For Judge Brett Cullum, Angel is more than just a veritable buffet of hotties.
Cordelia: Angel, I sort of need to talk to you in person.
Angel: The Complete Third Season on DVD is a steal for any fan, because you get a great set of shows and some nice features not necessarily found in the previous sets. Every time Fox releases a Buffy or Angel box they up the ante on their past efforts. I would venture to guess each successive release has more time spent on it, and you can tell they want to suck you into buying at least one more season. Luckily for the Angel team, Season Three ends with such a heartbreaking cliffhanger that it guarantees you'll be back for Season Four. And that brings us to the rather simple theme of the third season of "the vampire with a soul" show…heartbreak. Scads of it! In every way, shape, and form the characters flirt with happiness, only to have their hearts ripped out and thrown on the floor at every turn. I compared Season Two to Hamlet; with Season Three I would have to say that Greek tragedy or opera at its headiest has taken over, because nobody seems to escape their inevitable heartbreak and loss. During this period, both Buffy and Angel were steeped in darkness, but Angel's writers and actors swam and prospered in the black and delivered some of its best moments. Ironically, it's the vampire who thrived and blossomed in the dark, and not the denizens of Sunnydale.
Facts of the Case
We all know the drill by now. Six discs, 22 episodes, and features scattered throughout.
Season Three continued the trend of moving Angel away from a "monster of the week" format into a "supernatural soap opera" of mythic proportions. I sense some Dark Shadows influences in there (the brooding vampire who longs to have human emotions, the love triangles, and the Gothic settings), but the creative team one-ups its predecessor with dazzling effects and grand storytelling that owes little to the Gothic novels endlessly recycled by Dark Shadows. Angel admirably tread its own path, and even tore itself out from the shadow of its sister show Buffy. You could make a case that every single player deserved some accolade or award for bravely entering new territory, and for redefining how fantasy shows could incorporate the best features of other genres into a fresh new show.
In simple terms, the plot of Season Three addressed the return of Darla (Julie Benz), who had a surprise in tow. Simultaneously, a figure from both Angel's (David Boreanaz) and Darla's past, Captain Daniel Holtz (Keith Szarabajka, veteran actor and voice over artist), transcends time to exact vengeance on the couple. The entire season kicks into high gear right around episode seven and never lets go of this main plot, except for minor interludes. The entire "Fang Gang" face their own trials and tribulations as they each find and lose love and family again and again. Ultimately all of them will have to follow their own solitary paths, and there is little hope of a reconciliation by the final curtain. There is no way I can remain spoiler-free from this point on, so here are the requisite spoiler tags for anyone who has not seen this batch of episodes. The Closing Statement section of this review will find you safely back in spoiler-free territory.
The biggest challenge this season was the introduction of a new character, Angel and Darla's son Connor (first played by the Tupen triplets, then by Vincent Kartheiser as a teenager). It got the most mileage on the message boards, and seemed to throw fans of Angel for a loop—much like Buffy did by introducing Dawn. His birth in the alley was a magnificent sequence that showed off the season's best camera work. Yeah, he was jarring; but he was also necessary to the whole "family" motif that arose from Holtz's return. Connor was the impetus to begin the exploration of family issues with respect to all the characters in Angel. A rather literal manifestation of a theme; but then Whedon and company have seldom been subtle with their metaphors. (See their The Shining homage in the "misogyny is BAD" episode "Billy" for further evidence of the unsubtle metaphor.) Kartheiser does a wicked take on a primitive Peter Pan unleashed in Los Angeles, and his angst and verve are justified by the arc of his character.
Holtz remains one of the most brilliant villains on this or any show. Angel always had the Wolfram and Hart firm for bad guys, but here was a solitary man who was not entirely evil (just really damaged), and who mirrored Angel's quest for redemption in his own quest for damnation. Too bad this is the only season where he exists, because he was a wonderful foil. And his cohort Justine (Laurel Holloman, The L Word)? A totally wounded and brilliant performance of a disturbing character that haunts me still. The villains rocked in Season Three harder than they ever did or would again. I only wish this level had been played out in the final season of both Angel and Buffy. Where this season succeeds is in its realization that evil in and of itself is not scary, it's the demons of our humanity that cause us to do evil which really scare and keep us awake. Holtz and Justine terrified me more than The First Evil (found in Buffy's swan-song season,) because we knew what was driving the badness; they were in pain and nothing would stop them.
The whole cast was unstoppable. Wesley shined as he flirted with the dark side. Denisof lets his acting chops show, and it seems criminal that he was never nominated for an Emmy. Whether he was arguing prophecy with a giant hamburger or secretly visiting Holtz, he played everything real to the tenth degree. Just watch his scenes in the hospital, and you can literally feel every moment of pain with just one look. He is the Judas of the show in Season Three, and it's a stunning mind-bending turn. And I know I will be flamed for this, but he ends up with the hottest woman! Yes, you can have your Fred or Cordelia, but I like my women dark and lovely. Lilah (Stephanie Romanov) rocks my world in all the right and wrong ways. I get butterflies every time Lilah comes on screen. She's deliciously bad, but also turns in a nuanced performance that never lets you pinpoint where the real human and evil-to-the-core lawyer intersect. Lorne (Andy Hallett) also comes into his own in Season Three. He becomes an integral part of the show, and you knew he'd never stay in Vegas too long. Add in another great turn by Julie Benz, and you realize that the whole cast was strong as hell. This is an ensemble that will never be matched.
Yet the center remains Angel and Cordelia. David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter anchor the show with style and grace. Cordelia has to face her biggest trial ever when a past love returns to her, and she is given a choice to live a different life than the one she's currently living. Cordelia's transformation comes full circle here, and Season Three will make you mourn what is to come for her in the next batch of episodes (damn you Season Four!). She even gets a chance to skewer what could have been Charisma's real fate—a sitcom star—in the brilliantly done "Birthday" episode. Boreanaz had to play dad to everyone, not only his new son, and he let loose with the smooth and easy humor and intensity so vital to a Whedon show. His intense climactic scenes with Denisof elevate both actors to new highs. If Boreanaz never does another series or movie, he certainly made a successful career out of what began as a guest role on a teen horror show. No small feat to become Angel.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The love thing became a bit much, but it was handled well. I bought the Wesley (Alexis Denisof), Gunn (J. August Richards), and Fred (Amy Acker) triangle. It set off Wesley nicely once Fred and Gunn got together, and gave him the beginnings of his dark side. More problematic was the revelation that Angel and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) were "in love." There had been no real setup for this in the lead-in to the revelation, and it seemed more of a way to artificially propel the plot than an organic, easy-to-swallow development of the characters. Obviously Joss Whedon was behind all of this, since it is his brilliant contribution to the season "Waiting in the Wings" that brought all of this to a head.
Season Three of Angel continued the show's grand traditions and set the stage for the final two seasons. It is the centerpiece to a show that was canceled too quickly out of a network's concern for fiscal issues. Angel was one of those rare shows that made you feel smart for discovering it, and cheated when it was gone.
The set itself continues the technical excellence Fox has regularly shown with these releases. Black levels are pitch-perfect, and, aside from some edge enhancement, the transfers are startling and superior to digital broadcasts. The audio is a surround stereo that stays true to the original airings, and does its job nicely. The features are rich and robust, with the commentaries being the centerpiece. Joss Whedon's contribution is entertaining and insightful, and the others (with Tim Minear and the writers of the show) are giddy fun.
No crimes to be found here. And if there are…I have a hot evil lawyer to represent me! Lilah, I may need your card. I swear it's for business.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on "Billy" with Writers Tim Minear and Jeffrey Bell
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