Fallen Angel
Joss Whedon Signs Off, Just When TV Needs Him Most

In this space not one year ago, I wrote a tearful farewell to a television show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I got some flak for that, and don’t think I didn’t. People who have never watched Buffy have a very specific idea of what they think it is, and the funny thing is, they’re often right. It’s a silly show full of monsters and demons and kung fu. But that’s not all it is, and the way the show uses its absurd supernatural elements to underscore deeply emotional storytelling and finely detailed character studies only reveals itself over time.

The cumulative effect of the Buffy shows has been their greatest asset and most glaring weakness. Both Buffy and its younger brother, Angel, require tremendous commitment and concentration on the part of the audience to fully appreciate their long-form narratives. Later seasons are impenetrable for new viewers, so dependent are they on what came before.

That’s an artistically rewarding notion, but unfortunately a commercially disastrous situation for a weekly television show. And while it’s crucial that newbies start with the earliest episodes, those first seasons are the weakest, and they contain very little of what would draw the intelligent and the discerning to the shows. The main attractions, the elements that make Buffy and Angel extraordinary works, are both a) completely missing from the necessary starting point, and b) impossible to understand without that starting point.

So naturally, new viewers turning in to the fourth season of Angel last year were mystified. They arrived during the second year of a massive story with roots stretching back to the first season, involving a vampire with (and without) a soul, his homicidal son, a bunch of mystical prophecies, a beast that blocked out the sun, and a goddess giving birth to itself. And no attempt was made to catch newbies up. Even as the story reached new heights, ratings sank to new lows.

The WB renewed Angel conditionally. The network demanded changes to the very fabric of the show, requiring no season-long arc and more single-episode stories for year five. I hate to say it, because agreeing with television executives gives me the worst rash, but the demands made sense. The thinking was that if creator Joss Whedon made it easy for new fans to jump aboard Angel, they would, and they would stay because the show is quality. I can’t fault the network for that.

But I can fault them for what happened next. Whedon made the changes – Angel Season Five felt like a new beginning, like one of the earlier seasons, made up of 43-minute stories that spoke to theme rather than to plot. It faltered here and there, but was mostly fun and interesting viewing. Plus, the plan worked – ratings spiked (no pun intended – James Marsters of Buffy fame also joined the cast this year, and who am I kidding, of course the pun was intended), and critics chimed in with accolades. Whedon described it as hitting a stride, and by the time the excellent “You’re Welcome,” “Smile Time” and “Hole in the World” aired, it was hard to disagree with him.

So what would be the most logical thing for the network to do? Why, cancel the show, of course.

Again, I can see both sides here. Angel is an expensive show, even though it often looks cheap and cheesy. It’s full of location shots and difficult stunts and makeup effects, and why pay all that money to produce a show that plays to a dedicated but small cult, when something like Superstar USA (officially the meanest show in the history of television, by the way) is much cheaper and more likely to appeal to the masses?

Reality television is taking over, make no mistake, and it’s primarily because it’s so inexpensive. Point a camera at some exhibitionistic moron and let it run. No need for writers or story editors or effects people or even actors. And because people just keep watching and watching this stuff, the ad revenue keeps pouring in, and with a smaller production cost than even your most low-rent scripted show, the profit margin is immense. It makes sense. It sucks, but it makes sense.

The casualty is quality television, of course. Television that challenges and moves while it entertains, television that utilizes the medium’s inherent serial nature to really connect an audience with characters’ lives, television that goes beyond what television normally tries. Just look at Joss Whedon’s recent history: Buffy ended at seven seasons through a mutual agreement between Whedon and star Sarah Michelle Gellar, but his fledgling (and fantastic) Firefly was unceremoniously dumped after half a season, and Angel was hacked off at the knees during one of its most successful runs.

And I can’t fail to mention Tim Minear’s Wonderfalls. Minear co-produced Angel for years, writing some of the best episodes, and he left to develop a show about a strange girl who hears strange voices. It was yet another expensive, challenging endeavor, and Fox canned it after four episodes. The reality is that Fox will simply make more money by releasing the Complete Series DVD set than they would in advertising revenue by airing the remaining seven episodes.

It’s simple economics, and art doesn’t enter in. The better a show is, by and large, the more challenging it is for the viewer – it makes them think, it makes them connect, and it demands their time and attention. Hence, fewer people will watch an involved, complex show than one that lets them laugh at idiots and feel better about themselves. The fewer regular viewers a show has, the lower its profit margin. It’s to the point now where a network can tell, just from the first couple of episodes, whether it wants to invest in something or let it die. If it’s not a hit right away, it’s gone. No room for slow builders.

In that sense, Joss Whedon has been very lucky. Angel was a slow builder, no question. It had the advantage of spinning off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the height of that show’s popularity. The high school years remain the strongest, in terms of audience share, if not story, and the broody vampire with a soul was a big part of that. Angel was weak in its first year, despite tossing off one of its finest episodes, “Lonely Hearts,” almost immediately. But it grew. Man, did it grow.

Angel has always suffered from N.B.S. (Not Buffy Syndrome) to me, and I never connected with it the way I did with its big sister. But if you’re talking about huge, far-reaching plotlines that still speak to character and sting with emotion, you can’t do much better. Angel’s five years wrap together into a single massive story, one which leaves every character irrevocably changed. The first four seasons form a huge rising crescendo that finally climaxes in a revelatory way.

While the fifth season seemed like a fresh start, it quickly became the reason for the other four, the most important statement of the show’s mission yet. Angel and his team had clashed with Wolfram and Hart, the evil law firm, throughout the show’s run, but at the start of year five, they were working together. Angel had become CEO of the firm’s L.A. branch, in an attempt to change things from within. The prices he and the other characters pay for this decision are heartbreaking and powerful, more so than anything else in the show’s run.

And the final episode? It’s called “Not Fade Away,” which should give you some indication of its defiant attitude. It was, in a word, perfect. It was dark and violent, relentless in its brutality, and yet, funny and moving. Season Five was about the nature of heroism, and how that often means making whatever difference you can in an evil and unjust world. It’s not about winning, it’s about continuing to fight, and as Whedon said, the last thing you see in “Not Fade Away” is the last thing you need to see. It’s odd, because there was supposed to be a sixth season – this is not the way Angel was meant to end, and yet, it ends exactly the way it should.

That’s the brilliance of Whedon and his team. They pulled the finale together in almost no time, after finding out that their child was slated for execution. And still, it worked – it tied up all the loose ends, and left us with a stirring final scene worthy of the great show it was. Angel has always been the underdog, fighting for respect, but Whedon has never compromised his dark yet hopeful vision. Angel went down swinging, fighting for quality television against a rising tide. The message of its final episode is that nether the odds nor the eventual victor is the point. It’s all about how you keep on fighting.

September 2004 will mark the first fall season without a Joss Whedon show in eight years. Money and bad taste have finally succeeded in driving one of this medium’s treasures from the airwaves, and television will be all the worse for it. But it was a great run, a marvelous group of stories, and no revenue shortfall or last-minute cancellation can change that. I hope Whedon (or someone of similar talent) figures out that the DVD model is just waiting for long-form stories like Buffy and Angel. Original seasons of episodic programs, direct to DVD, and into the waiting arms of a ready audience. Why not?

For now, though, thanks to all at Mutant Enemy and the casts and crews of both Buffy and Angel for eight incredible years. These were shows that explored what television could accomplish. That their shared universe stayed on the air for eight years is proof that quality can stem the tide. It can be done. The good stuff just needs to be found, nurtured and supported. So what are we waiting for?

Let’s go to work.

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I wanted to write about Keane this week, but I just don’t have the time. Next week, then, but let me put in an early recommendation: Hopes and Fears, Keane’s debut album, is excellent. Like Ben Folds does Britpop, but not nearly as stupid as that makes it sound. More in seven days.

See you in line Tuesday morning.