TV can entertain an audience like no other medium. With so much programming time available, networks can take far more chances than film producers are able to. Creators are capable of creating suspense and cliffhangers from week to week, build characters over time and keep fans coming back. Joss Whedon took full advantage of this creative freedom in developing his original and revered “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its excellent spin-off “Angel.” And while Whedon’s shows received critical praise and a cult following, the WB redirected the course of “Angel’s” final season before prematurely canceling it.
“Angel,” which effortlessly blended science fiction with fantasy, horror and comedy, came to an unwelcome early demise. In its fifth season, the series defied conventions — and the spin-off curse — during its five-year run, rightfully establishing itself alongside its sister series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The rich, well rounded world of Angel (David Boreanaz) and his demon-fighting team take hold in a completely new setting in the fifth season, as the group finds itself in charge of Wolfram and Hart — the evil law firm they spent the first four years fighting.
While the fourth season of Whedon’s vampire-with-a-soul series placed its characters in the middle of a season-long story arc to save the world from another apocalypse, the fifth year took a more stand-alone approach — a directive from the WB Network when the series was renewed. Though the new single-episode stories could have crippled the series, it instead found a creative renaissance with this different direction.
The infusion of popular “Buffy” veteran Spike (James Marsters) carries the show to new heights of greatness with his contentious and tangled history with Angel. Further adding to the intrigue is the shocking reappearance of an old foe and three longtime members of Angel’s team biting the dust. The final half of the season places the heroes into a seemingly insurmountable battle from within — although the hilarious puppet stand-alone “Smile Time” keeps things a little lighter. The fifth season benefits from the “Buffy” series’ end as viewers are treated to occasional updates and crossovers from the Scooby gang. Even though Buffy herself doesn’t appear, she is referenced extensively in the uneven “The Girl in Question” toward the end of the series, somewhat resolving the Buffy/Angel/Spike love triangle.
Fans familiar with the “Angel” DVD box sets won’t be disappointed or surprised by what’s present on the fifth edition. There are about a half dozen audio commentaries that discuss the intricacies of both the plotlines and camera work. Whedon provides the best commentary, especially on the “Conviction” track, where he discusses the reasons for all of the season’s drastic changes. The featurettes, while plentiful and full of cast and creator interviews, barely offer any new insight into the show. The most compelling featurette, though, is an inside look at the production of “Smile Time” and is far more informative than anything else on the set. Additionally, an interview with Whedon where he discusses his favorite episodes is barely informative at all and totally ignores the fifth season.
“Angel’s” final season stood up to the high standards of its previous years, going out with a bang. What’s so sad is that the show finally started to find its own voice, independent of “Buffy”; it started to build toward something big in its finale. “Not Fade Away,” the final episode of the series, remains awfully open-ended, leaving viewers wanting more. The WB deserves both praise for sticking with such a unique series and scorn for prematurely canceling it. But “Angel” lives on with a strong DVD release.
Show: 4 out of 5 stars
Picture/Sound: 4 out of 5 stars
Features: 3 out of 5 stars