Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Angel: Season Three

The first season of Angel was defined in large part its relationship with its parent show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the second season by its increasing independence and development of its own voice. That trend continues in the third season. Part of that had to do with network politics, as Buffy switched from the WB to UPN, rendering direct crossovers impossible for Angel S3/Buffy S6. Angel's continuing independence isn't a bad thing, of course, but I can't help but feel that this season of television might have been stronger had Angel felt more connected to its predecessor.

I say this because two of Angel's biggest plot developments are things that Buffy (both the character and the show overall) would love to comment on. Angel goes through some big life changes in season three, including new family and a new flame. Since Buffy recently acquired some new family of her own, learning about Angel's addition would certainly be of interest to her, and Angel's romantic entanglement with her high school rival/friend Cordelia? Well, given how Buffy reacted to Angel giving Faith a hug back in the first season, this would likely drive her ballistic. Yet it's never mentioned.

But I get ahead of myself. Joss Whedon's shows are somewhat notorious for their slow starts, but Angel Season 3 puts the lie to that reputation with a strong set of episodes to begin the season. The third episode, "That Old Gang Of Mine," is particularly strong dramatically, as Gunn is forced to confront his, well, old gang, as they turn aggressively violent. The next episode, "Carpe Noctem," goes comedic as a horny old man switches bodies with Angel in order to score with chicks. The new addition to the team, Amy Acker's Fred, makes herself more and more useful to the team and essential to the show over the course of these episodes.

As all this happens, Angel's murderous progenitor Darla is pregnant with their child, and traveling to see him. This culminates in a strong set of episodes in which the human baby starts to infect Darla with a soul, causing her to become almost good, and Angel and Darla's old enemy, the vampire slayer Holtz, is sent through time to chase them both down. The ninth episode, "Lullaby," isn't just the confrontation between Holtz and Angel, but also Darla giving birth. This is dramatic enough, and well done, but it's a filled with some great - and surprising - laugh-out-loud moments. The combination of tension with comedy is the hallmark of Joss Whedon shows at their best, and "Lullaby" is the strongest of the season.

The middle part of the season, unfortunately, is not as strong as beginning, as life with the new baby, Connor, tends to take on either tired sitcom tropes or equally tired "Defend-the-baby!" storylines. The worst example of the former is "Provider," in which Angel suddenly decides that making money for Connor's future is the most important thing, and by the end of the episode has learned the valuable lesson that money isn't everything. The only Whedon-penned episode of the season, "Waiting in the Wings," sees the team go to the ballet only to discover - surprise! - that all is not as it seems. Angel and Cordelia are forced to confront their growing feelings for each other, and it features an always-welcome appearance by Whedon favorite Summer Glau as the cursed star ballerina.

This otherwise somewhat disappointing stretch of episodes is held together in large part by the superb portrayal of Holtz the vampire hunter by Keith Szarabajka. Holtz is played with a deep, growling malevolence, and the ambivalence of his motivation of vengeance against the vampire who slaughtered his family only adds to his magnetism. This proves important, as the previous antagonists at Wolfram & Hart are much less interesting after season 2, with Lindsay gone and Holland Manners dead. Lilah Morgan, the new embodiment of Wolfram & Hart, just isn't as interesting as Lindsay, and neither are her new rival or her new boss.

Unfortunately, the big plot twist towards the end of the season involves Wesley being deceived into thinking that Angel would kill Connor, and so he kidnaps the baby with Holtz's help. The former part makes sense, but there's no reason for Wesley's plan to involve Holtz, who unsurprisingly betrays Wes. This betrayal, and the total lack of forgiveness from his friends, leaves Wesley in a horribly dark place by the end of the season, and promises fascinating developments in his future. But that doesn't entirely excuse the incoherent kidnapping twist.

Still, Wesley's not the only character going interesting places at the end of the season. Lorne is, literally, as he leaves for Las Vegas. Cordelia is apparently recruited by the Powers That Be to become an angel, or something. Angel's at the bottom of the ocean, and the newly returned Connor has embraced the dark side. I'm looking forward to Season 4, although I know it has something of a mixed reputation.

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