It’s always bothered me when "Angel" is viewed as “The Buffy Spin-off.” Technically accurate, this description neglects that "Angel" was at its best when it went down its own path. Dark Angel in Season 2, fatherhood in 3 and identity in 5…these are the themes which just wouldn’t work on Buffy, and they gave Angel a solid emotional foundation.
Little of this foundation exists in it's first season. Thematically bankrupt and aesthetically derivative, Season 1 draws far too much from "Buffy" and procedurals to create the power of "Angels" latter seasons
The problem with Angel Season 1 is its lack of a real story arc. While standalone episodes can be a great place to experiment with new ideas, they can be ennervating when used to excess. The reliance on stand-alones can be seen in how the “big” moments—Doyles Death, Wesleys arrival, Darla’s Return—are just thrown into otherwise standard monster of the week fare. Episodes like “Hero” or “Parting Gifts” are memorable for a moment or two, but otherwise generic fluff.
When the stand-alones are not empty, they’re so heavy-handed they play out more like afternoon specials than a paranormal neo-noir piece. In “The Ring” we learn about teamwork; in “Sense and Sensitivity” we learn to express our feelings. “Hero” tells us that racism is bad, while “She” does the same for sexism.
This is a very “Buffy” mode of story telling. Most of the best and worst Buffy episodes, from “Beer Bad” to “Blood Ties” do heavy thematic work on an episode by episode level; ideas are brought up, addressed, and dealt with by the time the curtain drops. Compare to a Buffy arc: are Glory, the Mayor, the Master, or Adam that thematically well developed? There are exceptions to this rule (Angelus springs to mind), but ultimately, in "Buffy," the episode is king.
This mode of story telling cramps and confines "Angel." Consider the most successful part of Season 1: Faith. While a crossover with “Buffy,” Angel’s interactions with Faith really hit on what Angel is about. Redemption, means-based morality, and the need for identity. But redemption and identity are big, life-defining processes and they can’t be resolved in an episode; so instead, they take two and come up with a much stronger take. Angels attempt to tackle these ideas would lead to grand battles and heart wrenching drama. Not yet though; not until we go bigger.