The future of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not good. In fact, at this very moment, he is diabolically evil. He is The WB's Angel, and on this balmy January evening in Los Angeles, the brooding vampire vigilante (David Boreanaz) has reverted to his bad old bloodsucking self, Angelus. Fisticuffs are about to break out, pitting the schizoid hero against a special guest star: the vixenish slayer known as Faith (Eliza Dushku from Bring It On), who's returning to Angel for three episodes beginning March 5. Faith charges; Angelus sends her headlong into a tree trunk and smiles wickedly. It's clear Boreanaz enjoys the chance to cut loose. ''I love playing Angelus -- I can really have a blast,'' says the 31-year-old actor during a break. ''I'm kind of upset I have to go back to being just Angel.''
Then again, there are worse alternatives -- say, cancellation. Angel, which spun off from Buffy four years ago, currently attracts a mere 3.7 million viewers a week, making it a marginal player for The WB. The network, which has switched the show's time slots four times in four years, is partly to blame. ''They've made it impossible for our fans to find us,'' says Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia), who traveled with Angel from Buffy's Sunnydale to L.A. ''I marvel that we still have fans.'' Creator Joss Whedon acknowledges that Angel is at a crossroads: ''I'm proud of what we've done for the past couple seasons, but it's time for a whole new paradigm. I'm going to pitch that to The WB and see if it excites them enough for another year.'' Look for a season-concluding arc featuring Gina Torres, late of Whedon's Firefly, to set the stage for Angel's future.
The irony of the situation is that in all of this uncertainty, Angel has finally found its creative wings and proven itself a worthy heir to Whedon's Buffyverse. ''The show had to find its own voice away from Buffy -- had to start carrying itself,'' says Dushku. ''That's really hard to do, and it's really amazing that it has.'' Credit a succession of epiphanies, happy accidents, and epic plots for Angel's hard-earned maturity. The series began as a monster-of-the-week anthology, but Whedon soon realized it worked best when it focused on its core characters: Angel, Cordelia, Wesley (Alexis Denisof), and Gunn (J. August Richards).
Even then, the cast didn't truly jell until the end of season 2, when the gang was transported to the topsy-turvy realm of Pylea -- a winningly whimsical saga suggested by Whedon after botched guest-star negotiations brought a premature end to that year's major story lines. With the arrival last year of Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), the titular hero's embittered son, Angel has acquired a mythic Arthurian grandeur; recently, the boy's been pulling a Lancelot and sleeping with his dad's Guinevere, Cordelia. (''Creepy,'' says Carpenter. ''Just downright creepy.'')
While execs at The WB will only say that Angel's future will be determined in May, insiders say that confidence in the show has grown over the season. Until the network makes its final decision, Boreanaz says all the program can do is keep rolling with the punches. ''We're just taking it on the chin,'' says the star. ''Just when it looks like we're down for the count -- look what we have in our bag.''