Angel Season 2 Review

My review of season 2 of Angel will be relatively short even by my less than grandiloquent standards.  It’s a season that is of uniformly high quality, but also rarely reaches the highest strata of the show and is bogged down by a poor final arc with Pylea.

This season still rides on its excellent character development.  The humanity of the inhuman Angel is the central theme of the season, much as it was in the one prior.  Angel take the role of lone wolf for awhile, shutting down the investigation service for a time, was cliché but effective.  Angel worries about his comrades, but it also highlight a perennial character flaw.  Namely, Angel is arrogant.  He often thinks he knows best, is the only one fully capable and often makes unilateral decisions (see Season 5).  He is the chosen one, the vampire with a soul and he has a destiny to fulfill.  All that said, there is some really poor writing around Angel’s character in this season.  In particular in his interactions with Darla.  Of most cringeworthy status is the episode “Epiphany” where Angel sleeps with Darla and then has a new outlook on life that no longer has Darla in it.  It’s weird and a little sleazy.

Wesley continues to evolve this season from the weak Watcher and downtrodden pansy that came before.  This still isn’t the guns akimbo Wesley we become acquainted with later, but he stands up to the physically imposing Gunn and runs the investigation agency in Angel’s absence.  Wesley is competent and somewhat assured.

Cordelia is, somewhat predictably, the “heart” of the team.  She too has grown significantly from her role as the mean girl of Sunnydale High.  She can stake a vampire and doesn’t resort to weak snide remarks to cover her insecurity.  The anonymity of LA appears to have oriented Cordelia to her relative insignificance in the world.  Instead of jeering at her for not reaching her lofty aspirations, you instead sympathize with her.  It speaks to the strength of Angel’s writers that they salvaged such a one-note character from Buffy.

Gunn is Gunn.  This is the only season he is somewhat interesting.  But too often he is just the brash young guy that views violence as the first and last resort.  One episode they literally had him explain slavery as the only non-demonic person of color on the show.  It was not a highpoint for Angel.

Much of this season deals with Darla, Angel’s sire and former lover, and the machinations of Wolfram and Heart.  Darla gets a huge retcon as someone of huge import in Angel’s life rather than the throwaway villain of season 1 Buffy.  This prompts a lot of dramatic moments and interesting flashbacks.  Unfortunately, it never quite makes sense why Angel has so much compassion for Darla.  She is evil and Angel never disputes this fact about vampires.  Furthermore, the Buffyverse has long operated under the notion that Angel and Angelus are separate people.  It’s not really clear why Angel would love Darla as the unredeemable Angelus would.   His memories of his time with Darla would mostly include all the terrible things he did as Angelus.  It’s hard to invest yourself in this plotline when you are wondering why Angel is so concerned.  The aforementioned epiphany seems to oddly mirror this reading of the situation as if he suddenly realized he didn’t really have any attachment to Darla.

It’s also never clear what the hell Wolfram and Heart are trying to accomplish this season.  Angel and team never really set out to dismantle or impede W&H so one wonders why they continue to antagonize Angel by raising his sire and so on.  And again we learn that W&H are specifically not going to take Angel off the board for reasons shrouded in mystery and which I am sure they regret by the end of Angel.

Lastly, the Pylea arc that ends the season is cheesy LARP quality stuff.  It introduces a throwaway love interest for Cordelia that seems to appear only to derail the romance with Angel.  It also introduces Fred.  Amy Acker is great, but this was not a great introductory arc.  Mostly it just goes on for at least two episodes long.  There are some great jokes from a self-obsessed Angel, but way too much generic fantasy pap to sustain my interest.

So this is a mixed bag.  It’s I think of more even keel than season one, but misses a lot of the existential exploration of humanity that propelled a lot of the better episodes of season 1.  The new additions to the cast are mixed bag, with Lorne being my standout favorite.  The core three of Angel, Wesley and Cordelia are still the highlight of the show and the strength of the core ensemble is the primary reasons Angel is a better show than Buffy.

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Angel Season 1 Review

I should preface these reviews of the Angel TV show by stating that I watched it without viewing any significant portion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  If anything, the connection to Buffy, a show I only have negative feelings towards, had deferred any attempt at watching Angel.  How could anything come out of the teen melodrama of Buffy?  I was worried that Angel was the precursor to the supernatural romances seen in Twilight and its ilk.  However, my wife assured me it was a good show and so strode forth with a curated list of episodes to guide us.  It turns out my wife was wrong.  Angel was not a good show.  It was an excellent show especially in the period before the golden age of serial television we now live in.

Now season one of Angel gets a lot of flak, only season 4 is ever ranked below it and only occasionally.  Perhaps skipping some of the really poor episodes in the season biases my view, but I thought this was an excellent first season for the show.  It doesn’t have a season long arc, though the last few episodes have strong continuity and setup the second season.  Instead, my favorite moments were in one-off episodes that explore the contours of a supernatural detective agency with a vampiric lead investigator might operate.

Of particular note is the episode “I’ve Got You Under my Skin” about a demon that inhabits a child.  This is a haunting episode because kids are creepy, but also due to the twist that the child had actually overpowered the demon and that the cries for salvation escaping from the boy were actually the demon captured in the boy.  This episode would have slotted into Supernatural with ease and represents some of the best episodic Angel.

I also really enjoyed all the characters in this season.  Doyle’s appearance did not have much longevity, but he provided a lot of levity and despite a rather stupid character death, I was not unemotional when he kicked the bucket.  However, his death did lead to Wesley joining, the undisputed best character on Angel.  His arc from comic relief and pathetic “rogue demon hunter” to tormented bad ass in the final season is one of the primary reasons to watch Angel.  It was nice to see Cordelia evolve from her Mean Girls persona on Buffy and her interactions with Angel were almost universally excellent.  Angel himself works much better as a brooding figure in L.A. than the fling of a teenage girl in some sunny California town.  All of the characters have moments of genuine pathos and crack occasional funny and unforced jokes throughout.  Later seasons often try to cram all the humor into single less serious episodes, but season 1 does a much better job blending it into a typical episode.

What didn’t work were the crossovers with Buffy.  I may be in the minority here, but I hated every moment Buffy was on screen.  Having not watched Buffy, she came off as domineering and insensitive in almost all of her scenes.  I am not really fond of Spike as a character and his episode with the invulnerability ring was pretty dull except for the touching sunset gazing Angel did at the end.  Faith worked much better and her storyline established the essential goodness of Angel the character, which has strong interplay with a lot of the doubt the show casts on Angel’s morality later on.  I also enjoy her presence in later seasons as her persona seems more fitting for the darker edge of Angel.

Also I disliked Kate.  Not because she unceremoniously disappears, but because her interactions with Angel as a cop are trite and predictable.  First she is convinced he is a bad dude before being swayed.  That is until she finds out he is a vampire and then illogically thinks he killed her dad.  This kind of schlock is replete in the urban fantasy genre.  For instance I hated Murphy from the Dresden Files in the early books for following along a very similar arc.

Charles Gunn is introduced in the last three episodes.  He enters the main cast from season two onward but I always found him to be underdeveloped.  His episode, War Zone, was a bit inexplicable with a gang of kids roving around, post-apocalyptic style, through L.A. hunting demons.  It ends with a thoroughly overdone story of a loved one, in this case Gunn’s sister, being taken over by the vampiric demon and having to be eliminated.

The final episodes setup Wolfram and Heart and the dynamic duo of Lindsey and Lilah.  I like Lindsey as a character, but these two suffer from incompetent villain syndrome.  It particular mars Lilah who is frustratingly unaware of her ineptitude.  It’s hard to take anything W&H do seriously when Lilah is running the operation and so many evil plots feel underwhelming.  It’s even worse that the Senior Partners essentially give Angel plot armor for no well justified reason.  They are basically telling us that Lilah will fail.

In the end, I liked season one after cherry picking the good stuff, mostly for the great character interactions of the core team of Angel, Wesley and Cordelia.  Later seasons add too many characters and plot elements drive a wedge into this triangle, but in season one it remains unsullied and carries a lot of somewhat weak plots and annoying crossovers.

The Real Origin of Serialized TV

Vox apparently doesn’t read much and doesn’t even watch much TV.  I say this because of this completely erroneous article claiming that TV started serialization in movies.  This is of course not true as good serialization has a storied past in the printed word.  Not even that, they don’t even mention the TV precursors to the current serialization trend.

The irony is that the header image for the article is from Captain America, a character from the ultimate serialization format: the comic book.  Now comic books have their roots in an even older serial format having spawned from the pulp genre where stories were usually split up among successive issues of periodical devoted to fiction.  In fact this is how a lot of classic Victorian literature was published as well.  It was a concession to printing costs, which were relatively high, and a way to keep customers hooked.

However, in earlier serials it was usually a matter of taking an existing story and just chopping it up.  That is why I think comic books are a better analogue to modern TV.  In both media you have indefinite length of air time or comic books you are trying to fill with stories about the same characters.  The parallels run deeper as both comics and TV were almost exclusively episodic for most of their history, only recently have they become heavily serialized (by which I mean a longer story arc is broken up among multiple issues/episodes).

For comic books, this change was wrought in the early 80s with the extreme popularity of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run.  There are of course earlier well-regarded story arcs, but stuff like Days of Future Past is etched in nearly ever comic readers mind.  It’s hard to overstate how popular X-Men was at one point.  A comic book is lucky if it sells a 100,000 copies now, but X-Men was pulling numbers in the millions in the 80s and that caused a profound shift in what kinds of stories were deemed likely to succeed.  The other major event was the release of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns which had broad mainstream and critical success.  For a moment it looked like comics, or graphic novels for the snobbish, might stand among “serious” literature.  Of course stories those good are rare and the rush to put out “grim and gritty” stories caused a glut of mediocre imitators and a backlash.  Nevertheless, a push toward more mature, complex storytelling and the proven success of serialized storytelling completely changed the face of comic books.  Today, one-and-done storytelling is exceedingly rare in comic books and charges of “decompression,” extending a story longer than it needed to be, are common among fans.

Now the roots of TV serialization are longer than Vox pretends as well.  I would trace it back to Star Trek and Twin Peaks, but I don’t claim an intimate knowledge of TV history.  This of course ignores the many serial soap operas.  However, considering how long soaps have been on the air, it can’t really be the case that they drove stronger serialization in TV. Star Trek: The Next Generation features to me an inchoate serialization.  Many multi-episode stories rank among the best of the show’s seven seasons, including The Best of Both Worlds which really elevated what was possible in the format.  The two episodes split between seasons were almost like watching a movie, even if the ending was slightly disappointing.  Ironically, its movies trying to be like TV now.  It also featured the Borg, an existential threat that cropped up in many memorable episodes.  Later seasons dealt with a Cardassian war as an omnipresent theme as well.  Yes, it was still largely episodic, but it always had the backdrop of these larger menaces adding flavor.  Deep Space Nine would take this even further with its multi-season Dominion storyline.  Also it is important to highlight that TNG was very popular at the time and TV follows the money.  What I find interesting is that almost assuredly the writers of TNG read comic books and TNG followed hot on the heels of the revolution going on comic books.

The other big early serial was Twin Peaks.  While it had its soap opera tendencies, it was an extremely popular serialized crime drama.  Suddenly we had multiple examples of a genre other than soap operas doing very well with serialization.

Finally, Vox completely ignores the many fantasy and science fiction series that would classify as serials.  Stuff like Harry Dresden which spans over 10 books, most of it with a continuing storyline, certainly qualifies as a serial.  Vox is like the people claiming Interstellar was an ambitious science fiction production when it is in fact a regurgitation of many science fiction plots and would look dated among literature from 30 years ago.  These pronouncements reveal an ignorance of the long history of their respective genres and formats.

I Like All Four of My Walls, Thank You Very Much

Writing about House of Cards had me realize how much I hate all the fourth wall breaking that is the latest trend in television.  I blame The Office for starting this vile fad and I can only hope it fades away soon.

The Office gets points for A) being first and B) making it a legitimate part of the show with the pretense of making a documentary.  I guess Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries were first, but I guarantee that The Office is far more influential.  Of course, The Office committed the far worse sin of staying on television far after it stopped being remotely funny or interesting.

Breaking the Fourth Wall is much more of a television trope than a movie one and it mostly infects comedies.  How I Met Your Mother uses it occasionally for a quick joke and I recall it happening in Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well and 30 Rock used it too.  It works better for comedies because it is usually allows a character to point out the absurdity of the situation.  But that is also the problem with breaking the fourth wall.  It feels like you are trying to explain the joke or clue me into the dramatic undercurrents (when used outside of comedy) which I find patronizing and belittling.  As everyone knows if you have to explain your joke it isn’t funny and you probably didn’t do it right.  This failing is most easily observed in House of Cards where all subtlety is drained from the show because Frank Underwood will always turn to you and reveal all.

Now I am writing about this topic because it seems far more prevalent than I recall ever before.  Arrested Development uses it all the time and is almost never funny; just like that entire show.  I wonder if that last sentence will draw clicks to my blog from rabid AD fans.  Parks and Rec basically rips off The Office in every way from its mockumentary setup, awkward comedy and focus on workplace relationships.  Sadly it seems to take its cues from later seasons of The Office when it comes to quality.

The worst offender must be Modern Family which again takes the mockumentary approach, but only when it wants the characters to talk directly to the audience.  The rest of the show is filmed like your typical sitcom.  They have essentially abused the mockumentary device  simply for the ability to break the fourth wall.  I liked the first two seasons of Modern Family, but it has always been clear that this show had not one iota of originality.  And no, a gay couple that is stereotypically gay and also the worst parents in a sitcom ever is not original or edgy.  Cam and Mitchell reek of tokenism and they have always been the least rewarding part of the show.

So are there any worthwhile examples of breaking the fourth wall consistently?  I would say Better of Ted, but in this case Ted is fulfilling more of a narrator role.  Admittedly, the line between narrator and breaking the fourth wall is narrow and I am not often a fan of narrators (show not tell as your elementary school teacher would say).  However, this show was awesome and Ted as narrator was mostly to fast forward the story to get to the next joke.

A quick search on the internet reveals many other shows with fourth wall breaking and I appear to not be the only one noticing its rise in popularity.  As long as it sticks to comedies I think we will be OK; we really don’t want another House of Cards.

House of Cards… It’s a House of Cards

By which I mean it looks so slick dressed in its post-Watergate jadedness about politics but in the end it has no substance and a strong wheeze can blow it apart.

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood does an excellent job, but that is a given for Spacey.  It helps that he has by far the best character in the show.  The other standout in my mind is Corey Stoll as Peter Russo the coke head Congressman that later tries to put himself on the straight and narrow.

Everyone else is adequate, with the exception of the actress, Kate Mara, playing Zoe Barnes.  Part of it is not her fault.  Zoe is an awful character falling prey to that most insidious of sexist tropes: the ostensibly powerful female who is in fact nothing of the sort.  See Wheel of Time for many examples.  We are, I think, supposed to see Zoe as incredibly ambitious and, after an argument with the male editor of her paper, not willing to let a man dictate the rules of the game to her.

Unfortunately, this is all undone the minute she lets Frank Underwood sleep with her so that he can then use her to manipulate media coverage.  She is both literally and figuratively a prostitute and Underwood is her john.

The problem is that Mara plays her character with dead eyes and flat expressions.  Maybe the character is supposed to already be super jaded or at least pretending to be; God knows the writers want everyone else to be.  Even when she finally lays out the nature of their relationship to Frank she does it with very little heat.  Yet there are other scenes that suggest Zoe was supposed to be much more naive.  Ready for the filth of DC she would still be surprised by the depths of its depravity, but none of that is developed on.

The other major female character is Frank’s wife, Claire.  She is a cold hearted woman that for some reason runs a charitable organization that does something I think.  It never made sense.  Here is another in the cadre of “too cool for school” characters that is not even bothered by the infidelity of her husband.  That is until she does.

She strikes up an affair with an old flame and then feels guilty about cheating on her philandering husband.  Even worse, when she shows a bit of backbone and confronts Francis about how he has arrogated her career for his own ambitions she eventually backs down.  Some of this is Frank being a Mary Sue (which I will touch on later), but most of it is Claire being far weaker than she pretends to be.  She does stab Frank in the back one time and when Franks finds out about it (“I want to know who lied to me!”) is the best part of the show.

Anyway enough about the characters, what about the plot?  Well the series opens with absolutely transparent and awful character building moments like Frank killing a lame dog.  Similarly, Frank spouts off cringe-inducing lines like “I love my wife like a shark loves blood.”  We can be thankful that the blunt writing starts to recede.  Unfortunately, we still have to suffer from Frank breaking the fourth wall to tell us the subtext of the situation.  I would say the audience is smart enough to not need his handholding, but then there exist people that actually praise this show.

However, the worst part of the beginning of the show is the invincibility of Frank.  He maneuvers everyone to his will with unerring accuracy and he has no opponent even trying to match wits with him.   The theme of the show seems to be that Congress is a dirty nasty place except for the naive dimwits that are Frank’s colleagues.  It makes the first few episodes really boring.

Then comes the Teacher’s Union arc which breathes some life into the show.  Suddenly things aren’t under his control and he has opposition that occasionally surprise him.  Strangely Frank is up against a friend, but not even he seems aware of Francis’ propensity for underhanded tactics.  I personally like my clever manipulator types to be known as a tricky customer and still get people to do what they want.  It’s how I operate after all.  I just find it hard to believe that Underwood has been on the Hill for so long and yet everyone still treats what he says and does at face value.  This seems ludicrous in Congress even if you have no reason to distrust Frank.

Then we move onto the final arc which is mostly engaging because of the Peter Russo character.  Russo is a fuck up and Frank convinces him to put himself back on the straight and narrow.  He does and runs for governor and he actually cares about doing some good now.  It’s a very well done character arc.  Of course, the audience knows that Frank has some reason for doing all of this.  Unfortunately, it again makes no sense.  See, they want Russo to fall from grace again so that the Vice President will step in to run for governor and then Frank can become Vice President.

If this seems far-fetched you are not alone.  First, they entice Russo to the dark side again with a pretty face and some booze.  It was far too easy for a man that had tried so hard to be sober for so long.  Then the chain of events that would lead to a Vice President stepping down and Frank being picked as a replacement is highly unlikely.  The worst of it is that it makes no sense.  Frank felt snubbed for Secretary of State so he enacts a grand plan to become the Vice President of the guy that snubbed him?  Not even taking into account that if he could devise a way to be the VP why even bother with SoS?

Now barring his way to VP is a rich white guy.  He wants Frank to do him a favor before he recommends him as VP.  This favor?  Manipulate the exchange rate with China.  There are like a million plausible things a rich white guy would want from a VP and they chose one that makes no sense.  First off, it’s not even clear how he would make money from this.  Secondly, the VP has no control over monetary affairs.  He should be blackmailing Ben Bernanke.  Third, that still wouldn’t help him unless he could convince old Ben to buy and sell Chinese currency in huge amounts and hope that the Chinese don’t offset it with their own purchases.  Of course, the purpose of this move is blatantly clear and Ben would probably face hearings about removing him from office.  It’s a terrible idea and one wonders how this guy became rich with such shitty ideas.

So that’s where it ends except for a dull plot where Zoe almost finds out about Frank’s dirt deeds.  And by almost, I mean she has nada.  Just more Zoe fail in an entire show filled with Zoe fail.  Nothing good has ever come from people named Zoe.  First I had to put up with Zooey Deschanel (she can’t even get her own first name spelled correctly) and now Zoe.  We should just round up all the Zoes and variations thereof and force them to watch 500 Days of Summer for the rest of eternity.

The ending is as anticlimactic as the rest of the show with Frank promised the VP and none very wise about his murderous efforts to get it.  I really love political shows, but this was not a good one.  This could have been set in a large corporation for all that it really used DC as anything more than a backdrop.  It’s too bad because the production values on this show are extremely high and everything is slickly done and competently acted.  Netflix proved to me they have the chops, but not the writing and neither Hemlock Grove nor Orange is the New Black are doing anything to erase that impression.