(THE SERIES PREMIERE)
Written by: Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt
Directed by: Joss Whedon
The Demands on the First Episode
“A beginning is a very delicate time” (Princess Irulan, "Dune"). Well, so it is and especially in the unforgiving world of modern television. Time to allow a new show to find its feet and its audience is a luxury. The WB does not expect to pull in quite the same audience as the other Networks. Nevertheless, competition is now so stiff that unless a new show quickly makes an impact the vultures start to gather. There are accordingly far more demands on the first episode of any series than on any subsequent one. In particular it must –
while at the same time telling an interesting story that will keep the viewers watching. Failure to achieve all or any of these in the pilot can lead to a very early demise for a series. The fact that ANGEL was a spin-off from an already reasonably successful TV show (BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER or BtVS as I shall refer to it) helped in that it guaranteed an initial audience, even if this was only out of curiosity. But the producers could not rely on this in-built audience to relieve them of the tasks I have just described. They were after all trying to attract a new audience who had never been BtVS watchers. Secondly they were, in any event, trying to move in a new direction. So, Mutant Enemy (or ME) the production company could not assume that the traditional BtVS audience would remain loyal to ANGEL. They had to start from the very beginning in getting the viewers’ attention, just as they had done in the first BtVS episode, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (or WttHM). The subsequent success of ANGEL is, therefore, due in no small measure to the success of “City of..” in achieving all of these goals.
Introducing the Characters
Logically of course the first step was to introduce the eponymous hero of the piece. With BTVS the set-up was relatively simple and could be economically completed in the course of a couple of conversations between the Giles and the Slayer about the latter’s unwillingness to follow her sacred duty. In this series setting up the character, background and motivation of Angel needed much more in the way of exposition. It had to come early on or the audience would be confused. And, given its complex and indeed historical nature it couldn’t easily be built into character or plot related dialogue. So the resulting “bedtime story” told by Doyle in the First Act was a rather clunking device when compared to WttHM. But the audience had to be given the necessary background and this had to be done very early in the piece. The fact that it was done with a little style and some humor is to the writers' credit.
back-story was, of course, far less central to the episode and the series so it
could be postponed until much later in the episode. When
it did come, though, it was handled far less successfully than the exposition of
Angel’s. Principally this was
because it required us to believe that Cordelia, who is nothing if not
self-possessed, would with very little provocation, spill her rather pathetic
tale out to a complete stranger she was desperately trying to impress.
For me this just lacked any conviction.
Establishing the Premise
One of the most successful aspects of “City of..” was the way in which the writers drew together Angel’s character and the nature of his mission and related them to the story he was telling almost as if it grew organically out if it. They were thus able to create a single overarching structure with different facets rather than having to bolt several different pieces of architecture together in a makeshift fashion. This is a testimony to how naturally all the character of Angel fitted the premise designed by them for the series and how skillfully both of these elements were woven into the plot. So, for example, at first sight the teaser is merely a piece of eye-grabbing action: the sort of fast start writers like to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. However, the real importance of that scene came at the end when Angel saw the blood of the girl he had just rescued. His reaction was perfectly believable and at the same time illustrated by example the message Doyle would later give him in two senses. First of all it showed very graphically the temptation that fresh human blood still poses for him and secondly it exemplified that his way of dealing with the temptation was to keep his distance.
Having been introduced to both these aspects of Angel’s situation at the very beginning we are in a much better position to understand Doyle’s diagnosis of the problem (that this attitude would lead to disaster) and his remedy for Angel – getting into people’s lives. This, in turn, brings us to the heart of Angel’s difficulty. He has been separate from people for so long that he has trouble in making any sort of connection with them. That connection is to be made in the person of Tina whom Angel only knows in the course of one night. But it is through her that the writers demonstrate both the difficulty that Angel has in making the “human connection” and the fact that ultimately he can do so. The difficulty is all too clearly seen in the intense social awkwardness with which he approaches her. Again I thought that this was very well done. Doyle had already explained about Angel’s isolation:
“Staying away from the humans so as not to be tempted; doing penance in his little cell. But he’s cut off, from every thing; from the people he’s trying to help."
But no amount of talk along these lines carries the weight of a simple example and the example we were given was a classic. It was quite short but very much to the point. In the first scene with Tina Angel’s initial attempt to strike up a conversation is ignored, the second is pathetic:
Tina: "You’ve been watching me?"
Angel: "No! I was looking towards there – and you kind of walked through – there…"
Tina: "You don’t hit on girls very often, do you?"
That this example also brought out the humor in Angel’s awkwardness was a bonus. Because of this he came across as more human and therefore ultimately more sympathetic. We actually felt sorry for his difficulties and wanted him to succeed in making a connection with Tina. In short we started to see things from his point of view.
And it is here that we come to one of the key points in “City of..” – the death of Tina. From the point of view of the basic premise for ANGEL it was important that the writers not only point out the need for Angel to make a connection with people but that they demonstrate that it was possible for him to do so. To demonstrate that meant convincing us, the viewers, that Angel actually cared about Tina. And, sad to say, the most convincing way of doing this with a short-term character was through Angel’s reaction to her death. This allowed us to see that – unlike the girls in the teaser - Tina was not an anonymous victim to him but a real person. That was why he went after Russell, not just because he was a vampire or to save Cordelia. It was revenge. He seems at first very business like as he plans how to track Russell down but the following exchange with Doyle shows the truth:
Doyle: "You can’t cut yourself off from…"
Angel: "Doyle, I don’t want to share my feelings. I don’t want to open up. I want to find Russell and I want to look him in the eye."
Doyle: "Then what?"
Angel: "Then, I’m going to share my feelings."
this way Angel’s past, his character and his mission and the way in which that
mission will in turn lead to the growth and development of character are all
brought together in a single coherent whole.
Of course this structure is not without its problems.
I, for one, have considerable difficulty in believing that Angel would
ever give into temptation in the way Doyle describes (“its only one so it
doesn’t really matter”). But
the writers could have just reduced Angel’s mission to its simplest possible
terms (i.e. fighting evil pure and simple) instead of trying this whole new and
more interesting approach and they deserve considerable credit for not taking
the easy way out. This new approach has
two great advantages. The first is that it provides the series with an
overarching theme, something that will lend it coherence, the feeling that we
are following the hero on a single journey. With a format which consists
of a vampire detective solving cases by defeating the monster or the week or
helping the victim of the week the danger is that we will focus on transitory
figures about whom we cannot care. This way the focus is just as much on
the success or otherwise of Angel in achieving his mission. And perhaps
more important still is the fact that here we see that it is the struggle within
Angel that ultimately counts most. The important point about Angel is that
he has a demon within him and that if he loses control of that demon he is far
more a danger to humanity than most of the monsters he is fighting. Making
the series a struggle for possession of his own soul as well as helping others
capitalizes upon this consideration. Besides, someone trying to
do something for which he is ill-equipped in the face of the constant pull of
temptation always makes for good viewing.
But of course there is one pre-requisite for this type of set up - the audience must sympathize with Angel. Once they start to feel that his struggle for redemption isn't something that can relate to then they are likely to just want him staked now. And this tendency is only increased when the defining characteristic of Angel is that he is a reformed killer vampire. So it's not enough to explain the background and set up a general theme. The writers must hit the right notes in their characterization of Angel too. I have already referred to the way that Angel’s difficulty in socializing with humans was made the subject of some very successful humor. But this was not an isolated example. Throughout “City of..” the writers took pot shots at our hero. All these jokes at Angel’s expense seemed to have one purpose. Part of the character’s problem on BUFFY was the writers’ tendency to take the character too seriously. Of course he had a lot to brood about but that is also true on ANGEL. The difference was that on BUFFY there was little attempt to vary the tone. He was handsome, dark, powerful vampire who was still something of a mystery, even to Buffy. This certainly meant he was intriguing; but the same characteristics tended to create a barrier between the character and an audience that felt no connection with him. On ANGEL, on the other hand, we see the same aspects of his character in a completely different light. So, the fact that he is good looking is made the subject of gay jokes; his dark mystery the subject of Batman jokes and even a powerful vampire can jump into the wrong car. Suddenly Angel becomes more human (for want of a better word). He isn’t really so different to us after all. So we are much more inclined to be on his side, wanting him to succeed and sharing the pain of failure.
But even as we were shown this cuddly side of Angel we needed to be reminded that below the surface – and not far below either – was the demon. Otherwise the whole issue of his internal struggle becomes lost on us. That is why I thought the ending was perfect. It would have been possible to have Angel kill Russell in a fair fight at the mansion. Instead what we got was essentially a cold-blooded assassination complete with the little smirk to show how much Angel had enjoyed it. That was truly an “Angelus moment”.
Although Angel is undoubtedly the fulcrum of the episode (it is highly doubtful if this is going to be an emsemble series) Cordelia too is going to have a major role in it. As "Queen C" in BTVS she was a less than sympathetic character. That may have worked perfectly well when she was a second string player and could act as a foil for the more important characters it was not an option here. She is clearly the female lead so she has to be every bit as sympathetic a character as Angel. The trick was to make her sympathetic without unduly diluting the very characteristics that made her such a compelling individual on BTVS. And I am happy to report that in this I think the writers succeeded very well. When we first see Cordelia she is well dressed, fits neatly into the Hollywood milieu and is seemingly successful. She had also clearly retained her essential self-centered approach:
So, we are inclined to dismiss her as being the same old Cordelia. But the truth is soon revealed and it is a devastating one - a crumbling apartment, no future as an actress and no food. She has one good dress that looks very lonely hanging up by itself. Her mindless self-improvement mantra simply shows how desperate she is. Suddenly we realize that she was putting on a brave face at the party and this and her unwillingness to accept defeat help make her an admirable character, not one to be so lightly dismissed. And, although as I have said I have reservations about the way her interview with Russell was handled, we do get a very palpable sense from it of just how close to defeat Cordelia really is. This actually helps make her a sympathetic character as well as an admirable one. Hard as it is to believe we actually feel sorry for the former Sunnydale Princess. This is a difficult trick for the writers but an important one. We have to want Angel to rescue her as opposed to feeling she was only getting what she deserved. And indeed there are hints that through adversity she has grown. For example after taking charge of the setting up of Angel Investigations and organizing its affairs she suddenly remembers that she is asking for help and shows a little humility. She clearly wants, and needs the job but she adds at the end:
“that is if you think you can used me”.
But the old hard-headed Cordelia hasn’t gone away, as she forcefully reminds us when she says:
The humanizing of Cordelia without abandoning those elements of her character that lent such interest to her as an individual is an object lesson in character development.
I am afraid, however, that the treatment of Doyle as an individual was far less successful. He is, of course, very important as a means of presenting the challenge that Angel must face but if I were to use one word to describe his own character in this episode it would be “underdeveloped”. In “City of..” he was no more than a collection of stereotypical characteristics: a shady denizen of the underworld with a fondness for drink and gambling and no strong stomach for a fight. It really is difficult to believe in such a person as an individual. In fairness I should add that the character was absent for the entire middle section of the episode and those scenes where he was present were really about Angel. In those circumstances it may have been expecting too much to see significant character development here.
In this context I should add that DB justified completely the decision to build the new series around him. He had a far greater range of acting challenges to deal with in the space of his first hour than he had almost in the whole of season 3 Buffy and handled it all with aplomb. We had the monk like seclusion of the opening where he was atoning for his sins but without really believing in what he was doing. Then we had the sense of social awkwardness not only with Tina but also at the Hollywood party. There was the quiet intensity of his anger over Tina and the smug satisfaction of his revenge. In all of these modes he was completely convincing. CC too was highly effective in communicating the shift between self-confident front to the quiet desperation of her real situation. The transition between the little miss-know-it-all who guessed Russell’s secret to the sudden realization of what that meant for her was priceless. From the beginning GQ exuded an easy charm and a self-deprecating humor that fitted in so well with the character of Doyle. It made him instantly likeable. This was a great advantage because he was the one regular character that the BUFFY audience was unfamiliar with and the writers obviously did not want them taking against him.
The storyline itself was serviceable enough. As I have already said Angel’s attempt to save Tina was a perfectly good vehicle to illustrate the central theme of the piece, namely his ability to make a connection with those he has to help. The problem was that there was too little to distinguish the plotting from dozens of other “hero tries to save damsel in distress” stories. Tina’s death was really the only major surprise. Nothing else about the story really grabbed our attention. The best thing that can be said about the story itself is that Russell made a very convincing villain, all smooth charm and menace. And I very much liked the way in which the true nature of his threat was revealed in stages. First we can see for ourselves Tina’s fear of him; then Angel has to rescue her from his heavies. Later, in Angel’s apartment we find out more about the type of person he is:
Tina: "He’s the kind of guy that can get away with murder."
Angel: "Who did he murder?"
Tina: “I don’t know. Maybe nobody. He likes…he likes pain. I mean he really does. He talks about it like it was a friend. And you don’t leave him, he tells you when he’s had enough. I knew this girl, Denise. She tried to get away. She disappeared of the face of the earth. He finds you."
Angel’s investigations reveal the truth of the disappearances and finally when Russell kills Tina we see that he is a vampire. Each new thing we learn about Russell makes him appear that bit worse than the last. This is a classic technique in unravelling a mystery. Unfortunately there is little real mystery here to unravel. As I have already suggested it was obvious from very early on that Russell was the threat and each new revelation simply confirmed that suspicion. Even the fact that he was a vampire came as no great surprise. Far from there being any real suspense I was left with the feeling of being ahead of Angel in working out who Russell was. And of course, when we saw Cordelia invited to Russell’s mansion on the same night that Angel planned his revenge mission, the rescue scenario that would be played out became all too obvious. Indeed, the writers didn’t even bother to disguise the reason for Cordelia’s invitation:
“I just want something to eat”.
The pity of this is that Russell was an example of a villain who posed an entirely new type of problem for Angel when compared to those we saw in Sunnydale. There vampires and their ilk existed outside society. They were its enemies and could not avail of its protection. Russell on the other hand had made a place for himself inside society. Indeed he was far better placed to use the structures of that society to his advantage than people like Tina. This aspect of Russell opened up all sorts of interesting questions. Why were the police unable to make a connection between him and the women who disappeared when Angel was able to do so from the clues provided by Tina? Could Russell have “friends in high places”? Could those friends be in the pay of Wolfram and hart and just how central a role does this law firm play? And then there is the problem of killing an apparently respected businessman without attracting the attention of the police. To what extent, therefore, would Angel have to fight if the forces of law and order were to go after him? These questions could have been used as the basis for an entirely different and, I suggest, more interesting line of action than we actually saw. Unfortunately they were ignored. We can only hope that the possibilities inherent in Russell's situation are more fully explored in episodes to come.
from the fact that it was just too straightforward, the plotting also suffered
from a number of specific problems.
I am not a
great fan of the “visions thing”. Buffy
can fight evil by getting
intelligence about it in the normal way, why not Angel?
It does, I suppose, add sharpness to the idea of Angel as a specially
chosen agent of TPTB but it does seem to be something of a lazy device.
The way in
which Cordelia was first made a potential victim and then saved smacked more
than a little of contrivance and co-incidence.
She just happened to be at the same party to which Tina brought Angel,
Russell just happened to pick her over all the others who were there and she
just happened to be called over to his Mansion at the same time as Angel came
Angel (or Willow for that matter) find all those useful Internet sites?
The Internet now seems to be the catchall solution to almost any
detective problem. Any obscure
piece of information that is needed for plot purposes can be found there.
I suppose short cuts of this nature are a necessary and legitimate part
of modern plotting but it is becoming such a cliché.
· Finally there was the crucial moment when Tina lost trust in Angel. It was very convenient that he had just happened to leave that piece of paper down for her to see when there had been no sign of it the previous night.
The premise for the series was very inventive and expertly set out, with some fine character work to illustrate it. We are introduced to the idea that Angel’s business is “saving souls, not just lives” and this invests the series with a whole new layer of depth. It implies Angel will not only be engaged in a struggle against a physical enemy but must help people make sense of their lives in the face of the problems they meet. Not only is this concept tailor made to fit Angel’s character as its is explained and presented in “City of..” but it also complements very well the idea of using ANGEL to explore the lives of young adults. The story was itself very well suited to exploring what “getting into other people’s lives” meant for Angel. It also contained a very deft mix of humor and tragedy that helped highlight many of the important aspects of both Angel and Cordelia’s characters. Its basic flaw was the predictability of the whole plot. I for one would have preferred something more challenging. Still, this fact alone did not detract that much from the overall success of the episode. In fact, the only really jarring note for me was the crude make-up. This seemed to me to be much more of a problem than the light issue. I was so conscious that I was watching people with makeshift pieces of latex on their face that I found it very difficult to pretend these were actually vampires.