I'm told Angel becomes a much better show once you're past the first season (which I didn't think was terrible), but I didn't find this premiere especially great. I expect premieres to lay out a season's table, to some extent, but "JUDGMENT" didn't seem to do much that felt fresh, beyond introduce an almost-literal lounge lizard called Lorne (Andy Hallettt). It didn't even pick-up with season 1's finale, as Angel's resurrected "maker" Darla (Julie Benz) was only given a token scene to confirm you weren't seeing things last time. The only noticeable change was the bigger presence of street-wise vampire-killer Gunn (J. August Richards, also added to credits), as he met Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and Wesley (Alexis Denisof)—but even his introduction actually happened last season.
For the most part, it was business as usual with a perfunctory story I wasn't very keen on. Angel (David Boreanaz) fell foul of demon prejudice, slaughtering the Prio Motu protector of a pregnant woman called Jo (Justina Machado) because it featured in one of Cordy's scary visions from The Powers That Be. The rest of the episode concerned Angel trying to make amends for murdering an innocent being; assuming the mantle of Jo's "champion" because there's a bounty on her unborn baby's head, and a weird Tribunal is convening to take her offspring away.
There were flourishes to this episode I liked, which was the main reason I came to enjoy it. The comedy value of a karaoke bar frequented by bizarre creatures (Angel's version of Star Wars's Mos Eisley Cantina?) was good fun because of the incongruity involved; the episode seemed to spend more time in and around L.A environs; and a jousting sequence on horseback was exactly the sort of weird visual I'd like to see more of. I responded to this episode's sense of there being a supernatural subculture coexisting alongside humanity, in the shadows and under the streets. (Similar to how Harry Potter-land operates). In the opening scene, Angel's gang literally smashed their way through the mirrored walls of a 24-hour gym to find ne'er-do-well demons inside—and I loved that feeling of weirdness so close to normality. More of that, please.
Things rapidly improved with "ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN", which put us on reliable 'haunted hotel' turf. Angel decided to investigate the long-abandoned Hyperion Hotel, and through flashbacks it became clearer why: he was once a guest back in 1952, and during his stay a salesman was persuaded to commit suicide by whispering voices leading the manager (John Kapelos) and a bellhop (J.P Manoux) to hide the corpse and, in so doing, trigger widespread paranoia about a killer on the premises.
What initially felt like a straightforward story gained depth along the way, even if the modern-day characters didn't get very much to do beyond play ghostbusters at the end (although it was good to see Gunn as an active part of the gang, and to note he has a tetchy relationship with Wesley). This hour was more about Angel's back-story as a 'vampire with a soul' trying to stay out of human affairs, only to be dragged into something by a beautiful woman (Melissa Marsala)—although, once the demonic Thesulac was made corporeal, it was unsettling to realise Angel was happy to let the beast continue to prey on the weak and vulnerable, to feed on their hatred and prejudices.
Speaking of which, a big theme of this episode was the era's intolerance for outsiders—with a black family being refused a room at reception, Angel noticing two gay men in a hallway, and the sequence where the hotel guests decided Angel is the killer in their midst and exacted mob justice by hanging him (which was a little overkill, but this show isn't exactly subtle when it comes to its themes).
There was certainly more going on in this episode than is usually the case with Angel, and it did a good job keeping it all together, while throwing in the expected allusions to the creepy hotel and film noir/horror back-catalogue (Psycho, The Shining). The week's monster was also fantastic—a kind of levitating Jack Palance with tentacles thrashing from under its long robes. It was just a shame it was defeated in a fairly underwhelming manner, which tends to happen on this show. Still, this was definitely a highlight for Angel and hopefully the true start of an improved sophomore year.
written by David Greenwalt (story by David Greenwalt & Joss Whedon) (2.1) & Tim Minear (2.2) | directed by Michael Lange (2.1) & David Semel (2.2) | 26 September & 3 October 2000