Fifteen years ago this week, Angel premiered on the WB. A spinoff of the much-beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show would run for five seasons, leaving the air in May of 2004—one year after Buffy’s series finale. In the subsequent years, Buffy’s legend would only grow as critics and fans alike acknowledged the debt modern television owed to it. Angel, however, would linger in the background, never really forgotten but also never really championed, even as it sits just a few clicks away from its sister series on Netflix and Hulu.
But Angel is every bit as vital as Buffy. In fact, it might even be better.
Angel’s first season is a rough year of television, sulking in the dark, never really asserting itself. Tellingly, its best moments are ones that come directly from Buffy, like the heartbreaking crossover “I Will Remember You” and the two-parter involving Faith. (It’s worth noting that the character would really come into her own on Angel rather than Buffy.)
But even then, Angel—initially a sort of supernatural noir riff—was differentiating itself. Most importantly, it was set in Los Angeles—which ultimately is what makes the show so profound. Unlike Sunnydale, Los Angeles actually exists, and the real-world setting completely changes the subtext of Angel’s fight against the demonic. In Sunnydale, demons are outward manifestations of universal anxieties and fears, preying on the vulnerable but otherwise remaining hidden. In Los Angeles, they walk among us, smiling as they take what’s ours and lure the opportunistic and amoral into their service.
Los Angeles, more than any other American city, is strongly associated with the pursuit of dreams. The trouble with dreams, though, is that they can turn into nightmares.
The second of Angel’s central conceits is a little harder to take seriously at first, but no less important: Its villains are demonic lawyers. Besides being hilariously on the nose, the presence of evil law firm Wolfram and Hart is another one of those sly profundities at which Angel excels. As writer Ken Layne says in an essay for The Awl, “you think you’re only watching a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but then you realize it’s an accurate reflection of reality.”
It’s in the escalating tension between Angel and Wolfram and Hart that Angel becomes transcendent, notably in the season 2 episode “Reprise.” In it, Angel finally finds away to confront the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Heart. Accompanied by the undead lawyer Holland Manners, Angel enters an elevator that will presumably take him to Hell, where he can win the fight once and for all. But things aren’t so simple in the Angel universe.
“We have no intention of doing anything so prosaic as ‘winning,’” says Manners, scoffing at Angel’s efforts. “For us, there is no fight. That’s why winning doesn’t even enter into it. We go on.”
And then the elevator doors open, and Angel is back where he started: Los Angeles. Earth. Hell.
If Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show about becoming, then Angel is about something far more challenging: existing. There is a rot to the world, one that threatens to infect us all—not in grand, dramatic ways, but mundane ones. Entropy and inertia are the natural order of things. According to Holland Manners, the world doesn’t work in spite of evil—it works with it.
“If there wasn’t evil in very single one of them out there,” Manners tells Angel, “well, they wouldn’t be people. They would be angels.”
Throughout its five seasons, Angel goes through a number of peaks and valleys. While some long-term story decisions can be frustrating to get through (namely, Cordelia’s final arc), the show never quite gets as bad as Buffy at its worst (“Beer Bad” comes to mind). And as anyone who’s seen the show can tell you, the show pulls off a final season that’s among the best of any Whedon series, ending with an immensely satisfying bang.
But even at its lowest points, Angel stays with you, haunts you, unsettles you, giving voice to that which you suspected all along. “There’s a hole in the world,” says one character in one of the show’s most heartrending moments. “Feels like we ought to have known.”