Joss Whedon 101: Angel

Stacey Abbott

After three seasons as Buffy's love interest and sometime enemy, Angel, the vampire with a soul, departed in 1999 for Los Angeles and his own series. Acclaimed Angel scholar Stacey Abbott sums up what makes the series so special.

While the character Angel, the vampire with a soul, was introduced in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN, 1997-2003), the origins of the TV series Angel (WB, 1999-2004) stem from Season Two of Buffy when Angel loses his soul after experiencing one moment of perfect happiness when sleeping with Buffy (“Surprise” / “Innocence” 2.13/14). At this moment, Angel’s deliciously sadistic and cruel alter-ego, Angelus, emerges and no one would ever be able to look at Angel in quite the same way again. This character transformation served both to showcase David Boreanaz’s acting ability -- he is never better than when he plays Angelus (except maybe when he is a puppet) -- and the underlying complexity of Angel, a vampire cursed with a soul, haunted by his past actions and looking for atonement. This brief glimpse of Angelus made Angel’s struggle with his literal inner demon all the more tangible and moving.

It was while shooting Season Two that Joss Whedon approached Buffy co-producer David Greenwalt and David Boreanaz about potentially spinning Angel off into his own series. Angel would stay on Buffy for a third season, the point of which was to build to his and Buffy’s painful breakup and Angel’s departure for Los Angeles.

In creating a spin-off from Buffy, Whedon and Greenwalt had to consider how to construct a new series that was distinct in its own right. Their desire was to aim Angel at a slightly older audience and to achieve this, they broke away from Buffy’s high school location, sunny atmosphere and bright colours. In contrast, Angel draws upon the legacy of film noir associated with Los Angeles by filming primarily at night in typically noir-style locations such as seedy bars, night clubs, back alleys, and sewers. This may seem like an obvious move for a series based around a vampire who cannot go out in the day, but compare the visual style of Angel with more recent vampire series such as Moonlight and Vampire Diaries and you will see the difference.

While these shows come up with narrative means of shooting during the day, Angel is primarily shot at night (until its fifth season when budget cuts made it necessary to shoot during the day and so UV-resistant windows were introduced). As a result, Whedon and Greenwalt, through their highly skilled Directors of Photography Herb Davis and Ross Berryman, match the show’s brooding and existential storyline and themes with what Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery describe as repeated “moments of beautiful dark” (2005, 225). The cinematography on Angel emphasizes deep shadows, expressionist lighting, and isolated compositions. This Noir legacy is never more apparent than in the opening montage of bright urban lights of Los Angeles accompanied by the following voiceover:

Los Angeles. You see it at night and it shines. A beacon. People are drawn to it. People and other things. They come for all sorts of reasons. My reason? No surprise there. It started with a girl. (“City Of” 1.1)

With this opening, Angel both acknowledges its association with Buffy but also transforms Angel from a teenage girl’s first love into a Noir detective, losing himself in LA to escape the pain of the past. A past that includes Buffy but also, as the series would go on to explore, a long history of obsession, sadism, and violence. Angel’s path to redemption was just beginning.

It is the theme of redemption through action that came to define the series, first through Angel and then the family he builds around him: Doyle, Cordelia Chase, Wesley Wyndam-Price, Faith, Charles Gunn, Lorne, Winifred “Fred” Burkle, Connor, Illyria, and finally Spike -- resurrected from his fiery death on Buffy to appear in Angel’s final season. Each of these characters is damaged in one form or another, looking to find redemption for past failings by “helping the helpless” one soul at a time. They are also looking to make sense of who they are and how they fit into the world around them. While Buffy offered insight into the pains of growing up, Angel explored the painful challenges of adulthood. But that was just the start for Angel. There is no one way to read Angel.

Over the five seasons, Angel offered its audience countless moments of aesthetic pleasure [the Angel theme and credits give the show a brooding sensibility while the action scenes offer kinetic energy], provocative storylines [two vampires give birth to a human baby], transgressive representation of gender...

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