Angel's fourth season, it was uncertain as to whether it would be renewed the next year. Buffy had ended its seven-year run with a whimper, and although the final episode of Angel Season 4 introduced big changes and paved the way for a complete overhaul of the show, executives at the WB, the network on which the show aired, seemed disinterested. In a desperate bid to buy the show at least another year, Whedon ushered in a whole host of changes, including an increased emphasis on "monster of the week" episodes, resulting in more episodic structure to the show, as well as completely altering the playing field for the show's intrepid heroes: season 5 opens with Angel and co. heading up Wolfram & Hart, the multi-dimensional law firm that, until recently, was their most bitter enemy. Furthermore, the addition of the character of Spike (James Marsters), a carry-over from Buffy, to the cast. Never mind that the final episode of that show featured Spike exploding in a blinding ray of light in order to save the world, his addition to Angel probably prevented the show from being scrapped, and although his reappearance never is adequately explained, he does end up giving the show the blood transfusion it needed. Marsters has always been a more evocative performer than David Boreanaz (who only seems to truly shine when portraying Angel's evil alter-ego, Angelus), and although his acting has been described by some rather unkind individuals of Shatner-style scenery-chewing, his enthusiasm is infectious and his ability to turn on a dime between being completely blithe and deeply emotional is exactly what the character requires.
Especially in the first half of the season, there is a return to the more lighthearted feel that characterised Buffy for its first four or five seasons. Indeed, many of the situations and dialogues have a decidedly Buffy-esque feel to them, probably as a result of creator Joss Whedon's increased involvement in the running of the show and of the addition of two of that particular show's former writers, David Fury and Drew Goddard, to the crew. As such, it feels as if the veil of darkness and depression that hung over the Buffyverse for the past two years has suddenly been lifted. Certain plot twists at the end of the fourth season and the start of the fifth make this a fairly artificial change - the erasing of Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) from most of the gang's minds feels like a relatively transparent way of the writers trying to backtrack on what ultimately turned out to have been an extremely bad storyline (and character) - and it does come back to bite the writers in the butt as the season progresses, but this attempt to return to the more positive feel of the universe's early years is appreciated. It's just a shame that, as was the case with Buffy, the writers chose to abandon the morbitity in what ultimately turned out to be the show's final season, since in both cases it effectively meant an eventual return to gloom and doom in an attempt to provide a worthy climax. With Buffy, this set in after a handful of episodes. With Angel, which was given much less time to wrap up its storylines, it happens much later, and as a result the conclusion feels rushed and unsatisfying. It's undoubtedly a double-edged sword, and it just goes to show that it was a crying shame that the series was cancelled just when it seemed to have made a fresh start and was finding its feet again. (Rumours of intended Season 6 storylines, including the return of Oz, Angel and co trapped in another dimension, and a number of episodes with Amy Acker playing the parts of both Fred and Illyria, just make me even more disappointed that the show wasn't given at least one more year.)
The final one-third of the season certainly represents something of a disappointment as so much potential is squandered by reverting to doom and gloom. Annoyingly Whedon (who it is becoming fairly clear is a nasty and vindictive individual when he doesn't get his own way and enjoys inflicting pain on viewers) pulls his favourite trick out of the bag once more, killing off a major character at the very moment when things seem to finally be going well for them. He did it with Tara on Buffy (an action that had far more significant consequences than simply depriving audiences of a popular character), and he does it again her with the demure Fred (Amy Acker). This storyline also allows him to visit another of his favourite twisted concepts, when her body is taken over by an evil demon name Illyria. When she heard that Whedon was planning on doing this with Tara, Amber Benson wisely high-tailed it as quickly as possible, but Amy Acker either wasn't so lucky or didn't mind playing an evil incarnation of her character. There is also the slight issue of the way the show ends, which is thoroughly disappointing and would only really have worked if there was a possibility of a future spin-off (which, at the stage, is about as likely as Hell freezing over). As Angel came to an end, promises of guest appearances by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Eliza Dushku and Alyson Hannigan amounted to nothing, and while Gellar is frequently the recipient of much blame among fans, it has since transpired that she twice offered her services to Whedon for the series finale, only to be turned down. Instead, we are subjected to a couple of appearances by Andrew (Tom Lenk), who was annoying on Buffy and is even worse here. For what has ultimately turned out to be the swangsong for the entire Buffyverse, Not Fade Away, written and directed by Jeffrey Bell (rather than Whedon, who was off filming his big-screen Firefly resurrection, Serenity), is remarkably pessimistic and unfulfilling.
All the problems of the final part of the season can't fail to take away the excellence of what precedes it, however, and in my opinion Season 5 features some of the best stand-alone episodes of the entire series. Although at times featuring storylines similar to ones previously used either on Buffy or on Angel itself (we get a werewolf episode, for example, and one in which various characters lose their inhibitions in a manner similar to earlier episodes on both shows), the enthusiasm of the writers and actors is extremely entertaining. Ben Edlund, who joined the writing staff late in Season 4, contributes two superbly comedic episodes this year: Life of the Party, in which the guests at a Halloween party take Lorne's (Andy Hallett) orders a little too literally, and Smile Time, which sees Angel transformed into a puppet - the results of which really have to be seen to be believed. The bravura moment, however, is the all-too-brief return of Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) in You're Welcome. Written and directed by David Fury, this episode re-injects the series with some of the trademark style that is all but absent during the rest of the season. Bringing Cordelia back into the picture re-establishes the dynamic upon which the series thrived during its first three seasons, and it is a great shame that she only sticks around for one episode. Although Charisma Carpenter is far from the world's greatest actress, her interaction with David Boreanaz and the rest of cast is excellent, and both her performance and the writing absolutely nail what made her character so fun. Ah, good times. She also works well with James Marsters, and in my opinion Whedon really missed the boat when he chose not to renew her contract at the end of the fourth season. (As so often seems to be the case, he attempted to paint the picture of her being the bad guy, despite the fact that she has frequently stated that she fully expected to be back for the fifth season and was gutted when told she no longer had a job.) Unfortunately, mixed in with all the great episodes are a handful of complete clunkers. The worst two by far are The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco, an episode focusing on, of all things, Mexican wrestling, and Why We Fight, which takes place during the Second World War and manages to screw up the continuity of the characters of Spike and Angel big time.
The performances are great all-round, with Alexis Denisof in his role of Wesley demonstrating remarkable depth and edginess that builds on the harrowing performances he gave in late Season 3 and most of Season 4 - a far cry from the bumbling twit that appeared in Buffy's third season and early episode of Angel. Likewise, the look of the show is top-notch, belying the fact that it in fact suffered budget cuts when compared to previous seasons. Buffy and Angel were two of the few series on American television to frequently double up writers and directors, and this in my opinion was one of their greatest strengths, as the episodes that were both written and directed by the same person generally had a greater sense of cohesion than the usual method of hiring an outside director to translate the script to the screen. In Season 5, David Boreanaz gets to direct, marking the first time that any Buffyverse actor has had a chance to direct on either show. Perhaps surprisingly, his episode, while not radically important in terms of overall story arcs, is very stylishly shot, making much use of atmospheric dream sequences and alternate realities.
The final season of Angel feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. I am very much of the opinion that the low note on which the show ends is the result of it having been cancelled at short notice, and that had the writers not been forced to cut their storylines short, the end result would have been much more satisfying. Sadly, all this is water under the bridge now, and with any future escapades in the Buffyverse looking extremely unlikely, the final season of Angel must stand on its own as a promising but ultimately unfulfilling conclusion to a saga that has run for a total of eight years and 254 hours of television. Farewell, creatures of the night!
Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 (the ratio in which the show has been intended to be watched since Season 3), the show looks excellent on DVD, thanks mainly to the level of detail, which is often exceptional, both by the standards of a TV show and of DVD in general. A handful of shots look overly soft, and a couple of episodes show slightly less definition than others, but by and large the show looks exceptional when compared to other DVDs of TV shows: the only other TV show DVDs showing this much detail (that I am aware of) are the UK releases of Alias. There are a couple of downsides, namely that the noise reduction is at times quite heavy, freezing the film grain unnaturally, and also that the night scenes tend to be overly dark (although this is characteristic of the TV broadcasts as well, so this is not a problem specific to the DVDs), but by and large this is a very satisfying presentation.
The sound, vanilla Dolby Surround 2.0, is fine without being remarkable in any way. Angel (and Buffy) never did embrace the wonders of 5.1 surround sound, and as a result the audio on this release is much like that of the previous four seasons. An unsurprisingly front-focused mix, the surrounds are generally used to accentuate the music score and very little else, with the occasional sound effect showing up here and there. The dialogue is relatively clear, although it sometimes gets a little muffled, and there is the slight issue of some very obvious ADR on James Marsters' dialogue in a couple of scenes in the second episode, but by and large there are no major problems here.
Spanish and French Dolby Surround 2.0 dubs are also included, as well as optional English and Spanish subtitles for the episodes themselves. None of the bonus features are subtitled.
Until Season 4, the Angel DVDs were always somewhat limited in terms of extras, at least compared to the Buffy DVDs. Luckily, Season 5 builds on the Season 4 release's strengths, including a decent array of extras providing an interesting behind the scenes look at the show.
Commentaries are included for a total of seven episodes (compared with two on Seasons 1 and 2, three on Season 3 and six on Season 4), featuring a combination of cast and crew members. The line-up is as follows:
- Conviction with writer/director Joss Whedon
- Destiny with director Skip Schoolnick, writers David Fury and Steven S. DeKnight and actor Juliet Landau (Drusilla)
- Soul Purpose with director/actor David Boreanaz (Angel), writer Brent Fletcher and actor Christian Kane (Lindsay)
- You're Welcome with writer/director David Fury and actors Christian Kane (Lindsay) and Sarah Thompson (Eve)
- A Hole in the World with writer/director Joss Whedon and actors Amy Acker (Fred) and Alexis Denisof (Wesley)
- Underneath with director Skip Schoolnik, writers Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft and actor Adam Baldwin (Hamilton)
- Not Fade Away with co-writer/director Jeffrey Bell
These tracks run the whole gamut from fascinating to downright tedious, with some real surprises along the way. I personally was not looking forward to the David Boreanaz commentary at all, since in interviews he always comes across as very nervous and tends to mumble. Contrary to my expectations, however, he turns out to be an extremely lucid and entertaining speaker in the context of this commentary, showing a solid grasp of the technical aspects of directing as well as having a great rapport with fellow actor Christian Kane. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the commentary on A Hole in the World, which sees all three muttering and talking about anything but the episode in question, as well as some annoying gaps of silence. Experience has shown that Joss Whedon is at his best on solo commentaries (as is the case on Conviction), as he tends to be more focused and informative in these situations.
The remainder of the extras are comprised of a number of a number of featurettes of varying length. In addition to the compulsory season overview, Angel: The Final Season, which provides an effective but fairly redundant summary of the events of all 22 episodes, there are a number of items concentrating on specific aspects of the fifth season and the show in general.
Kicking off, on Disc 1 despite the episode in question not appearing until Disc 4, is Hey Kids! It’s Smile Time!, in which writer/director Ben Edlund, David Boreanaz and various puppeteers discuss the challenges facing them with the difficult task of bringing the puppets to life.
Angel 100 looks at the party held for the cast and crew to commemorate the show's 100 episode and discusses the return of the character of Cordelia.
Angel: Choreography Of A Stunt looks at the process of creating the show's stunts, focusing specifically on the sixteenth episode and including interviews with writer/director Steven S. DeKnight and stunt coordinator/Angel stunt double Mike Massa.
To Live & Die in LA: The Best Of Angel provides us with a run-down of Joss Whedon's favourite episodes of Angel. Similar to the feature provided for the final season of Buffy, this one is perhaps a little more interesting because Whedon wrote and directed fewer episodes of Angel than its parent show, and therefore this list is more than just a summary of his own episodes.
Halos & Horns: Recurring Villainy takes a look at three of the show's most popular recurring villains, Darla (Julie Benz), Drusilla (Juliet Landau) and Lilah (Stephanie Romanov), featuring interviews with the ladies in question discussing the appeal of their characters.
Finally, Angel Unbound: The Gag Reels provides a semi-amusing series of bloopers and goofs from throughout the series. Unsurprisingly, some moments are much funnier than others, but you consider just how bad some gag reels are, this is a pretty decent one.
Like virtually every season of Angel, this final installment is a bit uneven, starting out great but going downhill for its final few episodes. Still, fans of the series will definitely want to pick this set up, both to see how the saga ends (in relative terms) and to enjoy some of the show's best episodes ever. With a decent audio-visual presentation and some interesting extras, Angel certainly goes out in style.