2002 was a banner year for Joss Whedon. His best-known creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was soldiering on in its seventh season, and as that series was coming to a close, Whedon's sci-fi-inflected western Firefly made its debut. Although Angel may not have been lavished with quite as much press as either of those series, its fourth season was perhaps the strongest of its five year run on the WB and marked some of Mutant Enemy's most exemplary work to date.
"A kid? Angel's got a kid?"
At the close of the previous season, Cordelia had been spirited off to serve a greater purpose in another realm, and Connor had locked his father in an iron coffin and plunged him to the bottom of the ocean. Season four picks up three months later, and little else has changed. Fred and Gunn have tried their best to keep Angel Investigations from going under even though the company's namesake is nowhere to be found. They've worked tirelessly to try to reveal the forces behind Cordelia and Angel's extended vanishing acts, but to no avail. A series named Angel obviously isn't going to spend much time without its title character, and when the ensouled vampire does return, his rescuer isn't one of his stalwart employees but the man who'd betrayed him some months earlier. Cordelia eventually returns as well, but she's not quite the same as when she departed. Angel's well-intentioned response leaves her disinterested in spending any more time at the group's homebase at the Hyperion Hotel, preferring instead to stay elsewhere under Connor's protection. Things spiral out of control from there, and what follows is the largest, most epic season arc Joss Whedon and his staff of writers would ever assemble. Going into any great depth describing this season of Angel is difficult -- everything is so intertwined that even a brief summary of some of the later episodes would spoil things for viewers who haven't yet had a chance to watch it. Disregarding the week-by-week minutiae of the series, this season is about love...about family...about sacrifice...about the consequences that inevitably arise when making difficult decisions. It's about the gray areas that lurk between meaningless labels like "good" and "evil".
"A teenage kid...born last year?"
"I told you -- he grew up in a hell dimension."
"Right. And what, Cordelia spent her last summer as..."
"A divine being."
"Uh-huh. Can I just ask -- what the hell are you people doing?"
"Gosh....I love a story with scope."
Most seasons of Buffy and Angel up to this point had each revolved around a few major arcs. The usual progression was to introduce a couple of villains throughout the season, pit our heroes against the nefarious scheme of the week, and decimate whoever was left standing in the season finale. Rather than being continually pelted with fiendish plot after fiendish plot, season four of Angel takes a different approach. The story unveils through an entangled series of small, interconnected arcs, and the end result makes nearly all of its twenty-two episodes feel like part of one mammoth story. It's certainly the most serialized season of any Whedonverse series, and each episode ends on a cliffhanger. It's also the most consistent in terms of quality. Most seasons of his shows, Angel perhaps more than Buffy, are peppered with mediocrity like "She", "Dad", or "Double or Nothing", frequently getting mired in a mid-season lull. Angel's fourth season is largely free of any of that. The only episode I feel is appreciably worse than any of the rest is "Home", which is less of a season finale than a pilot for the new premise of the fifth season that would follow.
"And how does your kind define love?"
This season also sees the exceedingly memorable return of several characters, a couple of whom hadn't been seen in years and one making his first genuine appearance on Angel. It's almost painful for me to attempt writing a review of this season without prattling on about these characters since they made for some of my favorite moments of Buffy, but I'll resist the temptation. A number of new characters are also introduced, and even the briefly-seen one-offs manage to make an impression: a conspiracy theorist played by Patrick Fischler (Ghost World, Mulholland Drive), a skittering extradimensional spider creature, and a teleporting anthropomorphic bat demon named Dinza that only the dead may encounter, to name a few. Another newly-created character who turns up repeatedly throughout is Gwen Raiden, an electricity-fueld cat burglar who was raised in a stand-in for Charles Xavier's School for the Gifted. Among other things, she offers Gunn a chance to really shine and shrug off the 'muscle' label in the episode "Players". Similarly, most of the cast is prominently featured in at least one episode this season. Lorne takes center stage in the Vegas-themed "The House Always Wins", a risky decision coming only a few episodes after the abysmal casino-themed "Double or Nothing" last year, but this one manages to hit most of its marks. We also learn more of Fred's backstory in "Supersymmetry". The use of the word "symmetry" seems appropriate since the corresponding spot near the end of the season features another Fred-centric episode, "The Magic Bullet", one of the season's best. Although they aren't lavished with episodes dedicated solely to themselves, Wes and femme fatale Lilah make for some of the best moments in virtually every episode in which they appear together. This season cemented Wes' place as my favorite character on the series, and following the events of the previous year, he's much darker and more conflicted, scarcely recognizable from the bumbling oaf of years past.
"Same as allbodies. Same as everywheres. Love is sacrifice."
A couple of familiar names also contribute to the season. Tick creator Ben Edlund comes on-board as a producer, also writing the episode "Sacrifice" with its endlessly quotable spider creature. Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin also made his directorial debut on "Soulless". As good as those episodes are, the name that's the most welcome to see continually popping up in the opening credits is Jeffrey Bell. He's responsible for several of the season's most stand-out episodes, such as my favorite, "Habeas Corpses". Think of the way "Billy" locked a few of its characters in a confined building and spun an homage to The Shining -- the carnage of "Habeas Corpses" does the same for a different genre of horror movie. Another high point is "The Magic Bullet", which Bell wrote and directed, weaving a tale of paranoia and isolation in an Orwellian world swept up in hivemind religious fervor. Series co-creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed "Spin the Bottle", a hysterical mindwipe episode that stands in for Buffy's "Tabula Rasa", propelling our heroes mentally back to their teenage years as they try to make sense of their unfamiliar surroundings and hunt a vampire in the hotel.
The incessant coupling was one of my central gripes about the third season of Angel. No matter how frequently a non-word like "kyrumption" is thrown around or how the WB's marketeers describe it as "a love of destiny", there's no romantic chemistry betwen Cordelia and Angel whatsoever. There was also Wes and Gunn's constant mooning over Fred and the eventual pairing that resulted from that. Season four is saddled with some of that romantic baggage but gleefully rips it all apart as the year progresses. Even mere crushes that were held take a darker, creepier turn. The most interesting (and the most convincing) relationship last season, although "relationship" isn't quite the word I'd use, was the carnal lust shared between Wes and Lilah. That continues into this season and sets up some of its most intriguing moments. There is one strange pairing this year, horrifying a lot of viewers and compelling them to very loudly voice their disgust, although I think the fact that it's unsettling is rather the point.
As relentlessly nitpicky as I can be, I'm unable to find much of substance to complain about in this season of Angel. The weak aspects of the season were largely carried over from the character assassinations in its third year. The snarky Cordelia from the first season is long gone, and the matronly saint that took her place last season returns here. Her appearances in the first few episodes thankfully amount to little more than cameos, but those fleeting seconds in which she appears on-screen are pretty grating. The events mid-season take Cordelia to a different place, and the way Charisma Carpenter chose to tackle them is a little campier than I would've preferred. I also didn't much care for the largely lackluster and decidedly dull season closer "Home", although it's almost redeemed by the painful scenes between Connor and Angel. In general, some plot points are played up and then completely forgotten. The CGI effect after Gwen and Angel duke it out and...stop seems like it's meant to be important, but it's immediately dropped without anything ever having come of it. Although my attempts at staying spoiler-free prevent me from going into much detail, sometimes the cast does things that don't seem entirely in character but work well for the story. I'm willing to let strict adherence to continuity take the backseat to a solid tale, so I wasn't all that bothered by it. One villain makes his long-awaited return, but disappointingly, it turns out to be rather toothless (awkward pun intended). I also hate -- hate -- the way the word "champion" is shoehorned into every single episode, sometimes repeatedly.
Although the past couple of seasons had sidestepped crossovers with its sister series, a couple of episodes this season feature plots that bleed into Buffy. It's appropriate that this box set is being released before the corresponding seventh season of Buffy as most of those plot points originate on Angel. There aren't any spoilers that are revealed in these episodes, so viewers who haven't seen either season need not worry. These episodes are also fairly self-contained -- there are no unresolved plot threads that require watching an episode of Buffy to wrap up.
Season four of Angel seems eminently rewatchable. There are so many revelations that come throughout the season that cast new light on other episodes, and it's a different experience sitting through it a second time bearing those key moments in mind. This is the strongest, most consistent season Mutant Enemy has produced since season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The cinematography seems torn out of a feature film, and it further benefits from high production values, incredible fight choreography, skilled writing, and a strong ensemble cast. Highly recommended.
Video: This season of Angel was the second to have been broadcast letterboxed and the third to be released on DVD in anamorphic widescreen. In the weeks leading up to this release, I watched the first three box sets again in their entirety, and the image quality here is overall comparable to the past couple of seasons. These DVDs are generally sharp and detailed, although the image sporadically appeared incrementally softer and fuzzier than I was expecting. The difference is slight but noticeable. The season is as dark visually as it is thematically, so viewers might want to pop in Avia or Video Essentials to ensure contrast and brightness aren't a few notches too low before giving this set a spin. Colors appear to be accurate, although the lighting is sufficiently dark that the palette could rarely be described as colorful. In brighter episodes like "Shiny Happy People" and the garish "The House Always Wins", the hues are appropriately more vividly saturated. Some film grain is expectedly present, but I didn't have any concerns about artifacting or haloing. It's certainly a massive improvement over the initial broadcasts, which at least in my area tended to be murky and gray, and it retains the original aspect ratio that's been mercilessly cropped in rebroadcasts.
Audio: Angel presents its twenty-two episodes in Dolby stereo surround (192Kbps). The matrixed monaural surrounds are typically used as more of an accent, and when they come into play, it's typically just to reinforce the score. The setting of a bustling metropolis and some of the apocalpytic chaos offer some intermittent activity, but it's clear the soundtrack was mixed more with stereo in mind. There's quite a bit of noticeable stereo separation across the front chunk of the soundstage, and dialogue comes through crisply and cleanly. Despite the lack of a discrete LFE channel, each punch, kick, thud, and explosion coaxed a respectable boom from my subwoofer. Although I certainly wouldn't have complained if the surrounds were more active or if the soundtrack had been given a full-fledged six-channel remix, I don't have any major complaints about the quality of what's offered here. Each episode also includes stereo surround dubs in French and Spanish, as well as subtitles in English and Spanish and closed captions.
Supplements: This box set features more than twice as many commentary tracks as the season three set, beginning with Andy Hallett and writer David Fury on "The House Always Wins". It's an interesting pairing since I'd intermittently forget whose voice was whose, which is strange considering that I've been watching Hallett on the show for so many years. Their commentary is kind of subdued, and they occasionally fall into the trap of sitting back, watching, and just chuckling or making the occasional quip. Some of the more interesting notes include the differences between what Fury envisions as a writer versus what winds up on television as well as shooting in Vegas and playing loosely with its geography.
The second disc features two commentaries. Writer/director Joss Whedon and Alexis Denisof sit in on "Spin the Bottle", gabbing about continuity hiccups, faux-tripping out on mushrooms, nods to Whedon's highbrow humor, shooting late because actors kept uncontrollably bursting into laughter, beloved crane shots, and disappearing chins. Director Vern Gillum and writer Steven S. DeKnight also contribute a commentary for "Apocalypse, Nowish". They talk about how the episode changed dramatically to accomodate the WB's scheduling, David Boreanaz toting a script in one dialogue-heavy scene, the torturous, vomit-inducing Beast suit, how far the final battle propelled the episode overbudget, and various situations involving J. August Richards, his character, and waves of vermin. The episode is further supplemented by the featurette "Angel and the Apocalypse" (6:50), which discusses the challenges of executing an episode with so many complex effects and what may be the most impressive fight sequence in the entire run of the series. Contributors include Gillum and DeKnight, as well as special effects coordinator Mike Gaspar, stunt coordinator Mike Massa, and producers Kelly A. Manners and Jeffrey Bell.
Director Terrence O'Hara and co-executive producer Jeffrey Bell comment on disc four's "Orpheus". It's a fairly quiet commentary, but some of the highlights including shooting around the exceedingly cramped schedule of one guest star, cutting out scenes that linked this episode to season two's "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been...?", a non-nepotistic cameo from a relative of a recurring guest, apologies for the big fat floaty head, and notes on how the...self-abuse?...was executed on-screen.
Moving onto disc five, writer Steven S. DeKnight talks about his directorial debut in "Inside Out", his $1.8 million quasi-student film financed by 20th Century Fox. He comments on the stress of being a first-time director and constantly being pressed for time, as well as discussing the magic of editing, the lack of substantial prop bones, the set turning into a vomitorium, and the influence of cheap kung-fu flicks on his action sequences. Master of the Flying Guillotine in particular is referenced repeatedly. The fifth disc also includes a commentary on "The Magic Bullet" by another writer-turned-first-time-director, Jeffrey Bell. He spends a lot of time on the casting of extras and various supporting roles, including...hey, that is Zack Wylde. And, whoops! He also confuses Mulholland Falls and Mulholland Drive.
The last of the bunch has writer/producer/director Tim Minear contributing an audio commentary for "Home". Considering the number of slashes in the description preceding his name, Minear obviously wore a lot of hats on this episode, and that gives him plenty to talk about. He's able to comment on story and character motivation, the technical implementation, and piecing together the finished episode. He tosses in quite a few cinematic references as well, and his comments about how this episode interacts with the Buffy series finale kind of confirms some things in my mind. Even though I'm not too keen on the episode, I did enjoy the commentary, and it and the "Spin the Bottle" track are easily the two best on this set.
The sixth disc also houses the bulk of the set's featurettes. As is the Buffyverse standard, first up is "Prophecies", a forty-minute overview of the season. It's primarily a collection of various members of the cast and crew summarizing the key events of the season, interspersed with clips from a number of episodes. Aside from some exceedingly brief comments about how the events in one actor's personal life affected the course of the season, the comments don't stray from that synopsis-minded path, and it's as a whole kind of a waste of time. Interviewed are Joss Whedon, David Fury, Steven S. DeKnight, Jeffrey Bell, David Boreanaz, J. August Richards, Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Vincent Karthesier, Andy Hallett, and an actress who plays a major role in an arc late in the season. "Unplugged: Season 4 Outtakes" serves up three minutes of flubbed lines, bursts of laughter, and goofing around on the set. Production designer Stuart Blatt gives viewers a guided tour of Angel Investigations' home base in "Last Looks: The Hyperion Hotel" (5:42), discussing the motivations for some of the designs and noting how drastically some sets have been redressed when needed. Rounding out the extras are a pair of featurettes focusing on some of Angel's nemeses. "Fatal Beauty and the Beast" (6:06) takes a look at some of the villains unique to this season, and "Malice in Wonderland" spends eight minutes discussing the background and execution of both Wolfram and Hart and the ubiquitous Lilah Morgan. Both featurettes include interviews with a number of writers as well as the relevant actors.
The six discs in this set sport a set of 16x9-enhanced animated menus, and the episodes are divided into fifteen chapters or so each. There isn't a "Play All" feature, meaning that marathon viewings require a little more button mashing than should be necessary. The "previously on..."s are still missing, which leaves a number of episodes starting abruptly and in the middle of a music cue. The packaging is similar to the past seven Buffy and Angel sets, and new viewers may be annoyed with a casting spoiler that's pervasive throughout the interior. An eight page booklet provides a synopsis and brief details about each episode, and an insert notes that the fifth and final season of Angel is slated for a February release.
Conclusion: Arguably the strongest season of Angel's five year run, this box set collects an impressive assortment of episodes that greatly benefit from multiple viewings. Essential viewing for fans of the series, the fourth season of Angel is very highly recommended.
Related Reviews: DVD Talk also has reviews for other Angel sets, various Buffy DVDs, and Joss Whedon's criminally shortlived Firefly.