As a writer and director, Joss Whedon is known for many things: his snarky one liners, his deft hand with group dynamics, his inability to let a couple be happy for longer than five minutes. His penchant for crushing your dreams with shocking character deaths long before Game of Thrones was even a sparkle in D.B. Weiss’ and David Benioff’s eyes. And of course, his most famous works.
Buffy changed the entire medium. Aside from being a damn good show with unforgettable characters, it showcased one of the first ass-kicking heroines who was still allowed to be feminine, one of the first gay kisses on TV, and it upped the ante for the supernatural genre (and TV in general) with such writing acrobatics as a silent episode or the episode that follows a side character on a doughnut run while the action happens offscreen. The Avengers then turned Whedon into a household name, and, for better or worse, paved the way for the era of superhero ensemble movies.
This wouldn’t exist if Whedon hadn’t shown Hollywood and the rest of the world that it could work:
But whether you’re an old-school Buffy fan, a Firefly loyalist, or new to the Whedon train thanks to The Avengers or Cabin In The Woods, when you hear someone talk about Joss Whedon, nobody ever says, “Oh yeah, the guy who did Angel!”
Well, they should. The entire series is on Netflix, and summer TV is pretty lame anyway, so you should dive in. While it may not be game-changing for the medium in the way that Buffy was — and with its early 2000s effects, it can’t be as splashy as The Avengers — Angel is Whedon’s best besides Buffy.
It’s got a lot going against it right out of the gate. As a spinoff, it’s guaranteed to be overshadowed by its predecessor, and as a spinoff about a guy who admittedly wasn’t the most interesting character on the original show — not to mention our current fatigue with brooding vampires — its easy to see why you’d say, “Why would I want to watch a show about Angel?” I’m glad you asked.
You want to watch it because Angel makes a surprisingly good protagonist.
In a Reddit AMA, Joss Whedon said Angel was his hardest character to write, because “how to make a decent, handsome, stalwart hero interesting — tough.”
That’s how you make him interesting: You get him to interact with people who give him shit. When he’s with Buffy, Angel doesn’t get a whole lot to do. He’s far more compelling as a protagonist than as the romantic lead. Dare I say, he’s more sympathetic than Buffy, who could be grating. His struggle for redemption after a lifetime of seriously fucked-up misdeeds makes Angel a darker, more mature show. For non-Buffy fans, Angel is pretty much Batman in L.A., only without the stupid Bat-voice. Whedon gets away with having a potentially too-perfect hero because any time Angel tries to be a stereotypical brooding vampire, the show doesn’t let him. He’s no chatterbox, but he’s surrounded by enough big personalities that the interplay works well. As a whole, Angel does for early adulthood what Buffy did for your teens: It tackles the struggles in an engaging way, often with a clever supernatural spin.
You want to watch it for Joss Whedon’s cameo. It’s the best anyone has ever done.
Joss Whedon is no Stan Lee or Hitchcock; he has only indulged in three cameos. His cameo in Angel is the greatest of all time. Angel is not afraid to get dark, but it’s also not afraid to be light and wacky. In a particularly memorable arc, Angel and his gang fall through a portal into a world called Pylea, where Angel’s green- skinned buddy Lorne is originally from. Below, Whedon is the dancing man, and if you click on no other clip here, you need to at least click on this one. It’s absolutely vital to your well-being.
You want to watch it for Wesley. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce.
Wesley has one of the most intriguing and dramatic character arcs of anybody on any TV show — not just Whedon’s. If you’re already familiar with Buffy, you know Wesley as the nebbish nerd who joins the gang in Season 3. Angel plays the long game, though, giving him time to develop. At first he continues as prudish comic relief. Just look at him dancing and trying to talk to a lady:
It’s really, really hard to believe that this guy evolves into a stone-cold badass. And yet, he does, and it’s utterly convincing. Over the course of five seasons, he morphs from goofy nerd to gritty tough-guy. Other shows have undertaken dramatic character transformations, but they often feel rushed or forced. Wesley earns every inch of his journey, and it’s a riveting, gut-punching ride.
You want to watch it for its stellar character development and engaging dynamics across the board.
Whedon can balance pulse-pounding action with quiet character beats like no other. And if you’ve seen Buffy, you know Cordelia isn’t exactly a sympathetic character. A spoiled narcissistic princess, she begins the series as a bully and ends it as an ally who still looks out for herself above all else. But on Angel, she undergoes a transformation almost as dramatically satisfying as Wesley’s. This might be heresy among some Buffy fans and Sarah Michelle Gellar herself, but Cordelia becomes a character who is a better, more mature match. Every relationship on Angel involves grey area. There are no easy outs, but there are also no arbitrary dramatics.
You should watch it because it stays consistent. It also makes a comeback.
Angel isn’t perfect. It veers off track for a handful of episodes in the fourth season. But unlike other shows that derail, Angel is able to veer back on (if you see Vincent Kartheiser on the screen, just hit fast forward and everything will be OK). This owes largely to consistency. Wolfram and Hart, the law firm that is literally connected to hell, has been a presence since the first episode. By making it the home base the final season, Angel achieves a full circle that many shows can’t manage for their final acts. It also brings back a seemingly forgotten character (Lindsay) that lesser shows would have kept discarded (ahem, GoT and Gendry in his boat). As a result, the fifth season contains some of the funniest (Smile Time), most devastating (A Hole In The World), and most moving (You’re Welcome) episodes representing Whedon at his Whedonest.
Speaking of the final act, you should watch Angel because of the finale.
Endings are important — just look to the subpar finales of Lost or The Sopranos. Even Buffy’s finale, while perfectly adequate, isn’t great (killing Anya as a ‘by-the-way’ afterthought? Giving the potentials screen time? Trying to awkwardly shoehorn Angel in and pretend Spike and Buffy isn’t a thing?). When you dive into a show, it’s nice to know ahead of time that it won’t let you down or fall apart. Angel culminates in one of the most satisfying finales in existence, with the exception of Six Feet Under.
Not all loose ends are resolved. Not everyone makes it. But it fits the tone of the show better than anything else could — better than a false happy ending, or an entirely nihilistic ending.
Joss Whedon is known for creating dynamic characters and ripping your heart out in ways that, for the most part, actually serve the plot. Nowhere is he more successful at this than Angel. If you’re a Buffy fan who never gave it a chance, or if you’re a newcomer who thinks Batman in L.A. sounds like an awesome show, it’s on Netflix and summer TV has produced fairly piss-poor offerings so far. So dive in.