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Dark Angel - The Complete First Season

Fox // Unrated // May 20, 2003
List Price: $59.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 3, 2003 | E-mail the Author
Dark Angel stars Jessica Alba (Idle Hands) as Max, a genetically-engineered supersoldier who escaped from an expectedly top-secret government facility as a child. Despite the passing of a full decade, the agents of Manticore, led by Donald Lydecker (John Savage), remain determined to retrieve their multi-million dollar killing machine. Max ekes out a living in a scarcely-recognizable 21st century Seattle, avoiding capture while trying to locate the brothers and sisters that fled from Manticore with her. Max's search brings her in contact with underground cyberjournalist Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), and together, they try to make Seattle a more palatable place while unveiling the secrets of Max's past.

This six-disc DVD set from Fox compiles the entirety of Dark Angel's first season, which includes the following twenty-one episodes:
  • Dark Angel: This feature-length pilot introduces Max, Logan, and the chaotic setting of a third-world Seattle in the year 2019.
  • Heat: Part of Max's genetic cocktail includes feline DNA, which sends her into a frenzied sexual heat several times a year. As Max tries to suppress these urges, Logan helps arrange a reunion with the woman who helped her escape from Manticore a decade earlier.
  • Flushed: Improvements were made with each X-series, but a few kinks still had to be worked out by the time the X-5s rolled around. Max suffers violent seizures that can be alleviated with the proper medicine, which her well-intentioned friends mistake for reckless drug abuse. Max attempts to replenish her Tryptophan stash at a drug clinic, but instead winds up in the clink and in an abusive situation eerily reminiscent of her childhood. As Lydecker arrives to claim his prize, Original Cindy gets herself arrested in order to rescue her pal.
  • C.R.E.A.M.: Sketchy's extracurricular activities leave the Russian gangsters behind an underground casino gunning for him, and Max has to use her super-heightened senses to bail him out yet again. Also, Logan is contacted to investigate the mysterious death of a former colleague.
  • 411 On The DL: Max is brought one step closer to her siblings when her barcode turns up in the classifieds. She also has to deal with a tinge of jealousy when Logan's ex-wife strolls back onto the scene, carrying a secret Max soon stumbles upon.
  • Prodigy: Max sneaks into a genetic engineering conference in the hopes of discovering a permanent solution to her seizures, only to find herself seated next to an unaware Lydecker and surrounded by gun-toting terrorists.
  • Cold Comfort: Max reunites with her brother Zack to rescue fellow X-5 Brin, forming a reluctant alliance with Lydecker in the process.
  • Blah Blah Woof Woof: Wanted posters of Max are plastered throughout Seattle, threatening to reveal her superheroic moonlighting and sending her Lydecker's clutches. While Max attempts to clear her name, the wheelchair-bound Logan undergoes surgery for a condition that may rob him of what limited mobility remains.
  • Out: Max grows weary of Logan's ceaseless obsessive quests for justice, and her reluctance to participate in his latest mission reverses their usual roles. As Logan faces certain death, Normal makes the rounds on the alternative dating circuit.
  • Red: Dimwitted sleaze Bruno unexpectedly returns, snatched by Max from the custody of Witness Protection on the eve of a court appearance. Protecting Bruno is made increasingly difficult when a band of revved-up assassins come gunning their way.
  • Art Attack: Logan convinces Max to be his date to a family wedding, but she's constantly called away when a botched delivery leaves a rare painting in the wrong hands and Normal in the clutches of a murderous thug.
  • Rising: The unrelenting Reds use Original Cindy as bait to seize Max's DNA, which holds the key to their survival and possibly Logan's mobility. Outgunned and outnumbered, Max evens the odds with a mechanical implant that threatens her life.
  • The Kids Are Aiight: Manticore reclaims Zack and goes to great lengths to beat the locations of the remaining X-5s out of his battered mind and body.
  • Female Trouble: As Logan's newfound mobility fades, he turns to a back alley surgeon with a connection to Manticore.
  • Haven: On the auspices of taking a well-deserved vacation, Max quickly learns of Logan's ulterior motive for their jaunt to the sleepy town of New Haven. Her seizures become overwhelming, leaving Logan to fight alone against a group of murderous rednecks when their long-buried secret resurfaces.
  • Shortie's In Love: Original Cindy's former flame Diamond trots back into town, bringing more with her than collector spoons and good cheer. Max winds up in jail yet again, and Seattle is threatened by contagion.
  • Pollo Loco: A corpse is discovered with a barcode on his neck, matching one of the escaped X-5s. As she investigates the grisly murder, Max finds more than she bargained for, reviving memories of naïve religious fervor and bloodthirst at the Manticore complex.
  • I And I Am A Camera: Max bumps into Seattle's other superhero, Phil, who wields a camera and a Department of Defense-issued exoskeleton. Together, they search for the culprits behind a series of murdered ex-cons, and their discovery hits surprisingly close to home for Logan.
  • Hit A Sista Back: The offspring between the X-series and normal humans have historically been decidedly mediocre, but the son Tinga reluctantly abandoned exhibits many of the characteristics of her genetically engineered family. Tinga can't resist the urge to return to her child, and Lydecker has every intention of ensnaring both mother and son.
  • Meow: Max's feline DNA kicks in again, and as she finds herself in heat, she and Logan discover their true feelings for one another. Before they can release their pent-up sexual frustrations in any sort of PG-13 display of sweat and skin, Zack returns with information on the whereabouts of the recently-kidnapped Tinga.
  • ...And Jesus Brought A Casserole: In the season finale, a double-crossed Lydecker pools his talents with that of Max and a partially-reunited X-5 family to bring down Manticore once and for all.
Just as Max is a genetically-engineered hybrid of various people and creatures, Dark Angel has been stitched together from the remnants of various other genre television series and movies. The most obvious point of comparison is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its beautiful, sassy, headstrong, ass-kicking female lead, a predominately female supporting cast, and an older male mission-dispensing mentor with an answer to every question and a solution to every problem. Hell, both series have even had a recurring character named Kendra. Similarities can also be drawn to The Pretender, which features a gifted child raised in an isolated institutional setting and pursued in adulthood. Both series take every available opportunity to flash back to childhood and draw parallels to the present. The X-5s also bear a passing resemblance to the powerful young aliens of Roswell. Toss in a dollop of a Mad Max post-apocalyptic future for good measure, and you're in the general ballpark.

By the time I'd waded through the 90-minute pilot and the other two episodes on disc one, I was fully prepared to write Dark Angel off as a loss, resigning myself to wading through another thirteen hours of mediocrity. The feature-length pilot carried a hefty price tag, touted at the time as the most expensive ever produced. I'm not sure how much of that reported $10 million made it on-screen or was siphoned off to line James Cameron's wallet, but the end result is plodding and dull. Thankfully, Dark Angel improves after these early fumbles, though the quality remains uneven throughout. For every decent episode, there's one as dismal as Red or Haven. Douglas O'Keeffe has been cast in enough movies and TV series that someone out there seems to think he has some modicum of talent, but not a glimpse of it is on display in his embarrassingly inept performance as Bruno in Red. Bruno isn't the only carryover from the pilot. A disturbing amount of footage appears in flashback form, making it the most shameless rehash outside of a Silent Night, Deadly Night sequel. Haven consists of 43 of the most painfully boring minutes I've spent in front of my television this year, and even the most staunch fans of the series seem to consider it pretty dreadful.

If I had to pick one thing I dislike about Dark Angel -- and that's choosing from a pretty substantial pool -- it'd be the dialogue. It takes a stab at the witty, pop culture-inspired quality of Buffy, but without nearly the same degree of success. Less than ten minutes into the second episode, we're treated to both a "like taking candy from a baby" and "stick a fork in you 'cause you're done." Stop it. Hip-hop slang permeates the series, from almost every line of dialogue (I was disappointed to find that the Dark Angel drinking game didn't take any shots at the number of "boo"s gingerly distributed throughout the series) to even the episode titles. Rather than just continue harping about the lousy dialogue, I'll provide a few examples and leave it at that.
"Are you a playah-playah from the Himalayas?"

"Blowin' up my pager...better be major!"

"Can I have some water, please?"
"Fresh out. I'd spit on you, but it would be a waste of good saliva."

"There's no 'I' in 'team', Zack."

"There's only one word for you, and it starts with an 's', ends with a 't', and it's got a 'u' and 'l' in the middle."
Some of the cast members, particularly Michael Weatherly and John Savage, are able to sell the dialogue, no matter how clunky it may be at times. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of leading lady Jessica Alba, whose performances are often wooden and stilted, regardless of how cute she may be. Her acting improves as the series progresses, and it seems as if care has been taken to accomodate her limited range as an actress, but it still falls well below what I'd expect from a big-budget network television series. Production values aren't particularly impressive, even in the pilot, despite its eight-figure price tag. For a sci-fi action series, there isn't all that much of either. Its futuristic setting is mostly squandered, and for the most part, there isn't much at all preventing Dark Angel from taking place in the here and now. What digital effects are present, such as the Hoverdrones and the green screen Space Needle footage, are low-rent. The choreography of the brief fight sequences is unmemorable, riddled with unconvincing wire work and choppy editing. The series also pushes the '...hear me roar' angle a little too aggressively. Logan Cale aside, most every post-pubescent with a Y chromosome is portrayed as either an exploitive dope or an irrepressibly nasty villain, and the bulk of the ladies' dialogue has more "Girl power!" chants than a Spice Girls concert at Wembley Stadium. Rounding out this paragraph of relentless bitching is the theme song by Chuck D and Gary G-Wiz, which very well may be the worst theme of the past quarter-century. Yes, even more dismal than Cleopatra 2525.

Much of the supporting cast consists of Max's bike messenger co-workers at Jam Pony. Presumably intended to provide some comic relief, characters like the mindlessly mysogenistic Sketchy and Rastafarian Herbal go to great lengths to try to get a laugh, but I guess I'm a touch too white and suburban. I thought a sequence in "Cold Comfort" where the messengers try to terrify an entrepreneur interested in buying the company was pretty funny, but other than that, they seem more like a one-dimensional excuse for filler than anything of remote interest. Original Cindy in particular is vying for the title of "Worst Supporting Character Ever". Original Cindy -- get it? Apparently she appreciates the pun, referring to herself in the third person Rickey Henderson-style in each and every line of dialogue. She's a lesbian, and in case a neophyte viewer isn't aware of that, she's careful to mention her sexual preferences in every other line. The remainder of her dialogue sounds like something Jack Hill would've penned thirty years ago. Though not remotely as annoying, there's also a character named Bling. At first, I tried to convince myself that such a thing was not possible. "Blaine. Maybe that's it, " I muttered to myself in a fit of self-delusion, hoping that perhaps his name had been inspired by the similarly-named characters of Casablanca and Predator. No such luck.

With the right talent behind it, Dark Angel would've been an awesome comic book or animated series. Dark Angel's live action incarnation never realizes its potential, and its handful of scattered solid episodes aren't enough to make for an overall satisfying season. Dark Angel is the type of show I'd probably watch with disinterest on basic cable on Sunday afternoons, but it lacks the sort of hooks that kept me hopelessly addicted to more effectively executed series like Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even the episodes I liked failed to leave me feeling all that drawn in.

Dark Angel was, at least in part, a victim of Fox's determination to air sci-fi programming on Friday night, a timeslot that has claimed such genre casualties as Firefly, The Lone Gunman, M.A.N.T.I.S., Harsh Realm, Strange Luck, and VR.5. Despite not attracting enough viewers to warrant a third season, Fox's home video arm has enough confidence in Dark Angel's fan base to release both seasons of the series in relatively quick succession, with the followup slated to arrive this October. Although DVD box sets of the first season are already available in other regions, this domestic release adds a number of newly-created supplements.

Video: Although Dark Angel was broadcast digitally by Fox in 480p at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, this DVD set presents the series full-frame. A glance at widescreen captures reveals mostly dead space on the sides, and it seems evident enough sitting through these twenty-one episodes that Dark Angel was composed with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 primarily in mind. This set isn't a quantum leap over what I'd expect from a television broadcast. Film grain is present to varying degrees throughout, and the image lacks the razor-sharp crispness and clarity so often associated with presentations of theatrical releases on DVD. As the title suggests, much of Dark Angel takes place at night, and the presentation generally holds up well in low-lighting. The more dimly-lit sequences never devolve into an indistinguishable, murky mess, and black levels are appropriately deep and inky throughout. Though the previous quibbles I've rattled off are likely representative of how Dark Angel appeared when it originally aired on Fox, the large amount of shimmering and aliasing present throughout probably aren't. Almost anything with an edge or any sort of fine pattern -- grates, fences, rooftops, curtains, clothing -- suffers. The presentation is almost certainly at least an incremental improvement over the original broadcasts, but viewers hoping for a night-and-day difference may come away disappointed.

Audio: Dark Angel sports a pretty decent set of Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround tracks. The monaural surrounds get a workout, and there's a pretty substantial amount of bass as well. The low-end is largely relegated to the thumping hip-hop/techno-flavored soundtrack, and effects like explosions and car crashes aren't accompanied by nearly as much of a low-frequency kick. There are also scattered instances where dialogue sounded particularly strained. I've recorded an example (192kps mp3; 74.6K), lifted from "Flushed". This harsh quality occurs intermittently in other episodes, and though it's not a persistant nuisance, it's just noticeable enough to be annoying.

Each episode also includes stereo surround dubs in Spanish and French, as well as closed captions and subtitles in English and Spanish.

Supplements: Four audio commentaries are spread across the six-disc set, beginning with the pilot. In large part, executive producer Charles Eglee and director David Nutter restate what's happening on-screen, along with the usual "[insert name of cast or crew member] was great. Absolutely." chatter. There's some occasional discussion of blocking or a particular lens used, but overall, it's light on technical details. The emphasis is much heavier on the talent involved, particularly the cast. Jim Cameron is also a frequent topic of discussion. Rather than serve as an executive producer in title only, Cameron was directly involved with numerous aspects of production, including editing together a problematic stunt sequence, inexplicably coming up with unusual names like "Lydecker" and "Manticore", and writing apparently every scene in the pilot with guys in black flak jackets. Cameron's influence was also felt in other ways, such as the reuse of blue-screen breath from Titanic and a former stunt double of Arnold Schwarzenegger's. Also briefly touched upon are several of the series' real-life inspirations, such as squatting in an unfinished apartment building and the bike messenger bar.

Eglee returns on disc four's "Rising" with co-executive producer René Echevarria. Much of their conversation revolves around backstory and character motivations, with some occasional mentions of discussions with the network about content. It's mentioned that Max is able to see clearly in the dark, which I didn't really pick up on when watching the first time around. This discussion is riddled with lengthy pauses, a problem that's also present to a lesser extent in the pair's commentary for "I and I Am a Camera". They're joined by director Jeff Woolnough, who is the dominant presence. He speaks at length about production design, his approach to the material, the difficulties that had to be overcome during filming, and the elements that separate Dark Angel from other series from a directing standpoint. It's revealed that a working title for Dark Angel was "Maximum Girl". Yikes. Near the end is a story about a producer's job never being done, and how pages were faxed to the hospital where his father was staying and that a sketch of an exoskeleton was waiting at a restaurant when he later headed out for dinner with his mother.

The fourth and final commentary accompanies the season finale, "...and Jesus Brought a Casserole". This producer-free discussion pairs co-stars and real-life couple Michael Weatherly and Jessica Alba. It's an informal, chatty commentary, revealing that Dark Angel is really all about the hair, along with similar revelations about unbuttoned pants and the number of stuntmen Jessica Alba sent to the hospital. Michael carries the bulk of the commentary with his MST3K-inspired quips, but near the end, Jessica discusses how the studio and network didn't really understand the show initially, as well as her disappointment with how heavily Dark Angel tapered off in its second and final season.

Also on the set's sixth disc is "Dark Angel: Genesis" (21:39), the first and most lengthy of three featurettes. It seems to have been created exclusively for this DVD, so I don't really understand why a third of its runtime is devoted to introducing the series. After this unnecessarily long background information has been provided, "Genesis" takes a look at the post-Pulse setting, the influence of hip-hop on Dark Angel's music, the relationship between Max and Logan, and the series' multi-ethnic cast. The latter is the most interesting, as Jessica Alba, Michael Weatherly, Valarie Rae Miller, Richard Gunn, J.C MacKenzie, Alimi Ballard, Jennifer Blanc, Nana Visitor, and William Gregory Lee talk about their introduction to Dark Angel and the ensuing audition process. Weatherly goes into more detail than the others, mentioning how Eyes Only is an inverted mask, something clever that I didn't give much thought to when watching the series. Aside from these cast members, John Savage, James Cameron, Charles Eglee, and David Nutter also contribute some brief comments. As a whole, the featurette is pretty fluffy and insubstantial, and, like several episodes of Dark Angel, it's much longer than it really needs to be.

"Seattle Ain't What It Used To Be" (6:04) explores the series' visuals, from the Havana-inspired set design and its portable graffiti to the visual effects of the Hoverdrones, a computer-generated Max, and the Space Needle backdrop. "Creating an X-5" (6:54) is pretty much a total waste. The cast and crew rattle off the background of the X-5 series and why the escapees were so hotly pursued, not revealing anything that isn't covered in the episodes themselves. A minute or two is spent focusing on the training the actors underwent in preparation for their physically-demanding roles, but the featurette doesn't delve into any great detail.

The DVD also compares audition tapes to their corresponding final scenes (12:35), including footage with Michael Weatherly, J.C. Mackenzie, Alimi Ballard, Valarie Ray Miller, Jennifer Blanc, and William Gregory Lee. The auditions were shot on consumer-grade video, and the polished finished product is presented picture-in-picture. The sound can also be toggled from the audition audio to the completed dialogue, and this footage can be viewed individually by actor or consecutively. Five and a half minutes of bloopers feature uncontrollable laughter, flubbed lines, mishaps with props and animals, and Jessica Alba bursting into flames. You know, the usual.

A trailer for the almost-universally panned Dark Angel video game (1:42) has been letterboxed presumably to give it more of a cinematic look, although energy bars and the like are clearly and awkwardly cropped.

All of the above are presented 4x3, with the exception of the letterboxed, non-anamorphic video game trailer. Although neither these features nor the episodes on the DVDs are enhanced for 16x9 televisions, its menus are. For some reason, it took an excruciatingly long time on both my set-top Toshiba SD-3109 and my portable Audiovox DVD-1500 to navigate from the discs' primary menus to each episode's submenus. The twenty-one episodes have been divided into fifteen chapters each.

Conclusion: Established fans of the series ought to find Dark Angel to be well-worth the modest asking price. As for the uninitiated, I wouldn't recommend this set as a blind purchase. I'd suggest checking out at least a couple of episodes first, which admittedly might prove to be fairly tough seeing as how Dark Angel has been off the air for a year now. If the premise sounds intriguing and you never got around to watching the series during its original run on Fox, I'd recommend renting this six-disc set to sample a few episodes or for a marathon viewing before plunking down fifty bucks sight-unseen. Rent It.
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