Today marks the 15 year anniversary of the Angel: The Series premiere. To celebrate, we compare the show and its sire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and find the ways in which it was better.
15 years ago today, on October 5 1999, the Buffy spinoff Angel premiered on The WB. The first episode, “City Of…” saw Angel (David Boreanaz) leave Sunnydale behind for L.A., where he was hoping to find redemption.
It quickly became clear that Angel would be a very different animal than Buffy, and many fans of the original show didn’t bother with the spinoff. It also developed its own unique fanbase, who had either never watched Buffy, or had given the first show a try and decided that Angel was more to their liking.
And for those who watched both, it was impossible not to have a favourite. And loyal Buffy fans had to ask themselves the uncomfortable question: “Do I prefer Buffy because it’s better, or because I watched it first?”
Because Angel was darker. It was more grown-up, and the stakes were higher. Main characters died like flies, proving that “daring to kill characters” isn’t a new phenomenon in television. Angel was way ahead of the curve.
Still, Buffy fans refused to admit the possibility that Angel might be the better show, and Angel fans refused to see the value of Buffy, dismissing it as the unpolished prototype.
But now, 15 years later, we believe it’s finally time to sit down together like the rational adults we have now become (in theory), and admit that – whichever show you prefer – Angel did some things better than Buffy:
Making its lead character likeable
Let’s face it: Angel was cooler than Buffy.
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was a teenage girl cursed with supernatural abilities and the responsibility of saving the world. Angel was a 200-something-year-old-vampire, cursed with a soul and an undying love for the aforementioned teenage girl. In Angel we delved deeper into his backstory, learning that the soul didn’t magically turn him into a hero. That was a choice.
The Angel series also humanized the character in a way the Buffy series never quite managed to do with its lead (despite her awkward slayer puns): he got funny. Fans already loved Angel’s dark alter-ego Angelus, but when Angel got his own show, his good self had to be infused with a large dose of personality. Thus his broodiness became childish stubbornness, and he developed a wonderfully inappropriate, dark sense of humour.
While Angel was probably more angsty than Buffy, he was very rarely allowed to wallow for too long. When he sulked in the shadows, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) was there to lighten up the situation with a well-timed pun. When Buffy was sad, everyone had to be sad.
Still, both characters were badass and versatile in their own right. Buffy did a lot for female characters on television, and the fact that the writers rarely compromised her character for cheap gags speaks to their credit. She is a fantastically well-developed, flawed character whose biggest crime was reacting realistically to the countless tragedies she had to endure. She might have been depressed, but guys, she had plenty of reasons to be. And yet she kept fighting, being the hero everyone needed her to be.
Ultimately Angel probably comes across as more likeable because he tended to embrace and indulge his dark side, making him more of an antihero. Buffy was purely good, and unfortunately that’s not always as “interesting.”
Killing main characters
Lost is most often credited with really upping the stakes in terms of killing main characters, and TV writers today are killing characters left and right in a misguided attempt to be “edgy.” We tend to forget that a) killing characters for shock value is a soap opera trope which was already overused in the 90s, and b) Angel was the first – and arguably only – show that did it right.
Main character deaths do not automatically improve a show’s value. Believe it or not, living in uncertainty about the fate of your beloved characters doesn’t necessarily improve your viewing experience. When shows kill characters and life goes on like normal after the fact, the death was cheap and unnecessary.
Character deaths on Angel were never cheap and unnecessary. Over the course of the series, the show killed a total of four main characters – that’s half its cast, by the way: Doyle (RIP Glenn Quinn), Cordelia, Fred (Amy Acker), and Wesley (Alexis Denisof). Each character was loved, each character was missed, and each character’s life and death mattered to the show as a whole.
Peripheral characters had worthy arcs and demises, too. Most notable was Darla (Julie Benz), who staked herself giving birth to her and Angel’s son Connor (the o.g. vampire baby, y’all). Lindsey (Christian Kane) and Lilah (Stephanie Romanov) both had dramatic, worthy death scenes.
And it’s also worth remembering that less important/popular characters were not killed off for dramatic effect, but instead sent away: Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) and Kate (Elisabeth Röhm) were not honoured with emotional death scenes.
Of course Buffy killed characters, too. It killed Angel (kind of) and Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), and in later years we lost Buffy’s mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) and Tara (Amber Benson), with Anya (Emma Caulfield) and Spike (kind of) dying in the series finale. Because Buffy was already an emotional teenage wreck, there was a limit to how much damage her fragile self could take, and the writers (wisely) deemed the loss of Angel and Joyce enough. Plus, Buffy herself died twice!
Buffy undid character deaths a lot more than Angel did, but like Angel, the show never let the characters forget about the people they had lost. There were always lasting consequences. Still, we gotta give the edge to Angel here. There was no mercy.
Choosing interesting locations
Buffy was set first in a high school, then a university, and later… a living room, we guess? All in small town Sunnydale, California, where monsters flocked because of a Hellmouth and because they heard there was a local Slayer that needed killing.
Angel left the small town behind and moved to L.A., a naturally much darker, diverse setting. We started in a dingy, old-school detective agency, moved into a hotel (awesome location, by the way! Very original), and finally to Wolfram & Hart. And where Buffy had The Bronze, Angel had Caritas. Yeah, no contest.
Buffy fans were happy to see some of their favourite characters “move on” to bigger and better things. L.A. offered so many new possibilities: cop corruption, gang warfare, fighting rings, huge corporations that sometimes made Angel’s cases eerily clinical. People died because money changed hands, not because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was a new, interesting way to approach supernatural drama.
And because Angel could not go out during the day (the writers’ decision to abandon the daylight ring was a brave one – it would have made their lives so much easier!), the show almost always took place inside or at night. This was not a weakness, but a strength.
Developing its characters
There’s no loser here: both Buffy and Angel had spectacular, layered, consistent characters.
Not once throughout Buffy‘s seven seasons do you ever feel like any character or storyline has been reset for the sake of setting up a new monster of the week. Whatever the characters are doing (and however ludicrous it might be), they never forget their own backstories, and their personalities are never compromised to serve the story. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of shows on air today.
Of course there were clunkers: Riley (Marc Blucas), Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Tara have been criticised widely both in and outside of fandom.
But where Buffy had Dawn, Angel had Connor, so we’d say that makes them even. And, guys, Angel had Kate. Remember Kate? Cause we almost didn’t.
But oh, Angel. It had Cordelia, whose complete character assassination in season 4 we’re willing to overlook because she was just so damn amazing in the first three seasons. It had Fred, whose arc was so tragic and heartbreaking, we still can’t talk about it. It had Wesley, who might just be the best character in the Buffyverse. It had Harmony (Mercedes McNab). And of course it had Darla, a character who was literally too awesome to stay dead.
While Buffy was good at keeping its characters consistent, Angel executed some of the best character transformations. Cordy evolved from the one-note, superficial it-girl we met in the pilot to Angel’s rock, and the heart of the show. Wesley went from bumbling young Watcher to strong leader, hero and antihero all at once. Fred became amazing, then she became Illyria. And of course, Angel got to take advantage of two of Buffy‘s most well-developed characters, Spike and Faith (Eliza Dushku).
Delivering powerful standalone episodes
I personally believe that Buffy had stronger overall storylines, whereas Angel had more strong individual episodes. But Buffy did have some amazing standalones that need to be mentioned: “Surprise” and “Innocence,” “Becoming, Part 2,” “Hush,” “Restless” and “The Body” probably delivered the strongest emotional punches.
As a whole, Angel suffered from some terrible storylines, and the biggest sin of any TV show: abandoned character arcs (Kate, we’re looking at you). Cordy was magically impregnated at least three times, turned evil, became and then birthed (what?!) Jasmine the happy-demon-god, and then slipped into a frickin’ coma, the mother of all cliche TV tropes. Gunn had West Side Story-type gang fights. Connor existed.
But man, Angel had some fantastic episodes. First it made you care deeply about its characters, then it made them go through literal and figurative hell in a way only Supernatural has ever surpassed. The show’s biggest gut-wrenchers include “Hero,” “I Will Remember You,” “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been,” “Reprise,” “Darla,” “Lullaby,” Waiting in the Wings,” “You’re Welcome,” “A Hole in the World” (which we will never ever ever rewatch, because Freeeeed!), and “Sleep Tight.” And that only scratches the surface.
Mixing comedy with tragedy
Buffy was funny. Angel was serious. At least that’s the most generally accepted way to differentiate between the two shows, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Buffy did heartbreaking tragedy better than most, and was arguably funniest when it was also super creepy (“Hush” is infinitely more funny than “Beer Bad,” for example).
Angel was hilarious, mainly because the show was so dark and twisted; the viewers were beyond ready for some comic relief when it finally came. Cordy, Harmony, Lorne and Spike all provided great comedic material, but Angel wins here mainly because the main character often provided most of the laughs. We didn’t need a funny side-character distracting us from the lead’s heartache, because Angel was as inappropriate and awkward as anyone.
Season 5 was full of pure comedy gold, finally fulfilling fans’ dream (even if they didn’t know they had it) of seeing Spike and Angel fight evil and each other on a weekly basis. Even Illyria, born out of the biggest tragedy of all, provided some great laughs. Genius storytelling.
At the end of the day, Buffy and Angel will always appeal to different audiences, though the generalizing statement that the latter show was more “for adults” than the former is, in my opinion, doing a disservice to both shows.
As far as repeat value goes, both series definitely suffer from the fact that they were filmed in the twilight years (no pun intended) of The WB, and though they both improved dramatically over the years, watching either show for the first time today must be painful. The special effects are ridiculous, the sets are obviously sets, and some episode premises were just depressingly bad.
But the heart with which these stories were told makes them stand out, even in today’s supposed second golden age of television. The writers thought every decision they made through, and the actors never let their characters forget their past.
Even if Buffy and Angel had been filmed as theatre plays, their value would still hold up. Through humour and occasional melodrama, you can get powerful messages of friendship, love and bravery across, and these are the things we still take away from the series today.
Happy 15 year Angel anniversary! Now go rewatch your favourite episodes, and share your thoughts on the show in the comments.
You might also consider checking out two podcasts, PotentialCast and RedemptionCast, that feature a group of hosts experiencing Buffy and Angel for the first time. It’s a great way to look back on the shows in a new way, and to find out how they are received by newcomers whose opinions aren’t compromised by childhood memories or nostalgia.