The WB's cancellation of Angel -- only five more episodes to go -- has inspired fans to fill TV critics' desks with postcards and letters protesting its demise (Angel Avengers, your sorrow and rage are duly acknowledged). Any show that turns its title character into a felt-covered puppet for a week clearly deserves some affection. And with ''Angel,'' creator Joss Whedon has shown a gift for incorporating such silliness into a season-long, nuanced contemplation of the price people pay for the atonement of wrongdoing. If anyone could escape the Chris Carter Curse -- creating one genius series (in his case, ''The X-Files''), then spending years wringing less satisfying variations from it (''Millennium,'' ''The Lone Gunmen'') -- Whedon would seem to be the most likely to succeed.
But thanks to his writers' attempts to distinguish the show from ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' ''Angel'' has resembled a teenager suffering an identity crisis: What began as a vampire noir morphed into a sci-fi wig-out, which in turn became the current supernatural law-office series. At the end of last season, David Boreanaz's title character and buddies including Wesley (Alexis Denisof), Gunn (J. August Richards), and the waif Fred (Amy Acker) accepted job offers at Wolfram & Hart -- ''an evil, multidimensional law firm,'' as Fred has called it. Angel's reasoning was that he'd use his position to fight the good fight from within the belly of this corporate beast of all bad things. The show's writers, however, have had other ideas, like tempting Gunn to unleash an evil spirit who immediately inhabited (and may or may not kill) Fred. Key protagonists have plunged into the Wrath, a ''holding dimension'' of awful terror, and Angel himself is overwhelmed with a paralyzing realization: ''Everything we do is a distraction'' from the coming apocalypse. Angel this season has carried undercurrents of guilt, moral doubt, and confusion that make Kafka seem like a staff writer for ''Hope & Faith.''
At the risk of loosing the Angelic furies upon myself, I gotta say the apocalyptic mumbo jumbo was always the weakest element of ''Buffy,'' and it doesn't play any better here. Ditto the transformation of wabbity Wesley into foxy Wesley -- seducer and, lately, dewy-eyed mourner of Fred. ''Angel'' is wildly uneven: Sometimes it's an absolute blast (James Marsters' gleeful guffaw as Spike, ''You're a wee little puppet man!'' was priceless); sometimes it's a dead-end street (the whole Connor, grown-son-of-Angel subplot was where I exited the series for a spell). For a show with such superb acting -- all honor to Boreanaz, who's got macho vulnerability down to a smooth essence not achieved since James Garner in his ''Rockford Files'' days, and to Amy Acker, who has gone from victim to sexpot to villain without ever hitting a false note – ''Angel'' is surprisingly rife with leaden lines like ''Rules can be broken; all you have to do is push hard enough.''
That said, it's still dismaying that ''Angel'''s lead-in, ''Smallville,'' with its stubbornly inert plots (no flying is one thing; no narrative momentum is another, guys), should remain on the air even though its ratings, like ''Angel'''s, have fallen off this year. And unlike ''Smallville,'' Whedon has been able to ring new changes on resonant themes. In the March 3 episode, for example, Gunn began losing the intelligence boost that Wolfram & Hart implanted in him and desperately did not want to, as he put it, ''go back to being just the muscle'' (that's TV code for ''the stereotypical Strong Black Man''). So in return for remaining a brainiac lawyer, he inadvertently unleashed the season's Big Bad: Fred as the leathery Illyria and her ''army of doom.'' This is at once an extremely ingenious reworking of the Robert Johnson myth (black man sells soul to devil in return for immense talent) and a groaner of a plot turn, since it sets up the series for a climax all too reminiscent of -- you know...Buffy.
Earlier this season, Wesley said, ''Time is not on our side.'' To which Spike retorted, ''Nobody is on our side.'' This beleaguering is what makes ''Angel'''s fan base so passionate; it's also what has kept ''Angel'' locked in adolescence, unable to fully mature. It's sad that for a show with so much complex talent on and off screen, we'll never be able to watch it grow up.