Sorry about taking so long to get this review up, but the delay shouldn't be a tremendous loss; since this is the fifth season of Angel -- the twelfth and final season set in Joss Whedon's Buffyverse -- anyone reading this probably knew well in advance of February 15th if they were going to fork over their credit cards or not. Even if this review doesn't influence anyone's purchasing habits, I'm always willing to seize any possible opportunity to ramble on at length about Angel, and I not surprisingly have quite a bit to say about season five.
When we last left the remnants of Angel Investigations, the gang had agreed to ditch the hotel where they'd set up shop for the past few seasons and move into their new digs, the Los Angeles office of former arch-nemesis Wolfram and Hart. Series co-creator David Greenwalt likened it to Greenpeace taking hold of Shell Oil. Is it possible to exact change from within, or will our intrepid heroes find themselves devoured while fighting within the belly of the beast? Not only do Angel and company have to battle off the usual hordes of demons, vampires, and warlocks, but they have to face a moral compromise. Wolfram and Hart offers them nearly unlimited resources, but if they vanquish every foe that walks through the doors of their law office, then that leaves them without any clients. No clients, no money. No money, no Wolfram and Hart resources at their disposal, so in order to keep fighting, they have to turn a blind eye to at least some wrongdoing. That's just one of the many things Angel struggles with this season, along with a busty werewolf, demonic puppets, a bodily-fluid-guzzling slavemaster, empathic mindcontrol, a resurrected god, and an enumerated crestfallen Mexican wrestler, to rattle off a few.
One of the comments I made about the final season of Buffy is that it started off remarkably well but quickly started meandering around aimlessly, lacking any strong sense of direction. My initial impression of the fifth season of Angel last year was the opposite -- things started off awkwardly, but as the season progressed, the writers got a firmer grasp on the concept and the show found its footing, culminating in a remarkable series finalé. That's getting ahead of myself, though. The WB wanted a series that wouldn't overwhelm new viewers, so a lot of Angel's backstory is mind-wiped out of existence. No one but a select few have any memory of his son Connor. His friends remember the Jasmine debacle, but it's fuzzy, their memories having been altered by Wolfram and Hart's shamans as Angel took the reins as CEO. In stark contrast to the previous season, which seemed almost like a single sixteen-hour episode, the early entries this year are standalones, self-contained episodes that concentrate on a single story. Its characters don't undergo any drastic changes, and the villains are primarily one-offs. The slate's wiped clean when the screen fades to black and Joss' executive producer credit pops up on screen.
What little continuity is present is covered in lengthy expository sequences. Virtually every episode in the first half of the season begins with someone saying "wow, we used to fight this evil law firm, but now we're in control and trying to exact change from within. Isn't that right, Angel, the vampire with a soul who is also my employer?" I'm not sure how that's any more inviting to new viewers, but whatever. Oddly enough, despite the ample exposition, the long-absent "Previously on..."s are finally wholly intact on this DVD set.
Aside from the change of setting, the fifth season of Angel adds a few new characters to the roster. Among them is Eve (Sarah Thompson), Angel's liaison with the otherdimensional Senior Partners, who has all the fiery sexual charisma of an 11 year old girl trying on Mommy's clothes for the first time. There's also Knox (Whedonverse mainstay Jonathan Woodward), a scientist who starts mooning over Fred and inspires a muttered-under-his-breath one-sided rivalry with Wesley. Spike hasn't been on Angel, at least outside of flashbacks, since the first season, but now he's a regular. After acting as a vampiric jewelry rack on Buffy and inadvertently saving the world in the process, Spike's been brought back to this mortal coil. He's not completely restored, though -- Spike's a ghost, or something close enough to one, incorporeal and anchored to Los Angeles. Unable to head to Europe in search of his lady love, he decides to annoy Angel and see if Fred can find some cure to whatever it is that's causing him to periodically blink out of existence. Spike's ex Harmony is on the Wolfram and Hart payroll, serving as Angel's secretary. Harmony gets her own feature episode in "Harm's Way", where she finds herself accused of consuming human blood and dumps half the company in a maintenance closet as she tries to clear her name. Although I don't really count myself as much of a Harmony fan, it's one of the better "funny!" episodes of the season.
One complaint I instantly had about this season of Angel is the greatly modified set design. Night shoots are considerably less common, and there's something not quite right about a vampire show being this brightly lit, necrotempered glass or no. The group spends the majority of its time cooped inside the Wolfram and Hart offices, to the point where it's almost claustrophobic. It's the Angel equivalent of Buffy's living room from the seventh season of that show. The setting of Wolfram and Hart is also largely squandered. Although Wolfram and Hart hadn't been a particuarly menacing presence in years, it's largely demystified this season. The appeal of Wolfram and Hart was in scheming employees like Lilah Morgan and Holland Manners, and the faces I'd come to associate with the firm are wholly absent. With everything the firm had come to represent over the past four years discarded, the only connection between this Wolfram and Hart and the firm seen in earlier seasons is the name. Even taken as a new entity, it's not used that effectively. With as much talk of how sprawling and bustling this interdimensional law firm is, that's almost never felt on the show. The occasional (okay, bi-weekly) break-in aside, Angel's offices don't seem to be that hectic -- just the main few characters and a guy or two in the background with fright masks. "Harm's Way" is the only episode where it feels like they're actually in some sort of corporate environment. Wolfram and Hart isn't particularly well-defined either. The resources of the firm also seem to vary depending on whatever the plot requires that particular week.
The structure of this season is also different than what we've seen in previous years. There isn't a singular strong underlying story, especially early on where episodes don't even have B-plots. These episodes revolve entirely around whatever the monster of the week is, and without much of anything else to focus on, pacing can suffer. Quite a few of these episodes are centered around a single protagonist...two at the most...and everyone else is reduced to their job descriptions, seeming more like archetypes with convoluted backstories, not actual characters.
I'll dive in to the character-by-character breakdown in a minute, but characterization is not a strong point of the season. I'm sure much of this is intentional -- separating the group into remote, solitary offices may play into the Senior Partners' machinations -- but it doesn't make for particularly compelling television. I miss the days when these people were family, not just co-workers ensnared in some sort of corporate hierarchy.
Some newly introduced characters disappear for lengthy stretches, like Knox, who's MIA for...what, six episodes in a row? Another example is the lycanthropic love interest Nina from "Unleashed", played by Jenny Mollen, who isn't timid about showing every centimeter of cleavage that the FCC will let scrape by. The fairly bland character (think of a blonde, bustier Riley with double-X chromosomes) is introduced in the third installment of the season, disappears for eleven episodes, gets as naked as you can on network television, and then doesn't rear her head again until the penultimate episode. Some of the character motivation doesn't seem altogether there, like one litigious antagonist not seen in a couple of episodes who makes an unexpected return. His plan doesn't make any sense, his motivation for returning seems completely contradictory to where he was when we last saw him...but hey, it is nice to see him again. Sorry for the vague gender-specific pronoun, but I'm trying to stay light on the spoilers on the off-chance someone reading this hasn't seen these episodes before.
Although the bulk of the early episodes are standalones, there are a couple of mini-arcs tossed in throughout -- the rise of the ancient god Illyria, Spike striking out on his own as a hero, Gunn's efforts to secure his place in the team and the dire consequences of that determination, and the long-awaited return of that quasi-villain hinted at a few sentences up. This gives the second half of the season a sense of greater purpose, and continuingly juggling a couple of different storylines gives these episodes a momentum the first batch was lacking.
The last few episodes also retroactively create an arc from a slew of seemingly-one-off characters from early standalone episodes, and by the time I watched the incredible series finale, whatever complaints I may have had about the season faded away.
I think another reason the earlier portion of the season doesn't grab my attention the same way is that there are so many comedic/off-kilter episodes. It's one thing to toss in a goofy episode like "Smile Time" every once in a while to help break up the darkness, but to have "Life of the Party", "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco", "Harm's Way", and "Soul Purpose" in such close proximity to one another makes this seem like a very different show than the one I've been watching for so many years. The fact that those episodes vary so wildly in quality doesn't help. The Lorne-centric "Life of the Party" and the Spike/Angel bickerfest "The Girl in Question" are two of the season's lowest points. Much of "Soul Purpose" is a surreal delusion, but unlike the kinda-similar Buffy episode "Restless", it doesn't make a strong impression one way or the other. I really liked "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" when it first aired, which paired Angel with an elderly but still spry masked Mexican wrestler to duke it out with a murderous Aztec demon, but it was the only episode of the season that I disliked more the second time through.
"Smile Time" deserves special mention and gets a paragraph break of its very own! Written and directed by Ben Edlund, the premise is that kids are having the life sucked out of them by demonic puppets on a weekday morning show called Smile Time. When Angel heads to the set to put a stop to their lifeforce feast, he's transformed into a puppet himself, but undaunted, he rallies the troops and launches an inadvertently televised assault. Although Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Hush" and "Once More with Feeling" are similarly-kinda-gimmicky episodes that are widely beloved, neither of those are as uproariously funny (or, I'd argue, and you'd disagree, as clever or inventive) as "Smile Time".
It's one of three really exceptional episodes this season, and I'd point to it as the line where the season goes from being merely okay to great for almost all of the duration.
I'd grown pretty sick of Spike's omnipresence during the last couple seasons of Buffy, and I wasn't thrilled to hear that he'd be carrying over to Angel. The writers eventually figure out how to integrate him into the group as the season progresses, but early on, he's Angel's Poochie. Whenever Spike's not onscreen, all the other characters are asking "Where's Spike?" He's an overwhelming part of the first half of the season, pushing much of the supporting cast back on the bench. Spike's frequently used to compare and contrast with Angel; both are ensouled vampires, either one could be prophecized about in the Shanshu scrolls that Angel's grown too cynical to believe in, and each obviously resents the other. Their bickering is sometimes amusing ("Just Rewards", for instance, which pits them against a necromancer with total control over the dead -- including Angel -- who makes the incorporeal Spike a tempting offer), but it seems to strike the same couple of notes with annoying frequency.
Spike's better used as a seasoning, not an entrée, so just like I wouldn't really want to eat a plateful of paprika, I'm not keen on Spike-centric episodes. One of the worst of the season is "Hellbound", where Spike finds himself being dragged to...yeah, exactly what the title says...by a Jack the Ripper knockoff who tortures him with doofy make-up effects and overwrought voiceovers. Bad flashbacks from Spike and Angel's past and their relentless competitions also bring down a couple of episodes. "Destiny" is only redeemed by a lengthy and impressive fight sequence, as well as the epilogue-ish revelation of who's pulling the strings. "Why We Fight" is a tepid, talky flashback from almost start to finish, featuring Spike and Angel trapped together on a submarine during WWII. As the final storyline of the series begins to take shape, "The Girl in Question" is jarringly tossed in, the same way the thrice-damned "Go Fish" and "Double or Nothing" caused various seasons' momentum to briefly derail. This is a love-it-or-hate-it episode, and I'm squarely in the "or..." group. When it first aired, I ranked "The Girl in Question" as the worst Buffyverse episode ever. Worse than "Bad Eggs". Worse than "Beer Bad". Worse than "She" or any episode with or without the word "bad" in the title, even. A second viewing is less painful, but it's just lots of lame, lame stabs at comedy. The girl in "The Girl in Question" is Buffy Summers, by the way, and no, Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn't put in an appearance.
Andrew does, though, making his second obnoxious, undeservedly smug, self-righteous staredown of the season, something he apparently can only accomplish when he's flanked by beautiful women.
I don't want to completely rail against Spike, though. By the halfway point of the season, he'd become much better integrated into the group, starting with a character arc where Spike starts to become the sort of hero Angel used to be. He eventually feels like a more essential part of the gang than he ever did throughout his years on Buffy, and as much as I griped about Spike when the season first aired, I think he turned out to be a great addition once the writers figured out what to do with him.
Of all the characters who get the shaft this season, Lorne probably suffers the worst. Andy Hallett almost certainly spent more time in the make-up chair during the filming of season five than he did in front of the camera. He pretty much pops up just long enough to give Angel a pet name based on a candy bar, then he disappears until it's time to do the same next week. Lorne isn't a strong fit for the season, and the fact that he can't contribute to the group in the same way as the others is explored in "Life of the Party", where his determination to do the best he can at his stressful, time-consuming job as the head of Wolfram and Hart's entertainment division sets his empathic powers on overload and wreaks havoc at the office Halloween party. Despite being written by the brilliant Ben Edlund, this presumably-intended-to-be-funny episode really, really isn't.
He's put to much better use later in the season, particularly in "A Hole in the World" (who would've thought "You Are My Sunshine" could be used to such chilling effect?) and in the series finalé, where he gets an unexpected but thoroughly effective send-off.
Wesley is my favorite character, and although he gets short thrift in the early episodes of the season, he eventually makes up for it. The only good Wes is a miserable, tortured Wes, and season five doesn't hesitate too long to put him through the ringer, starting with "Lineage", by far my favorite episode from the first half of the season. The story itself isn't exceptional (it involves killer ninja cyborgs engaged in a nebulous scheme that's never mentioned again), but Alexis Denisof is great in it, wringing even more agony out of Wes' daddy issues, and although clearly I have no problem writing thousand-page tomes describing these episodes, even I can't find the words to say how much I love the climax of this episode. The Illyria mini-arc not only brings back the dark, tortured Wes, but it even gives us brief glimpses of crazy, skittering Wes, another personal favorite.
I was also impressed with what J. August Richards and Amy Acker brought to the season. As much of an unrelenting crush as I may happen to have on Amy Acker, I have to admit that Fred's squandered this season, reverting back to her season three self where she's equal parts damsel in distress/object of everyone's desire/lazy writer's solution to every problem by making her capable of damn near anything. Still, Acker gets a chance to really show off how talented she is in the last third of the season. I can't describe "A Hole in the World" without diving headfirst into deep spoiler waters, but I think she's great in it, even if that episode is riddled with some of the clunkiest dialogue Joss Whedon's ever penned, and she gets an opportunity to really show off her range and diversity shortly thereafter. Gunn has the strongest character arc of anyone, finally getting the opportunity to shrug off the "muscle" label and become something of greater value to the group, but Wolfram and Hart's seductive thrall isn't all legal jargon and Pirates of Penzance.
This is the first season of Angel in which Cordelia Chase isn't a regular. To me, that's a good thing. The transition from the snarky Cordelia of old to St. Cordy in season three destroyed the character, and she's not missed, at least by me. When a rare reference is made to her in the season opener, it felt shoehorned in, although that sappy moment is thankfully quickly defused by Joss Whedon. Despite no longer appearing in the opening credits, her storyline is resolved in season five, and it's done in a way that made "You're Welcome", the series' one hundredth episode, a fan favorite and almost made me like the character again.
Along those same lines, the Connor storyline is also wrapped up in "Origin". Although many longtime fans of the series grew weary of the teen-flavored angst of Angel's near-androgynous offspring, it's a very different Connor in "Origin", and his presence offers one of the season's strongest and most memorable episodes.
The much, much shorter version of what I've scribbled down above is that the fifth season of Angel may be inconsistent and disjointed, but its strongest episodes are among the best of the series, and even the episodes I so vocally detested during their initial run don't seem all that bad to me with a second viewing. Though it's admittedly not my favorite season by a longshot, season five has enough good-to-great episodes for me to slap the "good season" label on it, and if you've picked up all the Angel sets up to this point and are dedicated enough to have read this far, clearly you need to add this final box set to your collection.
Video: The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video is on par with the best of the series up to this point. The image is razor sharp and richly detailed, offering a hint as to what those viewers fortunate enough to catch these episodes in high-definition must have seen. (This season marked the first time Angel had aired in HD, although a number of WB affiliates -- including the one in my neck of the woods -- had yet to make the transition.) These DVDs are a monstrous improvement over the drab, murky analog image that was piped to my TV a year ago, offering a quantum leap improvement in contrast, shadow detail, and color saturation. The only complaint I can make is that some edges ring heavily whenever any character is set against a white or similarly bright background, but it's not all that pervasive.
Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo surround tracks are also first-rate. Dialogue comes through cleanly and clearly, with some infrequent and fairly minor clipping occasionally audible. It makes effective use of all of the speakers at its disposal, or at least as much as a soundtrack with monaural matrixed surrounds can. Season five features some of the best music of the series, and the score and the numerous kicks, punches, and assorted special effects are frequently accompanied by a thunderous kick from the subwoofer. Each episode also offers dubs in French and Spanish, English and Spanish subtitles, and closed captions.
Supplements: The fifth season of Angel is teeming with audio commentaries, with at least one per disc, and almost all of them feature contributions from the cast. There are a couple of casting spoilers since various guest stars turn up on these commentaries, so if you want everything to be a total surprise, you might want to close your eyes for the next few paragraphs. Although many of these tracks do include appearances from a number of this year's key cast members, the season premiere, "Conviction", is just Joss. For someone with such a legendary dry wit and one of my favorite commentary guys ever, he's kind of somber and serious here.
There are still some highlights, though, such as having to shoot just one side of Alexis Denisof's face for much of the episode, the resonance of a picture in the liner notes of a Dixie Chicks CD, and acknowledgements of the Magical McGuffin of this installment and other weaknesses in the script.
"Destiny" on disc two includes a commentary with director Skip Schoolnik, writers David Fury and Steven S. DeKnight, and guest star Juliet Landau. Juliet doesn't have much to say, but the others are pretty talkative throughout, noting how this episode was originally going to be David Boreanaz' directorial debut, squabbling over the outcome of the epic fight, and maintaining the surprise of one guest star for an inordinately long time in this age of wildfeeds and spoilers.
Although Boreanaz' first work behind the camera was postponed, he did go onto helm "Soul Purpose", and he serves up a commentary for that episode, joined by writer Brent Fletcher (who, like David Fury and Drew Goddard, would go onto write for Lost) and Christian Kane. Boreanaz does a great job expressing what he was trying to convey and how he accomplished it as a director, and Kane and Boreanaz both have strong personalities that really come through in this track. Fletcher seems like kind of a third wheel but chimes in periodically. The commentary does suggest that the writers didn't have at least some of the main plot points for the season mapped out, as Christian Kane had no idea what Lindsay was doing on the show at the time, and it's kind of funny to hear how expensive the creature effects were considering how awful they wound up looking.
Christian Kane returns for Commentary Number Four, "You're Welcome", along with Sarah Thompson and writer/director David Fury. It too indicates that at least part of the season was kind of made up as they went along, with Fury admitting that he started writing the script and prepping for the shoot before they had a story.
The track as a whole is average but pleasant enough to listen to, thanks in large part to Thompson and Kane, who are chattier than most of the other cast members on these commentaries.
Less talkative are Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof on "A Hole in the World". The wrap party was the night before, and I guess they were still reeling as this track was being recorded. They barely say anything, just the occasional giddy giggle or muttered monosyllable. Even the usually chatty writer/director Joss Whedon falls into the trap of watching the episode instead of talking about it. Joss notes the origins of the some of the names used here (Illyria, the Deeper Well, Feigenbaum), how far the episode originally ran over, and the importance of proper episode titles.
Disc five features director Skip Schoolnik, writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, and guest star Adam Baldwin on "Underneath". It's a laid back, kinda chatty track that's made particularly interesting thanks to the presence of Firefly holdover Adam Baldwin. He talks about his approach to acting, how intensely anti-giggles he is, and fills the other three in on Bonanza nods and the meaning of "OGB".
It's noted that Joss broke the news of Angel's cancellation during the filming of this episode, and they comment on the impact that announcement had on the crew and (shudders!) craft services.
Finally, co-writer/director Jeffrey Bell contributes a commentary for the series finale, "Not Fade Away". Listening to this track, it's kind of interesting to hear Bell note how talky the first half or so of the episode is because the pacing seems so perfect to me. It's a solid track, and he notes how Mike Massa, after all these years on the show, got his first black eye during the filming of this episode.
Usually these box sets have at least one or two clunky commentaries, but since even the weaker tracks still at least rank as "good", I'd say all of the ones in this collection are worth a listen. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about the featurettes scattered around throughout the set. The first disc serves up "Hey Kids! It's Smile Time!", a fluffy seven minute featurette that wastes entirely too much time recapping the episode and reheating clips from the episode. The puppeteers behind the characters get some camera time, along with writer/director Ben Edlund, and it's nice to put a face to the name. Disc four includes "Angel 100", a five and a half minute reflection from Joss Whedon and the show's cast on reaching the 100 episode mark.
"Angel: Choreography of a Stunt" on disc five is by far the best featurette on this set, documenting the filming of one of the most impressive stunts of the season -- David Boreanaz' stunt double Mike Massa careening through a couple of windows and plummeting off an office tower.
Most of the not-commentary extras are tossed onto the sixth disc. First up is the twenty-seven minute "Angel - The Final Season". I've never really gotten the point of these types of featurettes, but...hey! This is the last one, so I guess I won't be able to gripe about 'em anymore. Joss Whedon, Jeffrey Bell, Steven S. DeKnight, Amy Acker, David Boreanaz, Alexis Denisof, James Marsters, J. August Richards, Andy Hallett, Mercedes McNab, and, he types nearly out of breath, Sarah Thompson all recap the plots and themes of the episodes you've just seen, and nothing they say is particularly insightful. The summaries are exceedingly straightforward, but of incrementally more interest are comments on the standalone nature of a number of episodes, working with David Boreanaz both in front of and behind the camera, and giving their final thoughts on their experiences working on the show.
The other featurettes on this disc include "To Live and Die in L.A.: The Best of Angel", which spends nine minutes with Joss Whedon listing his favorite episodes from the series' first four seasons, and "Haloes and Horns: Recurring Villainy" (also nine minutes), featuring comments on...surprise! their recurring villains...by Juliet Landau, Stephanie Romanov, Julie Benz, and, briefly, Christian Kane. The last of the extras is a six minute gag reel entitled "Angel Unbound". I know gag reels are a popular feature, but I normally hate them with the passion of a fiery something or another. This one's actually great, in large part since it's culled from five full seasons of material.
The teaser for "She" gets mixed in there a lot, and since Angel is such a stunt-heavy show, there are lots and lots of falls. Very funny, and very much worth a look.
The six-disc set comes in the same sort of packaging as the previous four seasons, but the hubs seem particularly secure this time around. If my set's any indication, there shouldn't be too many problems with discs floating around during shipping. Since this might be my last chance to fawn over Amy Acker in a DVD review for a while, I'll note that the promo shot of Fred on one of the interior flaps is about as adorable as I've ever seen her. C'mon, haters, put down the Hatorade and stop hatin'! The technical stuff is pretty standard -- 16x9 menus, animated transitions, lots of chapter stops, the little booklet...you know the drill by now.
Conclusion: Angel's fifth season gets off to a very shaky start, but as the halfway point of the season is approached, the quality improves drastically. The stories become more multilayered, the handling of characters becomes more consistent, the shoehorned-in Spike feels like a more integral part of the group, and the series finalé is just fantastic. Buffy may have limped to the finish line, but Angel gets as perfect an ending as I could have ever hoped to see. Although I'm still lukewarm towards close to half of the season, my opinion of a number of these episodes improved greatly with a second viewing, and the stronger episodes make some of the early fumbling a lot more palatable. I do think that the fifth season of Angel falls short of what the previous couple of years had offered, but there are a number of truly exceptional episodes, enough to make this set an essential purchase for any fan of the series. Highly Recommended.
Related Reviews: DVD Talk also has reviews for other Angel sets, various Buffy DVDs, and Joss Whedon's criminally shortlived Firefly.