After 7 years of Buffy and 5 years of Angel, Joss Whedon’s Sunnydale universe gets its final outing on DVD today in the form of the R2 release of Angel Season 5. Matt Day takes a look at the swansong, and crosses his fingers for a network picking up the show again.
Angel took a while to find his feet after moving to Los Angeles, leaving Sunnydale – and with it Buffy – behind for the mean streets of the big scary city. It might not be on a hellmouth but there are just as many nasty beasts that need slaying, and helpless that need helping. Unlike many spin-off series though, Angel managed to keep hold of much of the audience that loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and became a pretty hot property in its own right. It came as a surprise to many then, when Joss Whedon was told that Angel was not being commissioned for a sixth series. Oddly, ratings weren’t really the problem, many shows would have killed for the share Angel had, but then they didn’t have the huge budget that Angel did. The show was just too expensive to produce, and the advertising revenue wasn’t enough to sustain it. It’s a fact that is evident throughout the series, as not only does it look better than most TV shows, but the quality of the episodes is far an above what you’d expect from a universe in its twelfth series.
Season 4 ended with Angel being offered the keys to the kingdom – Wolfram and Hart. Having spent years battling them, and their plans to bring about the apocalypse, they offered Angel the chance to run the firm, using their resources in any way he saw fit. If he wanted to be evil, great, but if he wanted to use them to continue his righteous hero routine, that was fine too. Naturally everyone looked around for the catch, but jumped in anyway. Now Angel is CEO, Fred is in charge of a huge science department, Wesley has almost every mystical text ever written at his fingertips, Lorne is living his dream as head of their entertainment division – you don’t get a number one movie these days without a making deals with at least three devils – and Gunn, well he doesn’t have a lot to do, not yet anyway. But everyone seems happy, if a little pensive about their new surroundings, and they’re all looking forward to doing a lot of good. But then if the senior partners really believed that was all that was going to happen, why hand over the place, lets not forget that pesky Shanshu prophecy, Angel is supposed to be playing a key role in the apocalypse (you know ‘the’ apocalypse, not just one of the many that have been averted over the years, but the real one) but is doesn’t specify which side he’ll be fighting for, surely the senior partners are doing their best to stack the deck.
Unlike most series, of both Buffy and Angel, this season stands out for not having an overbearing ‘big bad’ running throughout the series. Whilst the impeding apocalypse and questions about the senior partners true motives are always present, the series lacks a real objective, which actually frees Angel up to do a number of more interesting things. Before we go any further it should be made clear, Angel Season 5 occurs after Buffy Season 7, and even though the shows had split to different networks the story-lines are still very intertwined so this season, and this review, contains a lot of spoilers for the final season of Buffy, including its final episode. Which brings us to the finest aspect of the series, Spike. During the last series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, his love of Buffy really blossomed, after going through the demon trials and gaining himself a soul. Then, tragically, he gave his life to save the world, closing the Sunnydale hellmouth. Surprisingly for everyone, including Spike, he’s back, after a mystical amulet delivered to Wolfram and Hart conjures him back to life, sort of. Spike has a little problem touching things, as he appears to be a ghost, which means he has nothing better to do than hang around Wolfram and Hart haunting Angel. The banter between them is a constant highlight, bickering like any couple with more than a hundred years of arguments behind them, though they sound rather like a couple on the verge of make-up sex most of the time. Matters are only made worse when someone points out that that Shanshu prophecy doesn’t actually mention Angel by name, only referring to the ‘vampire with a soul’ so Angel might be the one that averts the apocalypse and gets to become human, or it could be Spike. Now not only has Spike stolen Angel’s girlfriend, but he might be stealing his destiny too, that doesn’t make for happy families now does it.
But while the team searches for a way to make Spike a, um… not-ghost, again, and he and Angel bicker their way towards their destinies, that isn’t the focus of the series. Everything is hung loosely around the always-absent senior partners ‘master plan’ but not knowing what it is means the story-line isn’t obsessed with it, making the season much freer than previous ones. There are far more stand alone episodes in this series, usually laced with plot lines running through a few episodes, and it keeps the season very lively, keeping the interest in a lone story-line for 23 episodes isn’t easy – just look at Season 4’s problematic closing stages, once Jasmine came into the picture. A prime example of the new looser agenda comes in the form of Cordelia, left in a coma at the end of Season 4 she’s practically forgotten here, though of course she makes a return, she goes a good 10 episodes without even a mention. In previous seasons she didn’t need to do anything more than go to the bathroom without it sparking a plot-line that largely consisted of Angel pacing back and forth in his office, angrily snapping about how they had to get her back. In Season 5 characters come and go as they please, feeling free to try and manipulate the team and move on when the plot tires of them. Moving away from the lone agenda of previous seasons is probably the best thing to happen to the series. Of course there were always stand-alone episodes, and Season 5 comes with some great ones, including the the finest free-standing episode Angel has ever had, Smile Time. After a string of children are found with smile stretched across their comatose faces, Angel decides to snoop around behind the scenes of the TV show they were all watching when it happened, only to find himself turned into a puppet. That’s right, he’s all felt and fuzzy eyebrows. This is hands-down, the funniest episode Whedon has ever conceived, not least due to the writing from the creator of The Tick, Ben Edlund. Playing off all the ‘classic’ Angel camera shots and styles, it couldn’t be more tongue-in-cheek and despite the ridiculous concept it stays perfectly on the right side of the line.
Sadly Smile Time marked a turning point for the show, strangely coinciding with the news that the show was not being renewed for a sixth season (although doubtless many of the remaining episodes had been filmed) things started getting very sombre. There’s really only one fun episode from there on in, The Girl in Question, where Angel and Spike take a trip to Rome to visit Buffy (who doesn’t actually appear in the series as anything more than a distant blonde body double, as Sarah Michelle Gellar was tied up shooting The Grudge) and is once again an episode lifted by their immature bickering. The rest however, have a number of nasty shadows cast across them, and while we know that Whedon can write the sad moments fantastically – who can forget The Body – that’s all that seems to be present here, fantastic moments, not fantastic episodes. The series far from falls apart, but what made Season 5 stand out from the rest of the pack just isn’t present here, until the grand finale at least, where Whedon manages to finish the series on a fitting note. I think knowing that this really would be the final finale allowed for a much better ending, who knows how the Wolfram and Hart story-line would have been brought to an end if Angel and the team needed to live happily ever after for a sixth season, but let’s just say it would probably have been less painfully than this.
Presented in anamorphic 1:78:1 widescreen Angel looks pretty good on DVD, though it could look better. I still haven’t had the chance to sample the American releases of these sets – having started collecting the Buffy series on R2 I’ve stuck slavishly with the book style packaging – but the picture quality on the last season was reportedly much better, particularly sharper, on the R1 release. This season does compare favourably to the last, but is still often painfully dark, to the point of being difficult to watch in a well lit room, but that isn’t anything particularly unusual for the Angel releases.
Walking the same line as the previous series the soundtrack isn’t anything to get hugely excited over. It remains a Dolby Surround mix, the Buffyverse never managed to embrace Dolby Digital 5.1 the way some TV series have on DVD, so expect Angel to continue to sound like you’re watching television, which is fair enough, because really you are.
- Conviction by Joss Whedon
- Destiny by Director Skip Schoolnik, Writers David Fury and Steven S. DeKnight and Juliette Landau
- Soul Purpose by David Boranaz, Writer Brent Fletcher and Christian Kane
- You’re Welcome by Writer/Director David Fury, Christian Kane and Sarah Thompson
- A Hole in the World by Joss Whedon, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof
- Underneath by Director Skip Schoolnik, Writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, and Adam Baldwin
- Not Fade Away by Director/Co-Writer Jeffrey Bell
Naturally with such a wide range of commentators there is a lot of variation in the quality of these commentaries, and many of them aren’t great. The first i went to was the track on A Hole In the World as it looked to have the best group of people. Sadly the tone of the episode really takes all the fun out of the commentary, and they all spend far too much time sitting around watching the episode. You’d think if you only had 45 minutes to give your thoughts on not only the episode, but in Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof’s cases, the whole series, you’d be talking non stop. The best of the tracks was the one on Soul Purpose – the episode David Boreanaz directed – as he and Christian Kane seem to be pretty good friends and are having a good time here. Overall a very mixed bag, but that was to be expected.
Hey Kids! It’s Smile Time
Oddly found on the first disc, far before the actual episode this featurette is about, this a brief look behind the scenes of the Smile Time episode, featuring interviews with the cast, puppets and puppeteers.
Season 5 saw Angel celebrate its 100th episode, so this brief featurette gives us a glimpse into the wrap party for that show, as well as letting the cast and Joss Whedon tell us their thoughts about what has made Angel such a success.
Angel: Choreography of a Stunt
Late on in the season there’s a pretty impressive stunt where Angel gets tossed through a few windows and falls a few hundred feet to land outside Wolfram and Hart’s front door. So here we get to see David Boreanaz’s stunt double Mike Massa dangle himself 150 feet off the ground with a coat full of glass and throw himself through a window at slightly the wrong angle. I bet these were a couple of days Boreanaz was really glad he has a double.
Angel: The Final Season
This is the longest of the featurettes on the discs, clocking in at nearly half an hour, and is a look back at the series from all the main players. It’s good to hear them all talk about the show – though it’s still odd to hear Spike and Wesley talk with their native American accents – but it would have been better to have heard a few more in-depth insights into the show, there are a few too many clips from the shows, a bit too much explanation of things that are obvious to anyone that’s seen the shows, and not enough of the reasoning behind things. It seems to be a mix of promotional interviews for people that haven’t seen it, and – Joss Whedon in particular – remembrances, making it a sadly muddled affair. Considering this is the last release it would have been nice to get a much bigger, in depth look.
To Live and Die in L.A.: The Best of Angel
Joss Whedon here talks us through his favourite episodes from the first four seasons of Angel, it seems he’s more fond of his grand dramatic moments than the silliness he infuses into so much of the seasons, but it’s nice to see what he’s most proud of.
Halos and Horns: Recurring Villainy
Despite the title there isn’t a lot in the way of halos or horns here, focusing mainly on the recurring female characters, Drusilla, Lila and Darla, the actresses behind the roles talk about their time on the show and why they think the fans took to their characters so well.
Angel Unbound: The Gag Reels
Sadly 5 whole seasons of Angel hasn’t produced that many fantastic goofs, there are a few good moments, and Boreanaz clearly enjoys clowning around on set, but i expected much better from this.
Angel Season 5 is probably the best the show has produced, it doesn’t match the best Buffy seasons, but few spin-offs have ever reached these heights. The DVD release will sit happily alongside your collection, and is up to the same standards of content as the rest. However this season marks the first time the US has been treated to the DVDs before the UK, though only by a week, and the R1 release is significantly cheaper than the R2. The boxes won’t match on your shelf, but as the content is near identical it certainly makes it a tempting alternative. Whichever you choose though, this is a season you’ll come back to, a lot of shows have a poor final season – hence their cancellation – leaving you with the temptation of purchase merely for the sake of completion. This isn’t one of them.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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