Background: Vampires in modern mythology have been romanticized and looked at in a whole different light than our forefathers seemed to view the undead creatures of the night. The basic idea of these creatures (the European versions, though other cultures address the beasts as well) was likely based on cultural concepts involving nobility "stealing" from the poor; working the peasants to the bone while taking the lion's share of the fruits of labor, not sullying their hands with manual labor, partying all night and sleeping all day. Many more analogies can be drawn but popular culture writers have downplayed the religious aspects of the creatures and left us with somewhat sanitized versions of the folklore beings. One television version of vampires that drew my interest awhile back though was Forever Knight; a story about a detective vampire that sought to redeem himself and regain his lost humanity; serving the community as he figured out a way to become human again. Conceptually, we all have sins to atone for and the dramatic flair of television's amplified version of this idea makes sense. In that show, Nick drank from blood stored in his refrigerator, tried his best to save the day each episode, and had a very select group of friends that assisted him in his efforts with flashbacks of his wanton ways regularly interspersed with the modern day events taking place. The show ended years ago and years later a similar tale was woven by a guy many television (and comic book) fans adore called Joss Whedon. The subject of today's review of Angel: The Complete Series is largely the brainchild of Whedon, a spin off from his popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer show. Before I go much further, let me warn you that this review is not geared to satisfy the slavering fans of the show that already know more about it than any casual writer or fan of TV so much as a general overview for someone wondering if this value priced set is worth a blind buy. There will be spoilers but I'll keep them to a minimum as best I can, keeping in mind that it is impossible to discuss a show's later developments without bringing up crucial details that could be seen as spoilers. That said...
Angel: The Complete Series was the story of a vampire "born" in 1753 (when he was converted into a vampire) by a female vampire named Darla (Julie Benz); herself converted many years prior as she laid on her bed dying of syphilis by an ages old vampire of great power. He ravaged the countryside all across Europe and having left a wide trail of bodies in their wake, was as infamous as Dracula. Unfortunately for him, in 1898 Angelus (as he was called) picked a gypsy as a victim and her clan cursed the vampire to possess a soul; making him feel remorse for all he had done as well as limiting how much more he could do, despite Darla's prodding. They split apart and he eventually started calling himself Angel (David Boreanaz) as a means of differentiating himself from the acts of horror he had committed over the years. The five years of the television show looked back from time to time at his life but only a few episodes really looked at the years between his conversion and modern day California where he met Buffy. If you're unfamiliar with Buffy Summers, let's just say that she was destined to be a "slayer" of vampires; the calling awakening in her during her teenage years while attending high school in Sunnydale; . Her and a band of friends fought off scores of vampires, Buffy falling in love with Angel; a man that should be considered her enemy. The problem with their ill fated love was that part of Angel's curse was that if he ever experienced a moment of pure bliss, he would lose his soul and revert to a soulless blood sucker again; something that did indeed occur when the couple consummated their relationship. This forced the two to stay at arm's length, lest Angel's darker tendencies be unleashed on the world all over again, the cursed vampire moving to Los Angeles as a result.
The name of the city was referenced numerous times in the show as fitting for Angel ("the city of lost angels") and in fairness, he was lost and looking for something to do with his existence to make amends for his past activity. The sheer scale of villainous ways was such that protecting the innocent in small bars and alleyways would never truly allow him to feel he had "done enough" so the brooding alpha male ends up starting a detective agency where they "help the helpless". Joining him initially were Doyle (Glenn Quinn), a half breed demon with visions of wrong doing given to him by a mysterious otherworldly couple called "The Powers That Be", and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter); another character from Buffy that was far better suited for this show than the original. Doyle keeps many secrets of his own shady past but grows during the first season to the point where he isn't content with sitting on the sidelines, giving his ability to Cordelia as a gift when they part. For her part, Cordelia is the spoiled rich girl that loses it all, moving to Hollywood become an actress though her bossy ways are more befitting an heiress than anything else. She also grows over time, in a variety of ways, providing the series with a staple character that could be used at will before her role ended.
The initial season of the show also introduced the main villains of the universe as we know it in the form of a law firm called Wolfram & Hart. A whole different level of bloodsuckers exists at the firm, most of them human but all of them serving devils and demons going far beyond mere murders and the like that form their generic clientele. The role of the firm in the beginning is limited but soon fills up a much larger portion of the picture as two of the junior associates employed there, Lindsay McDonald (Christian Kane) and Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov), get fed up with Angel's interference in their plots & schemes. The two are held in check by their bosses that believe Angel plays a critical role in a prophecy that will either lead to the dawning of a new dark age where the firm will rule or he'll save the world; but they are fairly confident that his efforts serve them in the long run, a theme replayed endlessly throughout the series. Regardless, his importance to the prophecy is such that any actions against Angel are considered off the table and punishable by death; upon which they will still be contractually obligated to serve the company (via their perpetuity clause that gets invoked several times in the seasons). This doesn't stop Lindsay or Lilah from trying to finish Angel off (usually keeping their plausible deniability intact) but they relish in causing him and his friends pain as they set in motion the kind of schemes that can typically be wrapped up by an hour long show.
The premise of the show was weak at first in how much it catered to the "freak of the week" dynamic too, be it some demon on a rampage in need of being stopped or some cult stealing babies, or soul sucking evil doers without law degrees causing havoc coming into play. When Doyle moves on, he is replaced by another Buffy character too in the form of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof); an aloof wannabe player that had been the Watcher in charge of Faith (Eliza Dushku), a rival of Buffy's that went crazy but also sought redemption in the first season; coming back a few times to join the cast as a protagonist after initially siding with Wolfram & Hart. Angel is also given a romantic interest in detective Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Rohm) but little was done with this relationship and while she made a few appearances in the first few seasons, I felt the writer's did not know exactly how to best utilize the dynamic she provided without getting into the usual clichés. The relatively generic first season gave way to improvements as the series progressed, with other alliances formed in the passing of time.
One such development was the addition to Charles Gunn (J. August Richards) to the team. A streetwise black man that lost all he had to vampires, he attempts to kill Angel but finds the vampire "different" and over the course of time, becomes a strong ally of the hero. Season two also showed the extended return of Darla; the vampiric love of Angel's life that tries to convert him back to her side as well as kill him when Wolfram & Hart commission her to assist with their goals. Darla proves to be more than they can handle but her intervention into the storyline spices the season up substantially as it gives ongoing arcs for the writer's to focus on that added meat to their work. The character of The Host or Lorne (Andy Hallett), a colorfully empathic demon from another dimension, was another being that grew in popularity as the series went on; his ability to read minds of those that sang in his presence a benefit to the team when he finally joined it (he was initially neutral as the owner of a nightclub catering to demons and humans not afraid of them). The growing idea that there were demons and other supernatural creatures not in need of being immediately dispatched by the team was treading new ground for the show because aside from a single arc in the first season involving Doyle, all of them except for Angel were shown to prey on humans and be in dire need of being erased.
Another multi-episode arc involving Lorne's home world and Cordelia being trapped there flavored the end of the second season, adding brilliant Winifred "Fred" Burkle (Amy Acker) to the cast as they rescued the physics student after years of being trapped in a world where humans were considered chattel. Angel tried to regain the trust of his friends in this escapade (he had left the agency as a means of protecting them earlier in the season) but his abilities were amplified in this dimension and the resulting lack of balance caused him to go on uncontrollable rampages when those around him needed him most. In the end, it all worked out in most ways but the best part of the season outside of these major arcs was the fleshing out of so many smaller details that the first season had only begun to scratch.
Season Three began with a number of character driven episodes that gave some substance to the cast but then centered on Darla's return and the birth of her son by Angel. The prophecies were too cryptic to interpret safely but Wesley, as the team member most knowledgeable in such matters, comes to the conclusion that the baby, named Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), will set in motion events leading to tragedy so he takes matters into his own hands. At the same time, a former enemy of Angel from his days of reeking havoc as Angelus named Holtz (Keith Szarabajka), comes to seek retribution. Angelus impacted the man directly and as a result, the guy swore to get even; coming back to life to kill Angel regardless of his changes (dismissing the entire soul and savior role Angel had assumed as a mere trick). Connor as a teenager seemed to be written far too hastily and even into season four was the only character that I found completely unlikable. The leaps in logic and the plot devices employed to make Connor more human just struck me as poor attention to detail compounded on a series of bad ideas, getting even worse in the Jasmine (Gina Torres) saga from the fourth season.
The fourth season was also notable for the Big Bad Beast story line and the resulting return of Angelus for a few episodes. Some of it seemed almost inspired while certain parts seemed stuck in to accelerate the series that had repeatedly been on the chopping block by the network (WB), Cordelia's limited role (she was pregnant in real life during most of the season) weakening it for me since she had become more than the spoiled rich girl, potential love interest, or visionary that directed the team where they needed to go before events happened. Still, the ending episode was a lot of fun and the resulting fifth season with the cast technically in charge of their old nemesis proved to have a lot of great moments. The cross over of Spike (James Marsters) in a recurring role alone was enough to make the season among the best of his acting career with his performances stealing almost every scene he was in. I also liked the way many of the previous (sometimes forgotten) threads were tied in at the end but Fred's conversion into Illyria merited far more attention as far as I was concerned too. Had WB given the show a renewed lease on life, perhaps a sixth or even seventh season, the cliffhanger ending that has caused so much speculation over the years (the recent comic falling far short of expectations too by the way; though I did not personally see it) might have been better resolved though I admit that part of me likes it just fine.
Okay, giving a short description of some series highlights is all well and good but what about the acting, the writing, and all the other attributes that go into making a television show you ask? I'm glad you asked because while there were certainly episodes that I greatly disliked (mostly in the first season or heavily focused on the character of Connor), the overall quality level was very high. The acting was about what I would expect from an ongoing television series in the supernatural/fantasy genre (I "get it" while many casual observers might not) and the direction of the episodes, particularly from Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt, Tim Minear, and a handful of others was exceptionally engaging; and I'd think so even if I hadn't listen to their audio commentaries where provided. Some of the best work in the series was also not tied to the bigger budget storylines either, but the more personal bits or the homages to noir that came about but it was often the smaller nods that got my attention the most too. Moving away from the freak of the week dynamic served the show well, as did keeping it an arm's distance away from Buffy most of the time with limited cameos (I was not a regular viewer of the show though I picked up the series box for that one to check out some day too) but the darker nature of the series as a whole seemed fitting as Angel tried to regain what was lost so long ago while making limited amends for all he had done wrong. I could nitpick the numerous minor quirks of the show but for viewers that pay attention, you'll see that the writing staff did that far more effectively than I could ever do; the show easily earning from me the rating of DVD Talk Collector's Series. Keep in mind that the collection was simply a set of the five seasons in a larger box using booklet styled cases and the only difference was the addition of a note from Joss Whedon outlining his thanks to the fans of the show and a small booklet detailing info about the episodes. I even agreed with many of his thoughts regarding highlights too (except maybe the whimsy of the puppet episode that I liked but not as much as he seemed to) such as showing Angel's human side when he locked the doors behind him as Darla and Drusilla fed on his opponents or Faith in the rain. For more depth (and spoilers) though, check out the reviews for those seasons at: Angel Reviewed.
Picture: Angel: The Complete Series was released in two distinctively different formats. The first season was the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color with a video bitrate often hovering around the mid 5 Mbps area. It looked decent but nothing special with some minor aliasing and artifacts at times, the darkness of so many scenes generally compensated for but not always perfectly. The subsequent seasons were all presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen color and looked better than the original broadcasts that I occasionally watched when they aired; the discs clocking in around the mid 7 Mbps bitrate much of the time. The transfers were nicely handled too and this added to my enjoyment of the show while watching it literally from beginning to end in numerous sittings. I have a better television set and home theatre than I did back then (the showed aired from 1999-2005) and syndicated versions have been edited as well as use worn prints, but the improvements over the original broadcasts (that already looked very sharp and clear) were enough to get me to buy this one were it not a review copy. I'm sure a high definition version of the series would improve it even more but seriously, that would be for the die hard fan unless lowered in price substantially because the SD version I've been watching looked very nice indeed (and I reiterate, the syndicated versions have gotten progressively worse looking with time on my cable television system; Comcast).
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital English with options to listen to Spanish or French for those so inclined. There were optional subtitles in English and Spanish too but I only spot checked them (the text largely mirroring the spoken English word in all but a few cases, even then proving to be closely tied to it). The vocals were almost always evenly recorded and easily heard, even in circumstances where that seems unlikely, with some nice mixing on the score and effects tossed in to balance things out. The exaggerated noises from hitting people were always as goofy as other "action" shows but perhaps so few of the audience were familiar with the noises of a real fight that this was done to dramatize them in the show. This was an area that got subtly better as the show progressed too, much like the interpersonal conflicts of the writing or the technical matters on the visuals provided (as well as the CGI employed), but never really lived up to what a modern movie lover would like (a true surround sound approach). Still, for a TV show, it sounded very pleasing otherwise and the looseness of the bass in the first few seasons was tightened up by the middle of the show's run.
Extras: This was an area where Angel excelled for me since each season had a wealth of extras included. The note from Joss Whedon was a nice touch but the thick booklet containing specific information on the episodes was far more interesting and valued as an extra. This is reported to be a limited edition set with each box numbered (mine was 1091) but the series extras from each previously released season were all included without any changes. Season one had audio commentaries on the opening episode and Room With A View; Whedon filling in a lot of the gaps on the opener for those not otherwise knowledgeable on the series roots in Buffy. There were a couple of scripts and photogalleries but the short featurettes that comprise some of the meatiest extras of the series were well liked. The Season One overview was a nice touch to have the people involved outline some of the highlights for them as well as put things in perspective but fans of Charisma Carpenter will like I'm Cordelia more. Introducing Angel was another overview that will appeal to folks too with The Demons kind of truncated as a look at the yearly baddies on the show.
The second season had commentaries by Tim Minear that gave me a newfound appreciation for his viewpoint and Fred Keller, along with some blue prints for the sets, more scripts, and four more features (the season two overview the best for recapping what took place, the Stunt reel kind of interesting, Inside the Agency a goofy look at the detective agency run by Angel, and a Monster make up show. The third season had several commentaries; at least a few of the participants trying to sugarcoat some of the developments that led to things fans spoke out loudly about. Whedon was again in command and I enjoyed his commentary more than the others. There were some screen tests this time that were kind of interesting (for Fred and Connor) and bloopers that I laughed at a few times, the photogallery and features similar in nature to previous volumes. The season three overview gave me a better perspective on stuff I didn't care for, the way outside influences came into play better covered in the commentaries but reasonable in the context of modern television production. I also liked the special on Julie Benz character of Darla since she was also a highlight of the series as a whole for me with the feature describing how the writing was translated to the screen informative too.
The fourth season's overview always seemed to be showing the personalities hedging their bets when it came to where the show was headed. I found it a good summation of the show though it spent almost no time covering the smaller stuff that was so plentiful in terms of making the show a better experience than many other contemporary series of the time. The loss of the Hyperion Hotel as a set was interesting too since it served as the backdrop of the show for so long but I really liked the special on the law firm of Wolfram & Hart since it hit the nail on the head so accurately (and so often). The two features on the big story arcs (Beauty and the Beast as well as Angel and the Apocalypse) served to go into more detail about the season as a whole. The commentaries seemed to be more focused on here, almost as if they were bid on and everyone wanted to do one. Lorne (Andy Hallett) and a writer teamed up on one describing where Lorne was in Vegas as a captive performer that proven merely okay while Minear's discussion on Home was a lot better; the man taking full responsibility, and credit, for all that it was. The director/producer commentary on Orpheus was similarly informative too; the pair not wasting a lot of small talk as seemed prevalent on the others. Whedon and Wesley (I admit to referring to likeable actors as their characters, suck it up) were solid on their commentary, as were DeKnight and Gillum on theirs but then they got really boring so I admit to skipping the rest of it after wasting 15 or so minutes on the front end. The final season set had the usual appreciated season overview feature on the final disc, a 100th Episode nod, a feature on the puppet episode that Whedon liked so much, a series overview that detailed the highlights of the entire five seasons, another villain feature looking at the bad guys, more gag reels, and yet another stunt reel (this time showing the stunt man busting through the glass of the main room and the dreadfully dangerous hanging stunt involved in an episode). There were a lot of commentary tracks here too, Whedon starting them off, the writers, directors, and cast contributing several more with David Boreanaz and "Lindsay" (Kane), guest star Adam Baldwin (whose small role was great in terms of conveying menace far more than many of those made up with expensive effects). In short, if you like commentary tracks, the fourth and fifth seasons will have plenty to keep you busy.
Final Thoughts: Angel: The Complete Series was the kind of modern, supernatural soap opera geared toward a smarter, younger generation with just enough street savvy and just the right balance of unlikely characters to make itself stand out from the crowd. Yeah, like the fantasy elements, the personalities were greatly amplified from anything you would expect to see and there were plenty of plot points that led me to believe the writers and directors were bouncing around in a sea of uncertainty (trying to keep outside forces happy and funding the show while they were working on other projects at the same time; as discussed in the multitude of commentaries as well as features), but blemishes aside, the show really started to work by the end of the first season. So the five years worth of discs, all 30 of them including so many extras; had the type of replay, entertainment value, and light hearted depth that fans will enjoy for a long time to come so it merited the rating given. I know complaining about minor issues is pretty much a cottage industry in reviewing television shows on DVD these days but as far as I'm concerned, Angel: The Complete Series was better than the show that spawned it in most ways and the quirks made it more charming than some give it credit for. Give this one a look and you may well find it as appealing as I did, recent prices under $70 making it a winner by any standard of the day for fantasy buffs.