The second season of Angel takes a darker turn for its title character, shaking up the group that seemed so inseparable in its early moments. Unlike Buffy in its later years, Angel is more effectively able to balance humor with this somewhat more serious tone, making for some gut-wrenching, entertaining television. There are admittedly a few lackluster episodes scattered through Angel's second season, particularly "Belonging", "Happy Birthday", and "Blood Money", but even such less notable episodes have highlights, transforming Lorne from a mildly annoying spectator to an integral character as well as providing one of the series' most memorable lines from Lindsey McDonald. Rattling off my favorite episodes would be a laundry list of nearly everything from the season, but "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" is a particular standout and certainly one of the strongest episodes of the entire four-season run to date.
Season two adds a pair of new central characters to the fold. The first shot of its first episode introduces the Host (who would later go by the name of Lorne), a flamboyant extradimensional demon who can read the aura of people who croon at his karaoke bar, Caritas. The second is Fred Burkle, a squirrelly, brilliant college student who's spent the past five years trying to eke out a living in the harsh, otherworldly Pylea. Fred's introduction takes place in the multi-episode arc that concludes the season, one that isn't particularly well-liked by many Angel fans. The reason I enjoy it so much is the same that others cite for their distaste -- it's such a stark contrast to the darkness that had consumed much of the season. Admittedly, though, I might be biased; Fred's among my favorite characters of the series, and I'm convinced that Amy Acker is the most indescribably cute person on the planet. Season two also sees the return of two characters from Angel's past, providing much of the conflict for the season and contributing greatly to Angel's inner turmoil.
Aside from those returning supernatural villains, season two shows Angel's arch-nemeses at the devious law firm Wolfram & Hart at their most menacing. Holland's elevator ride with Angel in "Reprise" is creepier than any of the somewhat similar First Evil tripe from Buffy's seventh season. Gavin Park is introduced, however briefly, to the Wolfram & Hart stable, joining the always entertaining team of Lilah Morgan, Lindsey McDonald, and his evil hand. Watching these episodes reminded me what a great character Cordelia once was -- too bad she would wind up spending the following two seasons as a pale imitation of her former strong, sarcastic self. The primary cast as a whole really shines, and the greatly altered group dynamic throughout the course of the season peels back a lot of the layers of these intelligent, complex characters.
Excellent dialogue, deep characterization, and the complicated relationships between its characters contribute to Angel being my favorite television series on the air at the moment. Season two is when Angel really comes into its own as a series, setting the foundation for future seasons that would prove to be even more incredible. Fox Home Video is releasing the second season of Angel on DVD with minimal changes from the overseas sets from last Spring, and one aspect of the British release is likely to inspire considerable debate.
Although I'd caught the season in its entirety when it debuted in Fall 2000, this review is based on the first and sixth discs of the set, similar to the somewhat unfortunate way Fox distributes screeners for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer boxes.
Video: A long time ago on a pair of continents far, far away, the second season of Angel was released well before reaching these shores. The aspect ratios of these PAL releases were inconsistent; the region 4 box set was full-frame, and the British DVDs were presented in anamorphic widescreen. In both regions, widescreen Buffy sets had already been released, and the disparity with Angel struck some fans as rather odd.
The specs floating around months in advance for this second season of Angel all mentioned that it would be full-frame, similar to the region 4 box sets released over a year earlier. As I popped the first disc of the domestic release into my DVD player, I was surprised to see that, contrary to what had been widely circulated for such a long time, the second season set of Angel is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
The $64,000 question is -- which aspect ratio is correct? Creator Joss Whedon's preference that Buffy the Vampire Slayer be presented full-frame is well-known. Despite the fact that several seasons of Buffy had been released in Europe and Australia in anamorphic widescreen, the domestic release of season four set remained full-frame at Whedon's request, even including an explanation on an insert to that effect. His preference for the first two seasons of Angel -- both of which reportedly were shot in widescreen but aired full-frame -- wasn't as clearly defined. Producer Tim Minear is a frequent poster to the alt.tv.angel group on Usenet, and though his comments take a little more digging to find than the marquee-grabbing preferences of Joss Whedon, he sheds some light on the aspect ratio issue. In this post from early June 2003 (which contains a spoiler about a specific episode, so consider yourself warned, if you haven't seen this season in advance), Minear states:
"Season two was not shot to be presented in anything but 4:3. It's true that the British version is 16:9, and I'll even admit that I sort of enjoy watching it that way -- in the shots where it works (and it's only happy chance that it does,) it work real well. But it's wrong I tell ya! Wrong!"He goes on to mention a specific framing issue in the episode "Darla" where "we pop high and wide and there's a big ol' light stand and light in the frame".
"This happens quite a lot on the season two 16:9 DVDs. Seasons one and two were made before we started framing the show for the 16:9. We shot full frame and intended the episodes to be viewed that way. And that's that."The disc with "Darla" wasn't included in the screener provided by Fox for this review, so I can't comment on that instance specifically. Looking through the seven episodes on-hand, the widescreen presentation is...mixed. I didn't spot anything quite so blatant as light stands or a grip munching on a sandwich at the edge of the frame, but the fact that the 1.78:1 image had been more or less center-cropped for broadcast isn't difficult to spot. The action is weighted in the center of the frame, and it's rather noticeable whenever large number of people are crammed into a single shot. Take the dead space on the left and right of the frame in the following shot, lifted from "There's No Place Like Plrtz Glrb", for instance.
Now, that same image cropped to approximate the way it would appear full-frame:
That might seem like an extreme example, but that was an image I captured when the set first arrived in the mail, and I was just looking for a clear shot with Amy Acker to use when noting the widescreen presentation on the forum. The sides aren't always completely dead space like the example above, though. In the extradimensional final few episodes, for instance, I thought the added information on the sides of the frame added greatly to the ambiance of the exteriors, more effectively fleshing out the idea that Angel and company were on another world. Sometimes I came away thinking that a number of these shots would look terrible cropped to 1.33:1, but then I'd take a screenshot and trim it down in Photoshop, or I'd slap up hastily-constructed mattes over my television, and then I'd see that those instances would work just as well, if not better, full-frame.
Below are a number of other stills from the seven episodes I have on-hand, comparing the 1.78:1 image on these DVDs to a simulated center-cropped 1.33:1 image. I can't guarantee that the 4x3 images necessarily reflect what was broadcast, but this should give a general idea of what to expect. I tried to grab a fairly random sampling of images so as to not select shots that all necessarily look better or worse at a particular aspect ratio.
When this box set of Angel streets in September, there are certain to be heated debates about its aspect ratio, similar to what happened with season four of Buffy. If Mutant Enemy felt that Buffy needed to be presented at 4x3 and insisted that its fourth season be seen on DVD as such, why didn't they do the same for Angel if the same sentiment is shared? Did they make a request that was disregarded by Fox, the studio behind these DVDs? I don't have an answer. With only a third of the set on-hand as well, I have no idea how the remainder of the season looks when horizontally expanded to an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
My personal thought is that, at least based on this sample, Angel works reasonably well at 16x9. Though the dead space on the sides was an intermittent distraction, it wasn't to such a degree that it significantly hampered the viewing experience. It's largely neutral, neither adding nor taking away, and bear in mind that the effect won't be as severe as what you see in these screenshots after factoring in overscan. I initially skimmed through these episodes on my DVD-ROM, and the empty portions seemed much more severe than what I would later see on my television. Despite what those images may suggest, to a large extent, if I'd gone in blind and had no idea what the intended aspect ratio was, I wouldn't have thought the aspect ratio was incorrect. Composition didn't seem to be thrown excessively with the wider frame, at least in these seven episodes. Of course, my opinion isn't definitive and other thoughts are certain to vary, but I didn't notice any major concerns with this modified presentation.
So, aspect ratios aside, how does this set look? The answer, not surprisingly, is great, and the transfer teeters on feature-film quality. Angel is a cinematic series, looking less like a show that airs Wednesdays in prime-time and much more like a genuine film. There is some exceptionally minor grain, along with some infrequent and very mild haloing, but neither detract from the overall presentation. These DVDs boast substantially more detail than I'd expect to see from a television broadcast, and colors are more vivid and more varied than what's been piped to my TV through digital cable. Black levels are solid, as one would expect from a series about a creature of the night, and detail remains respectable even in the most dimly lit sequences. Disregarding any possible concerns about its aspect ratio, the second season of Angel is easily the single best looking television series I've seen on DVD to date.
Oh, and as a quasi-random aside, just to tackle one of the most frequently asked questions whenever a new Buffy or Angel box is slated to hit store shelves: no, the "previously on..."s are not included.
Audio: I promise that my comments on the Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio (192Kbps) will be much, much shorter. Though the visuals are on the brink of feature-film quality, the audio doesn't differ greatly from what I'd expect to hear on television. The matrixed surrounds are constantly buzzing with activity, from the roar that accompanies flash cuts and visions to ambiance like closing doors, office chatter, the Chopin in Lindsey's office, echoed dialogue, the unsheathing of blades, and assorted demon murmurs. At least with DPLII enabled on my receiver, occasionally dialogue would suddenly flicker into the rears, which was mildly disconcerting. The lower frequencies varied somewhat and weren't quite as substantial as I'd hoped. "First Impressions" took some advantage of my subwoofer, particularly the low rumble of Wesley's motorcycle and the thumping bass at the house party, but effects in other episodes, particularly the collision with the two-ton dumpster in "Untouched", sound anemic by comparison. The front portion of the soundstage is expectedly loud and expansive. The audio is decent and very likely representative of the way Angel sounded when this season first aired, but nothing all that remarkable.
Each episode of Angel includes stereo surround dubs in French and Spanish, subtitles in English and Spanish, and closed captioning.
Supplements: The extras don't seem to have changed much from last year's releases overseas. The first disc includes a commentary with writer/producer Tim Minear for "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been". Minear has a very visual eye, speaking at length about his goals for specific shots he had in mind while writing, technical notes about a number of other shots, and his mild disappointment with portions of the finished product. He goes on to discuss the unconventional structure of both the story and the way the episode was filmed, noting how this episode gave him the opportunity to rip off his favorite film noirs and what had to be gutted when it ran nine minutes too long. It's an excellent commentary, covering all of the bases and managing to be fairly technical without coming across as dry or boring.
Director Fred Keller contributes the set's other commentary, this time for "Over the Rainbow". Keller falls into the trap early on of merely restating what's on-screen, but after those first few minutes, the discussion becomes much more interesting. The director talks about the transformation of a faux-Mexican village to an otherdimensional world in the space of a week, along with the complexity of the shoot in general, featuring dozens upon dozens of extras in ornate makeup. Keller also peels back some of the masks, speaking at length about many of the lesser known actors whose faces are so heavily hidden behind all that latex, as well as providing brief comments about the main cast and the contrast between their characters. He notes many of the challenges that had to be overcome given the limited time and budget, the hassles of dealing with so many conflicting studios throughout the course of production, and the limited light of a winter shoot. Another topic of interest is the magic of editing, discussing how lengthy sequences that ran too long were cut down seamlessly and how one dialogue-heavy scene was split across two fairly distant locations.
Disc six also includes a "Season Two Overview" (14:40), which touches on the highlights of the season and its overall arc. The interviewees include executive producers David Greenwalt and Tim Minear, producer Kelly A. Manners, directors James Contner and Fred Keller, and stars David Boreanaz, J. August Richards, Andy Hallett, Elizabeth Rohm, Juliet Landau, and Julie Benz, with many, many clips from the season interspersed throughout. There really isn't any information that most viewers won't discern by just watching these episodes, but it's nice to put a face to some of the names from behind the camera, as well as hearing Juliet Landau without the "Spoik" accent and seeing a de-Lorned Andy Hallett.
"Action! The Stunts of Angel" (5:15) begins with a montage of some of the more impressive action sequences from various seasons, and it's similarly comprised of clips from the show and a smattering of interviews. This featurette includes comments by David Greenwalt, Tim Minear, Charisma Carpenter, Alexis Denisof, David Boreanaz, Elizabeth Rohm, J. August Richards, stunt coordinator Michael Vendrell, and David Boreanaz' stunt double, Mike Massa. They run through the fight choreography, the different approach to stunts for each character, and some notes about specific episodes, including "War Zone" and "Five by Five". Both featurettes are full-frame.
Not having access to discs two through five, I can't comment on the other extras, which include scripts for "Darla" and "Disharmony", a five-minute "Making Up the Monsters" featurette, a fifteen minute "Inside the Agency" featurette that takes a look at the series' various sets, and still galleries of promotional shots and set blueprints.
I've been kind of spoiled by the overabundance of commentaries on the Buffy sets, particularly the fourth season box with seven commentary tracks. Just having two is a bit of a disappointment, especially since Joss Whedon, whose commentaries are always fun, is noticeably absent this time around, despite having co-written "Judgement" and "Happy Anniversary", directing "Untouched", and making his acting debut as the perpetually dancing Numfar in "Through the Looking Glass".
Though I don't have the final packaging on-hand, it looks to be the same as previous Buffy and Angel sets, and the screened art on each disc includes quotes from various episodes. Each episode has been divided into fifteen chapter stops, and its menus are animated and enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Conclusion: The aspect ratio issue may be a deal-stopper for some of the more rabid purists out there in cyberspace, but at least from my viewing of these seven episodes, I didn't find it remotely enough of a concern to dissuade me from a purchase of one of my all-time favorite television series. Though Angel's second season was still somewhat transitional, hinting at some of the brilliance that would follow over the next two years, there are quite a few incredible episodes to be found in this set. I can't wait until September 9th to roll around so I can check out the set in its entirety, and I'm anxiously awaiting any and all future Angel releases. Highly Recommended.
Related Reviews: DVD Talk also has reviews for the first season of Angel as well as other Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs.
Boring Image Disclaimer: The screen captures in this review are compressed, poorly auto-leveled in Photoshop, and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of the footage on DVD.