Written by: Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Demands on the First Episode
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
at the same time telling an interesting story that will keep the viewers
watching. Failure in achieving all
or any of these can lead to a very early demise.
The fact that ANGEL was a spin-off from an already reasonably successful
TV show (BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) 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 BUFFY
watchers. Secondly they were, in
any event, trying to move in a new direction.
So, Joss Whedon could not assume that the traditional BUFFY audience
would remain loyal to ANGEL. He had
to start from the very beginning in getting the viewers’ attention, just as he
had done in the first BUFFY episode, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (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
of course the first step was to introduce the eponymous hero of the piece.
With BUFFY 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 ANGEL setting up the character, background and motivation of Angel
needed much more in the way of exposition.
It couldn’t easily be built into character or plot related dialogue so
the resulting “bedtime story” 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
back-story was, of course, far less central to the episode and the series so it
could be postponed until much later. 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
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, that brings us to the heart of Angel’s problem. 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 to 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:
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 his first attempt at a conversation is
ignored, the second is pathetic:
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.
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:
In this way you have 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. 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.
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. This
sort of audience identification is very important, especially where the hero is
a reformed killer vampire.
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”.
also liked the way in which Cordelia’s character was handled.
When we first see her she is well dressed, fits neatly into the Hollywood
milieu and is seemingly successful. She
had clearly retained her essential self-centered approach (“I really should be
talking to people that are somebody”). 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 – “that is if you think you can used me”.
But the old hardheaded Cordelia hasn’t gone away, as she forcefully
reminds us when she says:
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
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
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:
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 unraveling 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”).
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. In
this he foreshadowed one of the major differences between ANGEL and BUFFY as the
former increasingly showed how even the evil supernatural had been integrated
into human society. 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”?
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 the forces of law
and order 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.
from the fact that it was just too straightforward, the plotting also suffered
from a number of specific problems.
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
revised and rewritten Sunday, August 06 2000