Once genre shows achieve a certain level of success and popularity amongst a lucrative demographic, it's common for a spin-off to emerge. Sometimes these are cynical enterprises aiming to exploit a fan-base's appetite for the original, but sometimes there's a genuine vision and intention to do something interesting with a character or story avenue that's proven popular. It strikes me as acceptable for Buffy the Vampire Slayer to create a parallel TV series for its hunky 'vampire with a soul' Angel (David Boreanaz), seeing as that character's antics were squeezed dry as Buffy's beau. Transferring Angel from a sunny small-town to the dark streets of Los Angeles also gives the show a different vibe (is this the Deep Space Nine to Buffy's The Next Generation?), although the 'CITY OF...' pilot didn't feel like a creative about-turn. After all: you don't want to scare off hardcore Buffy fans in the first hour, do you?
The concept behind Angel is both simple and logical, but introduced in a throwaway manner that felt puzzling to me. Brooding vampire Angel is now living in--yes, you guessed it--'The City of Angels', where an Irish half-demon called Doyle (Glenn Quinn) makes his acquaintance, dumps expository back-story for the newbies watching, and asks him to investigate a waitress called Tina (Tracy Middendorf) whose name he jotted down after receiving a vision from 'The Powers That Be'. Angel seems happy to go along with this Irishman's gibberish, and we later discover that wannabe actress Tina's being harassed by a sadistic talent agency manager known as Russell (Vyto Ruginis). It's no great spoiler to reveal that Russell turns out to be a big city vampire, exploiting young girls with a head full of dreams about making it big in Hollywood.
Up until the point Tina was bitten and effectively killed, I couldn't shake a bad feeling about Angel, but killing the episode's putative heroine halfway through seemed to invigorate the episode. The second half was more entertaining and dynamic, perhaps because it grew in confidence as a straightforward action show. Angel isn't a particularly funny character, so it felt like creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt missed having Buffy's cast around to trade quips and engage in banter. Maybe Doyle will be this show's Xander, to some extent, but his role was negligible in this hour. It also helped when Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) participation in the episode grew, after first appearing first like a wink-wink cameo; partly because she's a familiar face, but also because I like Carpenter's self-involved performance (which is sometimes more wooden than one of Angel's spring-loaded stakes, but that fits airhead Cordy's character). Her swift deduction that Russell's a vampire, after noting the absence of mirrors and closed curtains were he lives, was one of the episode's better moments. The best, of course, being that cool sequence when Angel kicked Russell through a skyscraper window into daylight, letting him plummet into ash during a fiery free-fall.
As I said, I'm not sold on Boreanaz as the lead of his own show just yet, but hopefully he'll be the placid centre of a crazier and scarier twist on the BtVS recipe (which was getting stale during the last half of season 3 for me). I'm all for a darker, grittier show that makes more of a play for male viewers (as BtVS always felt aimed at 16-year-old girls in some respects), but it's clear from 'City of...' that Angel hasn't arrived full formed. Like all spin-offs, it benefits from familiarity, and by the time this premiere ended the relevant parts were assembled: Cordelia's proposed a detective agency with Angel as its fanged sleuth (occasionally with chicken cutlets glued to his eyebrows), and Doyle delivering them cases via his psychic hotline.
- Who's that fresh-faced young man causing vampire Angel some bother in the teaser? Why, it's Josh Holloway, five years away from becoming a sarcastic castaway on Lost.
Buffy: Let me answer that question with a head-butt.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fourth season opens with a shot of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in a graveyard, and the only Angel around is made of stone. This will undoubtedly be a tough season for the show, now it's lost David Boreanaz to his very own spin-off, meaning writers and producers are having to divide their time. This is often when an original show begins to suffer creatively, and it doesn't help that season 3's finale ended with the Scooby Gang graduating from high school in a manner that would have made a fitting farewell Creatively, it gets tougher to justify the existence of BtVS now it's lost its high school setting, but "THE FRESHMAN" unsurprisingly moves things to university.
The third season premiere "Anne" found Buffy unhappy and living in Los Angeles (in an episode that now feels like a tonal pilot for Angel), and season 4's "The Freshman" ploughs a similar furrow with Buffy struggling to cope with campus life. The University of California is bigger, busier and more grandiose than quaint Sunnydale High; and while studious Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is in seventh heaven, excited by the whole experience, Buffy is overwhelmed and unable to find her place. Buffy's never been the most scholarly of characters (it's a minor surprise she made it to further education), and this episode captures the feelings of uncertainty very well as life changes dramatically...
Giles (Anthony Head) doesn't work at the university and is occupied with a young girlfriend called Olivia (Phina Oruche), meaning his daily support is lessened; Xander's (Nicholas Brendon) away on a backpacking trip around the States; Buffy's mother (Kristine Sutherland) has already filled her bedroom with art junk; her new roommate Kathy (Dagney Kerr) loves Céline Dion; and she has no official Watcher to turn to when a gang of thieving vampires make their presences known to the 'freshmen'. Said gang is led by overconfident Sunday (Katharine Towne), who's excited the famous Slayer is on her turf, and in one surprising sequence actually gets the better of Buffy in a fight! This marks the first time I recall Buffy having to run away from a physical conflict (at least from quotidian villains), which was strange to see. Was she just having an off day?
The bulk of "The Freshman" focused on Buffy awkwardly try to reassert herself post-Angel and post-high school, but here was time to introduce potential new love-interest Riley (Mark Blucas) with a twist on the 'knocking books over' meet-cute. Sadly, Blucas seems to be a worse actor than first season Boreanaz, so I'm not particularly happy with this choice of actor, although having a less pensive lover would be a welcome development. Overall, this wasn't a thrilling premiere and didn't foreshadow enough of the season's future for my tastes (the only scrap being when masked, camouflaged men tasered Sunday's gang), but it was an enjoyable character study for Buffy and welcome catch-up with the characters.
- It was amusing to hear Xander quote The Avengers' catchphrase "Avengers assemble", knowing that BtVS creator Joss Whedon has now written and directed Marvel's $1.5 billion-grossing movie. What a differnce 13 years makes!
- Nothing dates more than a Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace reference.
- Loved the moment when Sunday managed to really upset Buffy by snapping the golden parasol she was awarded with at graduation last season.
- Apparently, only Region 2 BtVS DVDs carry the last four seasons in 16:9 widescreen ratio, which comes as blessed relief after three seasons of square-eyed 4:3.