Angel may be off the air, but DVD sets keep the undead alive. This especially by way of Special Features — season overviews, villain bios, outtakes, commentary from creator Joss Whedon and documentaries about the sets, makeup, action sequences, etc. It also means you can replay again and again your favorite fight scenes, make-out scenes, jokey-one-liner scenes, and I-didn’t-quite-catch-that-because-David-Boreanaz-mumbles scenes.
However, early indications that Angel was ready to end popped up in Season Four, now released on DVD. From the tired acting to the ridiculously convoluted plot lines, it’s became clear that in Season Four, the writers and directors were grasping for new twists. During the special features documentaries, Whedon, many of the actors, and writers David Fury, Steven DeKnight, and Tim Minear, trying to clear up the confusing plot, also try to make the season look more exciting than it actually was.
“We wanted the Beast to be truly epic and apocalyptic,” says Whedon in “Fatal Beauty and the Beast,” a documentary about the season’s villains. J. August Richards (who plays Charles Gunn) says in “Prophecies: The Season Four Overview” that the characters experienced “personal as well as global apocalypses.” (Notice the word “apocalypse,” one of the most commonly used on the show.) In the season overview, Whedon asserts that he wanted this season to be “operatic.” It was that. The story arc was so grand and convoluted, characters had a hard time believing what was happening to them. So did we.
Against these plot strains stand the backdrop of L.A. (and the perfectly creepy Hyperion Hotel) and Wolfram & Hart, still a formidable nemesis in which, according to Whedon, “the bad guys are legion and the heroes are few.” The firm merits its own documentary, where Whedon explains that it’s a metaphor for the dilemma all young adults face, that is, how do I sell myself out to “the Man” without selling my soul?
The premise for Season Four is admittedly convoluted. As Whedon says in “Fatal Beauty and the Beast,” the point was to baffle the gang by turning their conceptions of reality on end. No one knew who the “real” bad guy was. At the end of Season Three, Angel’s son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) had sunk his father to the bottom of the ocean as punishment for all his crimes as a vampire. As Season Four begins, Wesley (Alexis Denisoff) finds Angel (David Boreanaz) and brings him back to the surface — in the process, healing a few of the old wounds that had driven the gang apart in the last season. Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) was still missing and when they found her, the show’s conflicts were still between the cast. The Big Bad was not identified until Cordelia’s mysteriously missing memory was returned, thanks to one of Lorne’s (Andy Hallet) spells.
Turns out she’s the Big Bad, carrying a Big Bad Baby in her belly. (The whole evil thing was initiated when the Beast shot out of the earth and rained fire from the sky; Connor and Cordelia slept together that night — supposedly because the world was ending — and set in motion the final steps of an evil plan that had started rolling years ago.) The revelation that she’s evil comes about through painstaking dialogue and far too many long shots of Cordelia looking sinister. This particular issue with the movement of the story is indicative of a deeper problem that has emerged this season. In previous seasons, Team Angel connected through more action and less dialogue. Now, the scenes are longer and talkier, with the camera cutting from the speaker to the cast for reaction shots and back to the speaker, soap-opera-style.
Many writer/director commentaries throughout the season address this burden of dialogue issue; however in the season finale commentary, writer/director Tim Minear speaks to this concern most directly. When Lilah (Stephanie Romanov), a lawyer from Wolfram & Hart, offers the L.A. branch of the firm to the gang, to do with what they would, he reports that pages and pages of dialogue were cut from that scene by the time the episodes aired. Minear says the cuts were due to tv time constraints, and his effort to move the action along. However, he still feels the story moved too slowly. In this and other episodes, such as “Release” and “Orpheus,” writers Steven DeKnight and Mere Smith resort to dialogue to construct plot. With so much dialogue in each episode, the writers can explain their way out of any plot twist that doesn’t make sense.
In “Shiny Happy People,” we learn everything that’s happened thus far on Angel was a set up to ensure that Connor knocked Cordy up and the Biggest Bad of All could be born. She sprang from Cordelia fully formed — a beautiful “ebony goddess” named Jasmine (Gina Torres), who brought world peace and mental slavery. As these “what the hell?” moments keep arising, the whole “it’s all part of the Plan” thing becomes an excuse for all sorts of leaps in the plot. The Big Bad eventually doesn’t seem so bad, because she makes all these grand schemes that are inevitably foiled by some powerful force we or Angel’s gang have yet to encounter. Since we know Angel can’t lose because it’s his show, we stop believing that the next disaster will be all that disastrous.
For example, in “Orpheus,” the gang has lost all hope of putting Angel’s soul back in his body (after it was removed by a shaman and subsequently stolen). Cordelia’s plans are unfolding, when, who should arrive but Willow (Alyson Hannigan), from Buffy. In the last quarter of the episode, she succeeds in returning Angel’s soul, but also foils Cordelia. It takes her 10 minutes. Every unsolvable problem is then resolved so quickly, we’re left thinking none of them is so terrible as they seemed. “Apocalypse” can only be uttered so many times before it starts to lose its urgency.
So, while Angel retains its visual grandeur, by this season, it’s slipping into simple shock as a source of excitement. While the special features on this DVD grant typical “insiders'” perspectives on the season’s development, they also reveal some of the artistic obstacles the writers, directors, and creators encountered in their efforts to keep the show fresh.