Has no right to be as good as it is
Angel never reached the quality of Buffy as its zenith. But Whedon's Buffy and Marti Noxon's Buffy are entirely different shows, and people tend to like one over the other. And Angel basically changed formats every season. Season One was Moonlighting with vampires, followed by Xena in Season Two, a revenge story, a (ugh!!) prime time soap, a Body Snatchers paranoia story, and finally David E. Kelly with vampires. (Full circle?) The one common thread is Evilcorp itself, the law firm of Wolfram & Hart (a parody of Jacoby & Meyers). I always find myself rooting for the bad guys, both because their development is in tandem with the heroes, and that they're just trying to make it through the day without getting axed, literally. I say this with affection, but Angel is a genre show with pretensions, which is not always good. A lot of Season Four is pure filler, people talking in shot-reverse-shot about crap we already know (thanks to ever-lengthy Previously Ons) and shipping characters all over the place. In Season Five, the pathos is unrelenting and a bit over-the-top, like in Buffy's later years. Supernatural, and Doctor Who, and others tend toward the angsty, juggling fun and drama, and sometimes the juxtaposition feels inconsistent. BUT, the advantage of the repetitive format is that you can jump into the show anytime, enhancing its longevity. Angel is too inconsistent to be a classic. As I said, it's a genre show — and a pretty good one: the standalone episodes are fun, and the plot arcs have lasting consequences. The upside is that the characters feel like real people, with complex relationships with each other. By Season Five, you feel like you've lived a lifetime with these people; some of them look the worse for wear. I guess you can call it character development, but it's a bit more than that. Some, like Wesley and Cordelia — and Angel, obviously — have had time to develop between two shows, sometimes maxing out at seven years. The Buffyverse is not a self-contained story; it's more like a family home video on fast forward, with a few relatives dying off, and others going to the bottle, and your aunt being impregnated by an evil fallen God. It's pretty heartbreaking to see them grow and change, for the good and the bad. You can't really say that for most shows.
The Jasmine Arc
This was probably my least-favorite story arc of the series, for multiple reasons (and remember, this is just my opinion, and it's okay if you disagree): 1) Jasmine's secret manipulation of everything the individual members of the team had gone through was so convoluted and convenient that it made it hard for me to believe what was going on. 2) Bitch!Cordelia was a pretty lame villain — all she did was smirk, secretly slide her fingers over knives, and whine. She's probably the least proactive of the villains, and her sudden change in character (in-universe) should have clued her friends off to the fact that something weird was going on. 3) Connor. Holy crap, Connor. By far the weakest of the main characters, Connor started out as a brash, but effective, warrior, caught between his loyalty to the man he thought of as his father (Holtz) and his biological father (Angel). By season 4 Connor was Flanderized into a cocky, headstrong teenage stereotype who randomly picked fights with people. It's like the writers couldn't decide how to characterize him, so they just made him really one-note and ended it at that. Not only that, but the resolution to his storyline, while a good emotional development for Angel, was a little too convenient — not that I'm really complaining, given that Connor was basically written out of the storyline after that and we didn't have to deal with him. Now for something positive about the arc: the villain. The writers did a good job of tricking viewers into believing the Beast was going to be the Big Bad (not a difficult feat, given that the guy was a nigh-unstoppable monster with big horns and rock skin), only to have him be the flunky of a greater power. That this powerful being took the form of a very attractive woman with a soft voice, upbeat attitude, and calming presence was even better. Jasmine was actually one of the best villains of the series — a being who was altruistic, kind, and loving, yet also sought to control the world, was willing to kill anyone who opposed her, and, well... ate people. She provided a great contrast to previous — and future — villains: whereas the Circle of the Black Thorn, Wolfram & Hart, and Darla knew their actions were evil and reveled in it, Jasmine veiled her actions with love and kindness. She was a Dark Messiah, in a way, and a pretty fun one at that.
Season Five of Angel is among my least favorite of the series. Though the last third nearly redeems it, the first two are so mediocre that the season suffers as a whole. The truth of the phrase 'the worst of x is still better than y amount of z' in Angel's case still doesn't stop the season from being a disappointment. Many problems can trace their roots to Season Four's Home. The mind-wipe served as an potent reset button for Connor's daddy issues and cleared much of the purported continuity snarl, but the writers largely failed to examine the repercussions of the reset. Angel essentially destroyed his friends' memories, writing over years of character development in the process. Wesley was transformed irrevocably by the consequences of Connor's kidnapping; his remaining virtually unchanged through the wipe was frustratingly nonsensical. Angel was always a show about the characters, and Mutant Enemy has always been best at writing about them through story arcs. Firefly overcame the structural limitations of the stand-alone by focusing primarily on their impact on the characters. In Season Five, however, episodes which would have transformed characters permanently in previous seasons often failed to make such an impact. The sporadic references to the characters' social lives in Offscreenville were painfully tantalizing, especially when the show had focused on them so much in the past. Speaking of wasted dramatic potential, please don't get me started about Wesley and Fred. But then Fred died. And though A Hole in the World itself was almost embarrassingly maudlin, it was the starting point for one of the strongest arcs in the show's entire run, providing some of the most fascinating material since Season Four. The Girl in Question was a painful misstep, but Power Play and Not Fade Away allowed the show's superbly-written character drama, smart humor and impressive action pieces to come together in a manner which been in scarce supply the entire season. Angel's finale managed to fix everything that had been wrong with its fifth season, making its cancellation especially gutting. While Smile Time marked a dramatic upswing in quality, and the Illyria arc is one of my absolute favorites of the series, every second of filler in the first two-thirds of the season is agonizing with the knowledge that it's the last.
Angel Season 1
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.
Hole in the world.
This is going to run over so look in the comments section for the end of this review. Spoilers for season five of Angel, season six of Buffy and The Big Damn Movie. If you look up Joss Whedon on this very site, you will encounter the following quote: Some people have a gift of reaching right into your soul, and finding the hole and making it bigger. If you were to ask me why Whedon has such a reputation, all I would have to do is point to this episode. I think every whedonite would agree that this episode is one of the most truly heart-wrenching things ever to be shown on prime time Television. This is the episode where Winifred Burkle dies. Whedon is known for the random deaths of beloved characters. In fact between his three completed series and his webisodes, there are more dead main characters than I could count on both hands. That's right- MAIN characters. And while one or two of these characters have re-emerged in some form or another Whedon does tend to make sure the dead stay dead. So why is this episode in my opinion more painful than Seeing Red, Becoming: Part Two, or even The Body from Angel’s parent series? One word. Hope. You’d think I would have learnt by now that Whedon likes to maim and mangle all forms of happiness. But there were a million excuses in my mind about why he wouldn’t do it this time. Firstly Cordelia had died two episodes before, so surely they wouldn't have another death so soon. Secondly after two and a half seasons of sexual tension Fred had finally got with Wes. That means a little bit of joy before Whedon rips their emotions to shreds. Doesn't it? Plus when Whedon kills someone it may be horrific, but it’s fast. Tara. Boom. Anya. Slice. Wash. Whatever onomatopoeia a harpoon makes. He likes to shock his audience. There is no way that that Joss was going to drag a death out for an entire episode – make her write, make her beg- without a last minute reprieve.