Off and on lately I’ve been watching Lost Girl and Grimm, two fairly Angel-esque shows about exceptional people who investigate mysteries within the supernatural community. I enjoy both shows when I watch them, but I can’t help but be distracted by the ways in which they’re not Angel. Perhaps they’ll grow the way Angel grew, but at the moment both are more about the cases than the mythology, and as I begin watching Angel’s fifth season, it suddenly occurs to me how little time this show about a vampire detective has spent on, y’know, detecting.
Maybe Joss Whedon and his Angel writers squandered a good premise by making their Buffy spin-off even more serialized and arc-y than its sire. And maybe they’ll remedy that in this fifth season, which reboots Angel into a quasi-legal-thriller. But somehow I doubt it. I like it when Angel gets back to its procedural roots, but I’ve come to realize that I enjoy that mainly as a change of pace. It’s the cliffhanger-driven, dominoes-falling, watching-the-heroes’-lives-spin-out-of-control aspects of Angel that make the show special.
Angel’s two-part season five premiere tries to have it both ways, balancing the case-of-the-week format with heavy serialization. Even the little “to be continued” at the end of “Conviction” is something of a cheat, given that “Just Rewards” really only continues the part of the story that’s likely to be ongoing for a good chunk of this season. (And yet “Just Rewards” doesn’t get its own “to be continued” at the end.) For the most part, these two episodes are pretty cleanly cleaved. Yes, they’re both about The Team Formerly Known As Angel Investigations getting used to their new gig as the bosses at Wolfram & Hart, and about how they try to figure out how to keep the lights on and pay the bills without being too evil. (As explained by Eve, Angel’s liaison to the firm, they’ll lose their inside scoop on what’s happening in the demon world if they just shut W&H down; or, to put it more simply, “To keep this business running, you have to keep this business running.”) But each of these episodes is dominated by its own distinct case. In “Conviction,” our heroes are pressured to win an acquittal for a total sleazeball lest said sleazeball detonate a viral bomb he’s lodged in his own son’s heart; while in “Just Rewards,” the gang has difficulty terminating W&H’s “Internment Acquisitions” because the biggest customer for that department’s grave-robbing is a powerful necromancer who’s not ready to have his supply cut off.
I liked both of these episodes, though “Conviction” is much better overall than “Just Rewards.” One obvious edge for “Conviction” is that it’s a full-on Joss episode, with script and direction both credited to Whedon. And his presence is felt even before the credits, in a funny scene that sees Angel saving a woman from a vampire and then getting swarmed by W&H lawyers and special agents, who berate Angel for not alerting them to the rescue so that they could “control the scene.” They get the rescue-ee to sign some paperwork and pose for publicity photos, then complain further that Angel dusted a demon who actually works for a W&H client.
The Whedon touch is also felt in the episode’s initial breezy tour through the halls and offices of Wolfram & Hart, where Fred gushes about her “giganamous” lab and the friendliness of her right-hand-man Knox (played by the awesome Jonathan Woodward, whom I failed to note in my review of “Home” last year also played philosophical vampire Holden Webster in Buffy’s “Conversations With Dead People”), and where Wesley worries that if his office furniture doesn’t have the right “feng shui” it’ll “catch fire or turn into a pudding,” and where Gunn gets mystically upgraded to a hotshot attorney with a full knowledge of Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics, and where Angel’s new secretary turns out to be his bumbling former nemesis Harmony. (“I’m a single, undead gal trying to make it in the big city,” she explains sheepishly. “And they’re evil here, they don’t judge.”)
The crisis of “Conviction” is ultimately resolved twice over, first as Gunn swoops into the courtroom to save the sleazeball by revealing that the judge (unbeknownst to her) stands to gain financially if the defendant is convicted, and thus must recuse herself and declare a mistrial. While that’s happening, Angel actually does get to detect a little, getting info from a thug named Spanky—“I’m a big Our Gang fan,” he says, while standing next to his wall of paddles and whips—who points Angel to the sleazeball’s son. Angel then uses the company helicopter to arrive at the boy’s school and save him before a band of rogue W&H operatives led by a thug named Hauser can open fire on the kid and all his classmates. Before Angel kills Hauser (in a roundabout way), the representative of W&H’s entrenched evil mocks Angel, saying that he won’t be able to make a go of it as the head of a wicked law firm because he lacks “conviction.”
This is clearly going to be a major theme of this season: how to do good in an environment where the default setting is evil. Really, this has been a longstanding Angel theme; just remember last season’s Jasmine arc, in which our heroes actively made the world a more miserable place in the name of a higher ideal of righteousness. But it’s more at the forefront now, as the gang has gone from managing only themselves—a task they’ve never been able to accomplish without major acrimony—to managing a massive operation with interests and associations that’ll take a long time to fully uncover. For now, they can only grind through. Gunn’s poring over paperwork and handing out pink slips; Fred’s growling at her techs that that they can’t do anything “besides pretending you’re running an evil Radio Shack;” and Lorne is getting the staff to sing for him so he can separate the ones who do bad because they are bad from the ones who’ll do whatever the people who sign the checks ask them to do.
I don’t know anything about whether the Angel creatives were operating under any budgetary restrictions from The WB this season, but I get the sense that maybe they were, judging by “Just Rewards.” The entire first 18 minutes of the episode takes place within Wolfram & Hart’s main suite of offices, and the rest of the episode is fairly limited in location, venturing into a parking garage, Angel’s bedroom, a graveyard, and the home of the disgruntled necromancer, Hainsley. Overall, “Just Rewards” misses the fullness of “Conviction.”
That said, the Wolfram & Hart set is well-constructed: a lot like the Dollhouse set in its open spaces and many rooms, which allows for a variety of camera and character moves without breaking the bank. And “Just Rewards” has a secret weapon in Spike, who shows up suddenly at the end of “Conviction”—necessitating that “to be continued”—and then pops in and out of this second episode, primarily to needle Angel for being a sell-out.
If I’m being honest, the Spike/Angel bickering does wear a little thin after a while, but it was necessary to some extent, to work through some of the issues between the two old rivals/partners that emerged toward the end of Buffy: like their shared romantic feelings toward the Slayer, and the different ways they’ve both handled their acquisition of a soul. (Spike resents that Angel is treated as a champion; Angel resents that he spent a century grappling with his guilt while Spike “spent three weeks moaning in a basement and then you were fine.”) Plus, the way Spike’s reappearance is handled is very funny, just as a sight-gag. Spike’s not a ghost, but he is non-corporeal, which means he pops in suddenly and then pops back out, while muttering “oh balls” under his breath.
In classic Angel/Buffy fashion though, there’s meaning beneath the joke. At the end of “Just Rewards,” Spike asks Fred for help, explaining that when he disappears, he’s being pulled back to Hell. That’s a nifty plot twist, adding a tragic dimension to Spike’s return. But it also suits what this season is trying to explore. We meet a lot of not-so-nice characters in these episodes: Spanky, who insists that people can do whatever they wish is this wide, wonderful world; a Grox-lar Beast, who comes from a clan that eats babies (but just the heads); Hainsley’s demon client, who comes looking for a new body to inhabit and settles on a pretty one despite his original intention to go classier; Hainsley’s butler, who has kick-ass martial arts moves but gets felled by a well-thrown spoon; and so on. All these folks represent what the immediate future looks like for Angel and company: awful entities who in various ways excuse, justify or promote their own awfulness. And Spike represents the essence of what the Angel/W&H merger is: people trying to do something positive, while being tugged strongly toward the fiery pit below their feet.
- Spike’s surprise appearance in the premiere would’ve been more surprising if James Marsters hadn’t been in the opening credits, and on the cover of the DVD box.
- Not to be too judge-y, but is David Boreanaz looking a little… rounder, at the start of this season?
- Wesley doesn’t like it when Fred calls Knox “Knoxy,” and suggests that adding a “y” to the end of people’s names is “unseemly.” Gunn’s response: “Does that mean I have to call you Wesle?”
- Lorne is pitching a project that’s like a cross between Joanie Loves Chachi and The Sorrow And The Pity. (Joanie Loves Pity!)
- The inexplicable weirdness of W&H, pt. 1 — The firm has a dude in a Lucha Libre mask roaming the halls, delivering the mail. (In both episodes!)
- The inexplicable weirdness of W&H, pt. 2 — The internal phone directory includes the following instruction: “You have reached Ritual Sacrifice. For ‘goats,’ press one, or say, ‘goats.’”
- Harmony fixes a damn good cup of blood. (“The extra ingredient is otter.”)
- It’s the little things, pt. 1 — Fred decorates her office with a Dixie Chicks poster.
- It’s the little things, pt. 2 — Angry W&H staffers fashion a little Gunn voodoo doll that looks adorably like him.
- It’s the little things, pt. 3 — After Angel kills Hauser and leaves the school building, he walks past a banner that reads, “Respect: Learn It! Know It! Show It!”
- “He was fired. No! He was set on fire.”