With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer will probably always be his most celebrated creation, and for good reason. Over the course of seven seasons (and from seasons two through five in particular), Whedon inspired a team of young writers and an even younger cast to take what could’ve been a frivolous teen horror-comedy and to turn it into an ambitious genre deconstruction. Very quickly, Buffy developed its own complex mythology, and yoked it to some socially progressive ideas about gender roles and acquiescence to authority.
But while the Buffy spinoff Angel never became as culturally relevant or as popular as its parent show, in a lot of ways it’s a more refined effort by Whedon and his collaborators—many of whom started on Buffy and then brought what they’d learned to the new series. The roster of Angel writers is a who’s-who of cult TV, including Tim Minear (currently on American Horror Story), David Fury (who’s worked on Lost, Fringe, and Hannibal), Steven S. De Knight (Spartacus and Daredevil), Shawn Ryan (The Shield and Terriers), Marti Noxon (Mad Men and UnREAL), Ben Edlund (Supernatural), and Jane Espenson (Battlestar Galactica and Once Upon A Time). Together they built out from a gimmicky initial premise—following a vampire who hunts demons and works as a private investigator in a soul-sick, hellish Los Angeles—and created something deeper and richer than perhaps even Whedon ever expected. As with Buffy, Angel assembles some unusual and entertaining characters and then asks fans to watch them make terrible choices that sometime pit them against each other.
In Angel, David Boreanaz reprises the character he’d played on Buffy for three seasons: a vampire who’d once been a rampaging force of evil named Angelus, before getting cursed with a soul and a conscience. After moving to L.A., Angel reconnects with an old Sunnydale acquaintance, Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), an aspiring actress who takes a part-time job with “Angel Investigations,” and eventually develops the ability to help her boss to find the helpless and the hopeless, via the guidance of “The Powers That Be.” Angel’s first season is mostly a supernatural procedural. Only gradually does the show’s world expand, first by introducing powerful nemeses in the form of the lawyers-for-demons at the firm of Wolfram & Hart, then by countering those villains with new allies: the scrappy Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), the scholarly Buffy import Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), the meek southern scientist Winifred “Fred” Burkle (Amy Acker), and the music-loving green-skinned empath Lorne (Andy Hallett). Still later, Angel ends up fighting alongside his teenage son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), and his old Buffy rival Spike (James Marsters).
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For devout Buffy fans, Angel offers an opportunity to spend more time with characters they’d come to know and love in Sunnydale. But while the crises in Buffy tend to be more intimate and localized, Angel functions as an inadvertent epic, where each addition to the cast adds a new wrinkle to an overarching story that concerns Angel’s ultimate role in the end of the world—as either a champion, a fiend, or a bystander. The hero’s primary mission here is to atone for his past sins as Angelus, but he finds himself flummoxed by the contradictory instructions in dusty old texts, and by his need to rely on people who often do more harm than good—even when they have the best intentions.
As with its predecessor, Angel toys with the conventions of horror-fantasy while dropping in pop-culture references and witty repartee. But because of its protagonist, some world-weary melancholy clouds up Angel’s comedy. Angel frequently fights ancient foes who’ve joined him in adapting to the customs and slang of today, even as they remain stuck in the same patterns of slaughter and sacrifice that have governed their actions for decades, centuries, or millennia. This show can be grim, hilarious, and pulse-pounding by turns, but more than anything it’s sensitive to the question of what it means to be be alive and engaged in the here-and-now. This is an ambitious saga that encompasses primal struggles between good and evil; but it also considers the more common plight of anyone who tries to improve their little corner of the universe without stepping on too many toes in the process.
“To Shanshu In L.A.” (season one, episode 22): There’s a trial-and-error quality to Angel’s first season, as it evolves from a case-of-the-week supernatural procedural to more of a serialized adventure, pitting the demon-hunting Angel Investigations against the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart. Later in the season—after Wesley joins the team and loses some of his initial goofiness—Angel really starts to find its voice, as an epic heroic saga with a strong streak of wit. The season finale “To Shanshu In L.A.” serves as a kind of second pilot, reshaping the show semi-radically while still reaffirming the parts that are working. Over the course of the episode, writer-director David Greenwalt destroys Angel’s dank headquarters and gets rid of the shadowy “Oracles” who’d connected Cordelia to The Powers That Be. He also introduces the street-savvy monster-killer Charles Gunn and “The Shanshu Prophecy.” That latter item predicts that Angel (or someone like him) will win his humanity back after he does enough good deeds to counteract centuries of wickedness. With just a few simple strokes, Angel is reinvented as a horror/fantasy/noir series, with a more eclectic cast and a larger overarching purpose than even Buffy has.
“Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” (season two, episode two): It’s a measure of how fully Angel embraced serialization in its second year that it’s easier to talk about it in terms of arcs instead of episodes. Roughly the first two-thirds of season two is about Angel pushing his new friends away while he takes drastic measures to to deal with the return of two old partners-in-evil, Darla (Julie Benz) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau). Then the season wraps up with a more whimsical storyline involving a trip to Lorne’s extra-dimensional home, where the gang first meets Fred. There’s some terrific long-form storytelling throughout this season, yet its tone is set by a stand-alone episode, “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been,” in which Angel Investigations moves into the old Hollywood hotel where Angel lived in the 1950s (alongside communists, prostitutes, homosexuals, and other “undesirables”). Through sly nods to movies like Rebel Without A Cause, Psycho, and Imitation Of Life, director David Semel and writer Tim Minear connect Angel both to its Los Angeles setting and to film history. More importantly, the episode’s concern with the hero’s dark legacy and his need for redemption establishes this season’s major theme of how values change, and how the past haunts the present.
“Fredless” (season three, episode five): As with Buffy, fans of Angel argue over which is the best season. Is it the second, which properly begins the larger story and gives it scope? The fifth, which wraps up that story with some hard but inspiring lessons? Or the third, which… okay, there shouldn’t really be any contest here. It’s the third. Most of Whedon’s top-shelf writers were heavily involved in season three (including Greenwalt, Minear, Noxon, and Fury), as the plotting became more complex and sophisticated, with the characters making crucial decisions that didn’t always pan out. Most importantly, the third season properly introduces Fred, who soon becomes the clever, sunny, quirky fan favorite—specifically in the episode “Fredless,” where she almost leaves Los Angeles to go live with her parents but changes her mind when she realizes she has more to contribute. It’s hard not to be won over by someone who describes her mental state as, “Oh, ah, fizzy. Kinda weird and … fizzy. But excited. And a little sad. Thankful. Sorta cautiously happy. Relieved and worried at the same time. Slightly nauseous while still bein’… hopeful?”
“Birthday” (season three, episode 11): One of the reasons why Angel’s third season is such a favorite is that in between its longer, heavier narrative arcs, it returns fairly often to short-form storytelling. Underrated Angel writer Mere Smith deserves credit for the frequently delightful “Birthday,” in which Cordelia gets a glimpse at what life would’ve been like if she’d become a famous TV star, instead of the medium through which Angel finds people to help. Besides the funny glimpse at her show-that-never-was—a sitcom called Cordy!—“Birthday” features an extended appearance by the chilled-out, super-strong horned demon Skip, played by David Denman. The events of this episode will take on more meaning later in the series, but at this point it serves as an inventive, charming change-of-pace, and an indicator of how in control of their tone and characters that Angel’s creative team had become.
“Waiting In The Wings” (season three, episode 13): Whedon didn’t always make his creative presence known on Angel to the extent that he did on Buffy, but he did occasionally take advantage of his position as executive producer to play auteur. In some ways, “Waiting In The Wings” is the Angel version of Whedon’s musical Buffy episode “Once More With Feeling,” only with ballet and backstage farce instead of songs. When Angel insists that his friends join him at a performance by a troupe that made him cry back in 1890, he’s captivated by a ballerina played by Summer Glau (making her pre-Firefly debut in Whedon’s stock company). “Waiting In The Wings” sees Angel trying to free the dancer from an old curse that’s had her repeating the same performance every night for over a century. But the episode is really about how Angel’s main cast of characters comes out of a night at the theater with a fuller understanding of the roles they’re playing in their own personal dramas. The story becomes Whedon’s defense of theatricality as a way of explicating the complexity of human behavior and emotions.
“Forgiving” (season three, episode 17): All the other season-three episodes on this list can be watched on their own, with only a little background info required for first-timers; but that’s not really the case with the whole of season three, which is more intensely serialized. “Forgiving” wouldn’t really make much sense to anyone who hadn’t seen the 16 episodes that preceded it (or maybe even the entirety of season two before that… plus some of season one and several episodes of Buffy), but it’s a powerhouse episode for anyone invested in Angel’s larger narrative. The gist of it has to do with Wesley trusting an old prophecy about Angel more than his own friend, which leads to betrayal and tragedy, and Wes nearly dying twice—the second time at Angel’s hand. “Forgiving” is both exciting and punishing. It’s the kind of television that leaves fans with a sick feeling in their stomachs, coupled with the desperate desire to find out what happens next.
“Soulless” (season four, episode 11): In the same year that Joss Whedon was launching the soon-grounded Firefly and wrapping up Buffy, his Angel was going through its darkest stretch of episodes. and its weakest since season one. (It doesn’t help that so much of this particular year of Angel concerns Connor, who’s an unpleasant character by design.) At its best though, Angel’s fourth season works as a study of darkness, considering what these characters would be like if they succumbed to their worst impulses. That question is at the heart of one of the season’s strongest story arcs, which sees the scattered crew of Angel Investigations intentionally turning their former boss into the evil Angelus, in order to tap into his knowledge of how to stop an impending apocalypse. The plan doesn’t work out exactly as intended; and in the masterfully muted episode “Soulless,” the heroes realize just what they’ve loosed as one by one they’re mocked and broken down by a caged Angelus. First introduced on Buffy, this unfettered version of Angel is a fascinating character to watch, because he’s so unconcerned with so civility and so willing to appall. He spills secrets and ruins relationships, all while waxing rhapsodic about “the special smell of a newborn’s neck” right before a vampire drinks the baby dry.
“Smile Time” (season five, episode 14): One of the more remarkable aspects of Angel was the writers’ willingness to keep reconceptualizing, using the tools already at their disposal. The season-four finale changed the show again, putting the Angel Investigations team in charge of Wolfram & Hart; then season five dealt with the effects of that change (while also bringing in a few more old Buffy characters, Spike and Harmony). The fifth season also returned more to a case-of-the-week format, with some of the series’ best one-offs woven through the series’ five-year master plot. “Smile Time” is a particular fan favorite, primarily because it has Angel getting turned into an adorable, irascible puppet—and there are few things funnier than seeing a grim, determined vampire-with-a-soul rendered in felt. But “Smile Time” also deals with Gunn’s professional crisis (as he tries to remake himself into something more than just the team’s muscle), and it brings some simmering romantic subplots to a boil. It’s a fun episode overall, and one that suggests these characters could find a way to be happy with who they are and what they do. And then “A Hole In The World” happens.
“A Hole In The World” (season five, episode 15): Another of the rare Joss Whedon written-and-directed Angel episodes, “A Hole In The World” is practically a thesis statement for his overall take on life, art, and entertainment. Immediately after giving the long-suffering Wesley what he wants—a relationship with Fred—Whedon yanks the prize away again, as Fred gets infected with a curse that turns her into the vessel for a dormant demon-god named Illyria. This is a bleak, bleak turn of events, yet Whedon structures the episode as a pulse-pounding adventure, sending the various members of the team on fruitless missions to try and save their upbeat, lovable friend. That they can’t speaks to Whedon’s sense that stories must have stakes, as well as to his fascination with how the best of us take on responsibilities they know will change us—and not always for the better. Angel’s characters have a keener sense than most of how overmatched they are, and how the rot of evil can be both permanent and pernicious. They’ve seen the hole in the world. What makes them heroes is that they keep trying to come up with ways to fill it in.
“Not Fade Away” (season five, episode 22): The cruelty of “A Hole In The World” is substantially mitigated by Angel’s series finale—which is one of the best of its kind, ever. From the start of the fifth season, Angel grappled with the question of whether it was possible to change a corrupt organization from within, without becoming corrupted itself. Metaphorically speaking, Fred’s possession more or less answers that question. But far from being despairing, “Not Fade Away” comes out strongly in favor of the idea of fighting on, even when the odds are impossible. With the end of the world apparently nigh, Angel gives his colleagues one last day to settle scores and/or enjoy themselves before they gather to confront an unstoppable demon horde. Aware they may only have a few more minutes to live, they decide to “make ’em memorable” (in the words of Gunn, who always did represent the show’s courageous heart). That ends up being Angel’s final statement: It’s always better to keep working toward a better day than to succumb to cynicism.