Judges David Johnson, Brett Cullum, and Michael Stailey lament the passing of everyone's favorite undead crime fighter.
"Personally, I kinda want to slay the dragon."
And so the "Buffyverse" and all extensions thereof came to an end when the highers-up at the WB television network decided to pull the plug on Angel, and lay to rest the adventures of the brooding vampire with a soul. A spinoff that, for my money, outperformed its source show, Angel etched its legacy into the annals of genre television with the necessary ingredients—humor, action, unpredictability, demons, prophecies, wrist-mounted grappling hooks, father-son love triangles, and, ultimately, too small of a following, rabid and devoted as it may be. It cannot be said, however, that Angel went quietly into that good night. The show's fifth and final season, sporting some of heavyweight writers imported from Buffy, represented an explosion of creativity and innovation, and while the format relied less on season-long story arcs (as it did in the second, third, and fourth seasons) what eventually unspooled were 22 episodes of unrestrained imagination—and one of the best television series finales ever.
Facts of the Case
Following the cataclysmic events of Season Four, Angel and friends find themselves in completely new surroundings. Having accepted a shocking offer from their sworn enemies—the mystical, supremely evil "Senior Partners"—the Fang Gang assumes control of Wolfram and Hart, the L.A. law firm and bastion of evil that takes its marching orders from the Senior Partners themselves.
For the first time, they have the limitless resources to combat evil on a much broader scale. However, despite their resistance to the sinister forces that infest Wolfram and Hart, Angel, Wes, Fred, Lorne, and Gunn will still have to compromise and sometimes play by the Senior Partners' rules. The black-and-white world that Angel has so long embraced just got a whole lot grayer.
So we've got Angel in the square-peg-round-hole role of CEO, bad-ass Wes enjoying full access to a comprehensive demon library, Fred lording over an advanced research department, Lorne in charge of the entertainment bureau, and former bruiser Gunn has transformed into a suave Superlawyer, courtesy of a supernatural brain upgrade.
And as if things weren't surreal enough, a new member of the team arrives, and it's the last face Angel was expecting—Spike, mysteriously resurrected from his fiery, self-sacrificing deed in Buffy's finale.
The place settings for Season Five have been set, and the feast that lies ahead will feature love, rivalry, betrayal, the return of some old faces, the emergence of some new ones, violence toward puppets, public urination, Wesley gunplay, tragic deaths, ancient demon gods that talk to plants, cyborg ninjas, formerly-deceased luchedores, and, of course, the apocalypse.
This six-disc set sports all 22 episodes from the fifth season. Here they are, complete with two-word nutshell synopses:
• "Conviction": New sheriff
• "Life of the Party": Hulk Lorne
• "Harm's Way": Dis Harmony
• "You're Welcome": Cordelia returns
• "Shells": Inter-office turmoil
• "The Girl in Question": Buffy distraction
And so it came to be, on May 19, 2004, my all-time favorite television show ended. When the WB announced mid-season that Angel, arguably its most popular show, had been issued its walking papers, a shock wave tore through the legions of devoted fans. In the middle of its finest season, the chronicles of the tortured vampire with a soul was terminated; a bright future of unparalleled storytelling was preeminently aborted, the shock tempered merely with hollow gratitude from studio execs and some half-assed promises of made-for-TV movies (still waiting for those). The Buffyverse was coming to a close, and despite the aggressive efforts of fans to save the show, this was one finale Angel wasn't going to survive.
Prior to the fifth season being green-lit by the WB, creator Joss Whedon and his corral of talent had to agree to a few studio-mandated changes. First was the show's decreased dependency on focused season-long story arcs and a return to single-episode stories. And second was the importation of James Marsters's Spike, a long-time fan favorite from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Both of these mandates ended up being inspired actions, which, for my nickel, really augmented the overall quality of the show. The first tweak, the format change to single episode stories represented a throwback to Season One, which operated on the same idea. It wasn't until the second season that the long arcs began, reaching fruition in the third and fourth seasons. Now I'm as big a fan as any for these arcs, but the hard-line serialization of the episodes was a double-edged sword: it kept the fanbase glued to their sets, but did not play well in reruns (as evidenced by Season Four's scant rerun schedule); the studio's reasoning—valid I think—was that the nature of the narrative made it difficult to draw in new viewers.
Joss Whedon and company, however, were able to strike the perfect balance in
Season Five. Yes, these episodes could be enjoyed as stand-alone stories as in
the first season, but there was still enough of a season-running arc to satiate
the die-hards who enjoyed the long stories of yesteryear. Granted the arc is
subtle at first, mentioned here and there in exposition-laden dialogue, but
things kick into overdrive at the home stretch, and the writers were able to tie
everything together in effective fashion.
I don't know if anyone could have predicted the chemistry James Marsters and David Boreanaz would develop over the course of the season. Cliché as this description is, Spike and Angel are an old married couple, and it works. I'll be the first to admit I had some doubts at first—the interaction between the two in the second episode seemed a bit forced. But as the season pickled up momentum, so did the rapport between the two actors, and, as such, the two characters. In more than one commentary track on the set, it is noted how Boreanaz and Marsters bring out the best in each other, how they force each other to amp up the energy and the performance. That is exactly true. Some of the funniest moments of the Buffyverse happen when Spike and Angel are on screen together. Also, when the two work together for a common goal, particularly in "A Hole in the World," the effect is that much more dramatic and, frankly, wicked awesome.
The writers have toyed a bit with the other characters. Though Wes, Fred, and Lorne still retain their usual personalities—Wes, hardcore still, but back to the books; Fred in her element, her lab; and Lorne schmoozing like crazy—the addition of Harmony and a brand new Gunn add to the freshness of the season. Harmony injects the funny cluelessnenss of "Cordelia in the first season of Buffy" as Joss Whedon puts it, and suave Gunn is light years away from the street cred he once had. This cast, minus the played-out characters of Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter, who returns for the 100th episode and manages to look hotter than ever), and Angel's son Connor (Vincent Kaetheiser), invigorates the show.
Everyone does exceptional work; Boreanaz has never been fresher with Marsters as a foil, J August Richards takes advantage of the meatier Gunn role, and Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker turn in some eye-popping performances (Illyria, I'm looking at you).
Thankfully, the stories that these characters play in are top-notch. This is the finest display of creativity I have ever seen on television. The writers open up the dams, and anything can happen. Allow me to highlight a few of my favorite episodes:
• "Life of the Party"
• "Smile Time"
• "A Hole in the World"
• "Power Play" and "Not Fade Away"
Have I made the point that this is my favorite season of my favorite show yet? Despite a sterling effort, not every episode is a success. "Why We Fight," a flashback episode involving Spike and Angel on a World War II submarine seems promising, but falls flat in the execution. "Hellbound" focuses on Spike's fight against getting sucked into Hell, and despite some cool moments, suffers from "gratuitous-attempts-at-cheap-scares" syndrome. And "The Girl in Question," the third to last episode in the season that has Angel and Spike falling all over themselves when they hear Buffy has a new boyfriend, is one of my least favorite of the whole show's existence; it's plopped in the middle of a tension-filled march to the finish line and in that context is wildly out of place, and, worse, it reduces Angel and Spike to prepubescent adolescents that suddenly abandon the important work they were doing—you know, fighting against the source of evil on Earth—to go drool over a girl. Granted, it's not just any girl, but where the show is set in the series timeline, the entire endeavor is anachronistic and a betrayal of the characters.
Angel has always been the darker, more adult of the two Buffyverse shows. While I loved the last three one-huge-arc seasons, I always felt the one-episode stories were more rewatchable. The final season combine the best of both approaches, and will deliver twenty-two 44-minute doses of unbridled creativity, human drama, and killer writing.
For the most part, Fox treats its TV show sets with great respect. This does of Angel is much like its counterparts—similar packaging, artwork, and interface. Special features are spread out through the six discs, and one commentary track per disc is the norm.
These shows look great as always in its 1.78:1 transfer (it is one of the few hour-longs originally broadcast in widescreen). To nitpick, there are some elements of edge enhancement, but overall, the picture quality is as sharp and defined as ever. This season is not as dark as the seasons before because of the law firm setting, so these episodes are far and away brighter, with more vibrant colors that its predecessors.
A 2.0 Dolby Digital offering pushes the sound. For the most part, the mix is strong, though, when pumped through a Dolby Pro Logic II matrix the discrete channels sometimes bumble the tracks, e.g. some dialogue is often passed from the center to the rears with no change of position on-screen. The show's terrific score is aggressively projected.
A combination of quality featurettes and commentary tracks lifts this set higher than those that preceded it. The commentary tracks on select episodes sports a mix of cast and filmmakers: creator Joss Whedon, David Boreanaz, Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Sarah Thompson (Eve), Christian Kane, Juliet Landau (Drusilla), Adam Baldwin, Skip Schoolnik, David Fury, Steven DeKnight, Jeffrey Bell, Brent Fletcher, Elizabeth Craft, and Sarah Fain. Whedon's contributions are the most entertaining and substantial; the award for most tight-lipped goes to Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker on "A Hole in the World." Jeffrey Bell's commentary on "Not Fade Away" is notable as well. Good stuff all around.
Also good, are the featurettes: "Hey Kids! It's Smile Time" (a look at the infamous puppet episode), "Angel 100" (a documentary on the gang's 100th episode), "Angel: Choreography of a Stunt," "To Live and Die in L.A.: The Best of Angel," "Halos and Horns: Recurring Villainy," and "Angel Unbound: The Gag Reels."
In addition, you get the usual season overview with actors and crew, which is not the blow-by-blow episode description that Angel: The Complete Fourth Season sported, and that's a good thing. The best of the bunch are "Smile Time" and "Choreography of a Stunt." The former features interviews with the actors, puppeteers, and first-time director Ben Edlund; it's a fun, revealing piece. Mike Massa, David Boreanaz's double and show stunt coordinator, receives some well-deserved love in the latter feature. We get an inside look at how some of the more dangerous stunts are performed, as well as those kick-ass fight scenes we know and love. Like the commentary tracks, swell from top to bottom.
My only desire: deleted scenes. Where are they? Many cut sequences were referenced in the commentary tracks, and frankly, they sound cool.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Angel's premature termination sucked. It ambushed everyone involved with the show and ravaged the fan community. Massive "Save Angel" campaigns were launched, but to no avail. Particularly depressing is what this show could have been. The new locale, format, and characters gave the series a turbocharge—who knew what the future could have held?
For Angel fans this set is an instant buy. But I implore others out there, who perhaps haven't experienced the wit and drama that is this series, to give it a look. If brutal sword fights, homicidal puppets, werewolf girlfriends, undead wrestling matches, giant monsters, vampires drinking otter blood, robots made by The Devil, and general apocalyptic wackiness may be things that may interest you, Angel: The Complete Fifth Season represents the best value in entertainment you could find, short of an old Sega Saturn, ten controllers, and a copy of Saturn Bomberman.
Fangs for the memories. Court adjourned.
Appellate Judge Michael Stailey: Why Angel Never Lived Up to Its Potential
"Man is neither angel or beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast."—Blaise Pascal
Spin-offs are a dicey proposition for any network-programming executive. For every Jeffersons there are is an Enos (Dukes of Hazzard), a Beverly Hills Buntz (Hill Street Blues), and an After M*A*S*H. But sometimes you just know you have something good on your hands. The trick is understanding and maximizing the series's true value and potential. Such was the case with Angel.
In the fall of 1997, the WB was a young upstart network, breaking the rules, taking risks, and going for the hip edgy shows that ABC, NBC, and CBS would never touch. The target market was 18-34 year olds and they knew what would grab this group's attention. Enter Joss Whedon, a comic book geek with a passion for things that go bump in the night. His flair for character development and dialogue gave the WB an instant cult classic with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, drawing praise from critics and audiences alike. When Buffy and the mysteriously brooding Angel hooked up in Season Two, the show's popularity shot through the roof, with fan sites springing up all over the Internet. Everyone was talking about these characters and the WB was paying attention. With one cult hit on their hands, why not make it two and capture that audience for an entire night? Think of the advertising potential!
And they did. Angel was green lighted and given the second half of the WB's All New Tuesday night in the fall of 1999. The premise was fairly standard for a spin-off:
1. Take a hot secondary character from a hit show
So, in episode 1.1, "City Of," Angel (David Boreanaz) moves to LA, continuing his penitential crusade. He gets a new sidekick in the form of demon half-breed Doyle (Glenn Quinn) with connections to "the powers that be" and proceeds to run into a down-on-her luck Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) whose life has been turned inside out. The three run afoul of the nastiest law firm this side of Boston Legal and, in the process, form a new family unit, setting up shop as Angel Investigations—"We help the helpless." Each week, they do battle and defeat a new demonic force in self-contained tales, as new hour-long sci-fi dramas often do (see: Buffy, X-Files, Smallville).
The WB had several things going for it with Angel:
• Hot enigmatic character with high visibility and an unwritten
past (see: Wolverine)
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, aside from drawing in viewers from outside the Buffyverse, very little. At least early on. But Whedon and company have proven time and again they don't like playing by any of television's written or unwritten rules. So, Joss planted a time bomb into the story bible, one that would shake the foundation of the series just as things were getting settled. After only nine episodes, he killed off a principal character, signaling that Angel was not just going to be "BTVS: Los Angeles." (I know there are many fan and insider theories as to the reasons behind this plot development, but I'm going with the official word from Joss and David.) From this point on, Angel took on a darker tone. Whereas Buffy was a metaphor for teen angst and coming of age, Angel was more of a "welcome to the real world, the party's over and you're on your own." Here every action has consequences you must live with for the rest of your natural or unnatural life.
Sadly, the WB and a majority of the show's potential audience never understood or appreciated the difference.
It took the series a while to find its footing and establish a clear direction. Once it did, the patented Whedon story arching—major plot points define the beginning and end of the season, enabling the writing team to determine how to get the characters there—kicked in. But this show was influenced more by the sly wit and dark wisdom of writer/director/producer David Greenwalt (Buffy, X-Files, The Commish) than by Joss. Allegories for the evil that men (and women) do—greed, envy, hatred, lust, and betrayal—can be found layered throughout the entire series run.
The audience, perhaps looking for a more light-hearted romp through the underbelly of life, bailed during Season Three. Some of this drop-off could be attributed to Buffy's death and subsequent rebirth on UPN. In response, the WB shifted Angel to Monday nights for the first half of the season and then to Sunday, losing more than half a million viewers along the way. The bleeding continued during Season Four, due in most part to an incomprehensible plot that stalled out a third of the way in and had to be towed for the remainder of its unsatisfying journey. The series received a transfusion in Season Five with the addition of Spike, but by that time the network's interest in the show had long since been lost.
It would be easy to blame the WB for the show's demise, but the writing staff shoulders an equal share. There is a curse attached to any inventive and compelling series: try to maintain freshness, while evolving characters and continuing to raise the stakes (no pun intended). If you have a creative team that you can trust, you allow them the power and flexibility to follow their collective gut. Yes, there will be ample opportunity to fall flat on your face and not everything is going to work. But, on the whole, the series and characters are moving forward. This was true for the first three seasons, but the departure of David Greenwalt prior to Season Four was the misstep that killed the show. David was the heart and soul of Angel and his absence—woefully filled by Jeffrey Bell (Alias, X-Files)—unraveled a great deal of the investment and progress made in each of these characters lives.
The bottom line is: nobody really knew how to make the most of these characters. Let's take a closer look.
The Deepening Relationship between Angel and Cordy
Upside: Classic sexual tension. Plenty of landmines to play with. An audience interested in getting them together.
Downside: Cordy's ascension as a higher power. Her return as an amnesia victim. Her sexual relationship with Connor (jumping the shark) and resulting pregnancy. Her true evil nature revealed by giving birth to the end of the world.
Coma. Writers Jeffrey Bell and Steven DeKnight effectively destroyed the compelling relationship Tim Minear, David Fury, and David Greenwalt built over the first three seasons. This was redeemed only by Fury's beautiful and touching fifth season episode "You're Welcome."
We're Having a Baby!
Upside: An interesting twist having two vampires to create life. Enabled tremendous character growth for both Wes and Angel.
Downside: Cheap and overused plot device. Red flag for any series. The kid is either the savior or destruction of the world—there's no way to pull this off effectively. Aging him to an angry teen was a miserable failure.
Introducing a child into an already established family unit rarely brings about positive change. In this case, Tim Minear and Joss Whedon collaborated to create one of the series' darkest and most compelling storylines. Unfortunately, they should have left him in the hell-dimension, since his return as a grizzled teen greatly contributed to the show's demise.
New Faces, Wasted Opportunities
Upside: Doyle—Whether or not his death was planned from the get
go, he was a humanizing and loving force that both Angel and Cordy needed in
their lives. His death brought about profound changes in each of them.
Downside: Kate—A great potential romantic interest for Angel
and a balancing presence for the team. Sadly, after learning of Angel's true
form, her character became a non-issue, nearly killing herself from an
out-of-character drug overdose then skipping town. Bad Writing 101: When you
don't know what else to do with a character, get rid of 'em.
To be honest, there were just too many principal characters on this show. How is any writer expected to develop progressive storylines when you have to juggle a cadre of personalities and backstories? They needed the hotel to house everyone in this cast! Seriously though, when you look back at all 110 episodes, you'll find those that focused exclusively on one or two characters are the ones that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
There. I've said my piece. The cast and crew of Angel gave fans a great deal to talk about and enjoy over five seasons. The frustration you sense in my analysis is directed towards the inability of the network, the audience, and the production team to consistently see the inherent potential that existed within these characters and the stories they had to tell. There is a dearth of good storytelling on television these days, which makes one hold tightly to those series who are able to shine through the darkness. I would love to see writers Tim Minear, David Fury, and David Greenwalt revisit these characters somewhere down the road, if only to see how they've recovered from the beating it took to once again save the world from certain destruction. If it doesn't happen, I'm content with being able to say I truly appreciate the adventures of Angel Investigations we were able to experience.
Judge Brett Cullum: Angel as the Ultimate Noir Television Series
In one review of Angel, I noted the show seemed to thrive the darker it got, and its sister show Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed to not fare as well when it got into darker storylines. Part of the problem was the construction of the metaphor for each show, and the fact Angel had intrinsic noir tendencies that eluded Buffy in its original creation. Angel was created as a prototypical film noir character—a "good" vampire cursed with a soul that racked his conscience with guilt, and a man who had to live literally in the shadows. He was always the dark brooding one next to Buffy's relentlessly sunny disposition (at least it was sunny while she was in high school when they shared the same show). Angel blurred the line between good and evil so much that he became the ultimate (and still unparalleled) "Big Bad" for Buffy the Vampire Slayer's outstanding second season that made the show a hit. Buffy and Angel were mythically operatic together as star-crossed lovers turned into enemies, and I remember scoffing at the idea of a spin-off show featuring the "vampire with a soul" in sunny Los Angeles. How could it ever work on its own? How could dark exist without light?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was conceived as a teenage drama, and its cast was filled with bubbly pubescents fighting against the shadows and the darkness. Angel had the luxury of starting off with people in their mid-twenties, and could develop a darker more urban tone away from the suburbs of Sunnydale. It was first and foremost an adult show from the get-go, and its spiky-haired lead was centuries old rather than an ex-cheerleader who couldn't drive. It was set inside the shadows, and always revolved around misfits and freaks who had to stay under the blanket of the night. Even his profession was telling of the noir genre. Angel and his crew set up Angel Investigations and turned a vampire into a supernatural gumshoe. Initially the creators were going to take the character of Whistler from Buffy's second season finale to be Angel's guide with visions from the "Powers that Be." Instead we got Doyle—a half demon played by Glenn Quinn. Whether is was by design (as Joss Whedon claims publicly) or a product of Glenn's heroin addiction (more likely), the character was phased out by the ninth episode. Whatever the reason, Doyle's death immediately cemented that Angel was going to be a much darker ride where things would never be safe or predictable.
Buffy rarely featured "good" demons in those first three years (even Anya began as a pretty frightening figure, as did Spike), and immediately Angel developed another noir trapping with a whole cast of "good" bad guys. Let's face it, almost all the leads were demons or became part demon through some misadventure or another. It seemed not only was Los Angeles teeming with threats from the demon world, but good demons were being threatened by ruthless humans. LA was the melting pot where lawyers seemed scarier than any slimy beast from the pits of hell. Wolfram and Hart had its ties to the underworld, but it was the humans you had to watch out for. In classic noir fashion, on Angel clues were given to decipher, and any help offered was often dubious. How many times in the run of the show did a villain offer help? Or even more disturbingly, how many times did an ally turn against them? Every character was painted in a non-decisive shade of gray and could turn against each other as quickly as they bonded. Clues were often false, and many characters fell for them, which spelled trouble for even the good humans in the cast. Several characters fell prey to their own demons, and we're not talking about the literal kind with horns. Most notably Wesley Wyndam-Pryce would suffer a transformation that reshaped his entire character as a tortured soul throughout the series's run.
Another aspect of noir unique to the show was the role of the past on Angel. Angel had been cursed with a soul by gypsies, had run with the evil Darla for over a hundred years, and had done some very questionable things before and after his curse. The past was always swirling around him. While Buffy seemed to always be concerned about her future, Angel was trapped into atoning for his sins hundreds of years back. Think about where the entire gang set up shop for three seasons—the Hyperion hotel. It had to be linked to Angel's past before it could become the headquarters for the show. Everything in the Angel universe was constructed around the past or aspects of the characters' personal history. One thing that always frustrated me on the show was the faithful way history was always uncovered, but the show hardly ever paid off any character's future. We first heard about the "Shanshu" prophecy back in Season One when it was discovered through ancient scrolls that a vampire with a soul would play an integral role in the apocalypse and then be rewarded with humanity. That prophecy was called into play countless times over Angel's five year run, but where was the pay off? It seemed the writers were too busy mining Angel's history to ever develop his future.
Curses were blessings on the show, and weaknesses became everyone's biggest strengths. Take Cordelia, who had to contend with the visions that guided the "Fang Gang" but also ripped her apart until she had to become half demon. She began as the show's most shallow foil and developed into one of the most complicated women of prime time television. My biggest beef with the final season is her absence except for her one appearance, which seemed more like a coda than a return. Fred was the weakest character on the show, but her frailty became her greatest weapon in the end. Was it any surprise they decided to turn her into the invincible Illyria in the final season? And yet Illyria still had to contend with Fred's weak side, which moved her in ways she did not expect. It was fun to see the "blue meanie" suddenly get jolts of human emotion obviously as a result of Fred Burkle being somewhere in there. Pity the show was canceled, as rumor had it Amy Acker would have eventually played a double role. It has been speculated had the show been renewed Fred would have been extracted from Illyria, but both would have carried on in the story. Wesley was pretty weak at first as a bumbling ex-Watcher prone to tripping, and then transformed into a battle hardened warrior capable of double fisting pistols when engaging a demon. Yet his weakness was his asset from day one, and also what led to his fall from grace midway through the show's arc. Angel's humanity was also a blessing and a curse. Look at how at one point they had to strip away his human layer to get at some valuable information from Angelus's past (of course). Noir rules demanded that nothing was all good or all bad, even blessings and curses.
Most striking to me was the production team's refusal to make the show accessible or light during its entire run. They never strayed from their dark mold that demanded the past had to be reckoned with and atoned for. There was a three-season arc during the second through fourth years that built so much on the show's own history it effectively cut out any hope Angel could attract new viewers to watch without knowing all that had transpired before they tuned in. The fifth season tried to alter the formula slightly by turning to more neophyte-friendly hour episode format, but it was too little too late and the network canceled the show despite a rise in viewership. The last half of the final season seems like a shout-out to the faithful followers, and once again resorted to storylines that would baffle anyone but the hardcore fan. It was all so relentlessly noir, and it was Joss Whedon and his production company re-inventing another genre by basically staying slavishly true to it. Take the downbeat ending of the series finale as their final stab at film noir trappings. Rather than leave you with a typical "happy" ending we are given a dark non-ending where we are left hanging to ponder what is really in store for our favorite characters. I had wished Buffy would have made at least a cameo in the finale, but it was not meant to be. She would have shifted the tone no matter how badly I wanted to see her rise up on a rooftop with her army of young slayers to help in the final battle. It would have been a ray of sunshine in the city of shadows that was Angel. And the broody one would never stand for that. In the end, he stood on his own wrapped in darkness, and still fighting his own past.
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Scales of Justice
• Selected Episode Commentary by Cast and Crew
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