Storytelling with soul: The 20 best ‘Angel’ episodes (TV commentary)

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hen “Angel” premiered on Oct. 5, 1999, with “City of,” it was nominally a darker, more adult show than “Buffy,” its parent series and Tuesday night lead-in on The WB. But today, at the tail end of a decade of grim television (“prestige” though it may be), it’s notable how many smiles and laughs are to be found in even the most heart-wrenching hours of “Angel.”

Indeed, creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt initially envisioned “Angel” as an anthology series about three lonely people – Angel (David Boreanaz) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) coming to Los Angeles from Sunnydale and Doyle (Glenn Quinn) joining them, although Whedon always intended to kill off the half-demon halfway through the first season, a way to emphasize the theme of loss.

“Angel” is its own thing, and Angel becomes his own man in these 110 episodes. One unfortunate difference between the two series is that “Angel” didn’t get to end its televised run of its own volition. Yet 20 years after it began, fans are still talking about it.

Then Wesley (Alexis Denisof) steps in. Then Gunn (J. August Richards), for the diversity of a black Los Angelino. Then Lorne at the start of Season 2, to add a green character. Then Fred, because Amy Acker is such a delight as the meek scientist who had been stuck in another dimension. Meanwhile, serial storytelling supplants the anthology notion, especially in Seasons 3 and 4.

More adult? Darker? Smaller stories? Ultimately, no, not really; Whedon can’t help but tell Buffyverse stories. Yet “Angel” is its own thing, and Angel becomes his own man in these 110 episodes.

One unfortunate difference between the two series is that “Angel” didn’t get to end its televised run of its own volition; The WB pulled the plug after five seasons of what should’ve been a seven-season run. Yet 20 years after it began, “Angel” still earned an Entertainment Weekly cover, and fans are talking about it and making their “top 20 episodes” lists. Here’s mine:

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20. “Lonely Heart” (Season 1, episode 2, written by David Fury) — As the title suggests, “Lonely Heart” beautifully illustrates the series’ permeating theme of loneliness. This comes partly through the demon-of-the-week that needs to “make a connection” to transfer to new host bodies, and partly through Angel and policewoman Kate (Elisabeth Rohm) tenuously connecting — both as informal detective partners and friends. I admit I’m a bigger Kate supporter than the average “Angel” fan, but the delicate feeling-out between these two crime solvers who should be staunch allies is a strong backing thread in the first two seasons.

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19. “Spin the Bottle” (4.6, Whedon) — This episode is a ton of fun as a spell makes everyone revert to their younger selves: Cordelia and Wesley become the versions of their characters from “Buffy” (Denisof, in particular, has fun with pratfalls and awkwardness), Gunn becomes a street tough and Fred is a paranoid pothead (!). Meanwhile, Angel is shocked to learn he’s a vampire; the scene where he morphs back and forth – with emphasis on the sound effect — in the bathroom makes me laugh every time.

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18. “Players” (4.16, Jeffrey Bell, Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft) — At the height of the serialized Season 4, this jaunt featuring Gwen (Alexa Davalos of “The Man in the High Castle”) and Gunn is a breath of fresh air. The actors’ chemistry is electric (pun intended, based on Gwen’s superpower), and Davalos gives Gwen a perfect mix of deadliness and vulnerability. The plot twists and turns with her character: Is she just using Gunn or does she really like him? In the end, the latter is the case, and it’s a shame that we wouldn’t see Gwen again on TV. (She does pop up in the IDW comics, although somehow she’s underused even there.)

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17. “Redefinition” (2.11, Mere Smith) — In a Buffyverse that has given us stylized episodes like “Hush,” “Restless” and “Once More, With Feeling,” this one — where Angel doesn’t speak the entire episode — gets unfairly overlooked. He does a few voiceovers, granted, but generally this hour demonstrates that an “Angel” yarn can be told with stylish simplicity. It’s surprising that Angel sets Darla (Julie Benz) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) on fire yet fails to finish them off. But I can’t blame the writers for wanting to keep Darla and Dru around.

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16. “Smile Time” (5.14, Ben Edlund) — Because this episode is on everyone’s list, it’s tempting to be a contrarian and say it’s overhyped, but it’s undeniably a classic. The theme of TV taking over people’s minds is deftly understated and the puppet stuff isn’t annoyingly goofy. Remarkably, a key scene of the relationship between Angel and Nina (Jenny Mollen) takes place when Angel is in puppet form. Comic writers would further tap into the humorous potential of making our heroes into puppets, particularly in “Spike: Shadow Puppets.” And, yes, a plush Puppet Angel can be attained — for a price.

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15. “Unleashed” (5.3, Fain and Craft) — The return of a monster-of-the-week episode after the serialized Seasons 3 and 4 is refreshing, and as a bonus, it introduces werewolf Nina, who pursues a relationship with Angel. Similar to Gwen in Season 4, Nina is sadly underused, appearing in only three episodes (and then a decent amount more for comic readers), making this episode even more of a rare treasure.

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14. “Awakening” (4.10, Fury and Steven S. DeKnight) — A dream state is the key to this hour’s brilliance, but we don’t realize — unless you’re a particularly keen viewer — that it’s all in Angel’s head until the end. When Angel turns into Angelus in “Buffy” Season 2, we see it from Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) horrified perspective; here we get a sense of what it’s like for Angel. He experiences several “moments of happiness” — reconciling with friend Wesley and son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), and knowing the love of Cordelia. The capper is a welcome nod to Buffy-Angel ‘shippers without offending Angel-Cordy ‘shippers: He gasps “Buffy!” under his breath as his soul fades away, paralleling the previous Angelus arc and affirming that the Slayer is his true love.

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13. “Not Fade Away” (5.22, Bell and Whedon) — If a viewer comes to terms with the previous episode, where Angel suddenly decides he’s going to take on the big boys (the Circle of the Black Thorn and then the Wolfram & Hart senior partners), this finale-by-cancellation is about as perfect as it can be. Everyone gets to spend one last day however they want. The best is Spike (James Marsters) pounding down liquid courage in order to dust off his poetry. On my first viewing, I hated that the writers kill off Wesley, but there’s no arguing with that final scene where he asks Illyria to lie to him and pretend to be Fred — it’s beautiful and vaguely creepy. Ultimately, I think Denisof is the show’s best actor.

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12-11. “Reprise” and “Epiphany” (2.15-16, Tim Minear) — I liked Kate so much when the series began, but her rocky relationship with Angel and her arc in general peters out. So it’s nice to see her play a pivotal role in these great episodes: Angel rescues her from a suicide attempt, and she realizes that she never invited him in. (It’s a cool moment. But it’s odd that the Powers That Be want Kate to live and yet she never appears in another episode. Darn you, “Law & Order.”) The chat between Kate and Angel features Angel’s epiphany, which I often cite when boiling down “Angel’s” overall theme or outlining my own spiritual outlook: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. … If there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

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10. “Waiting in the Wings” (3.13, Whedon) — The first “Angel” episode written and directed by Whedon since the pilot is pretty much a perfect hour, and it gains heft due to the sad ballet and music permeating everything. The scene where ghostly lovers possess Angel and Cordy is the sexy answer to the similar situation in the “Buffy” Season 2 episode “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Summer Glau is on hand as the ballerina; she would go on to play River in “Firefly,” of course. And the episode ends with bittersweet scenes of Cordy choosing Groo (Mark Lutz) and Fred choosing Gunn.

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9. “Darla” (2.7, Minear) — Five years after her introduction in the cold open of the very first “Buffy” episode, we finally learn Darla’s backstory. It’s gorgeously told through flashbacks to key events in her past, from the Master (Mark Metcalf) siring her to Darla’s disappointment with the newly ensouled Angel. Adding an extra layer of brilliance is the fact that several of these scenes also appear in the “Buffy” episode that preceded it on its original airing (the Spike-centric “Fool For Love”), but they are given new context now that we know Angel has a soul during these events.

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8. “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” (2.2, Minear) — I’m not crazy about the Hyperion Hotel as a setting when compared to Angel’s classic noir detective office from Season 1 or the Wolfram & Hart headquarters of Season 5. However, there’s no denying the artistic brilliance of the episode that introduces the hotel and sets it up as a metaphor for Angel himself. Through beautifully realized flashbacks to the McCarthyism era of 1950s, we see a particularly isolationist Angel leave the Hyperion’s residents at the mercy of a paranoia demon.

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7. “Orpheus” (4.15, Smith) — There’s so much to like here. Notably, Angelus and Faith (Eliza Dushku) — both knocked out via drugs — take a dream tour through Angel’s past. It’s amusing to see how their reactions differ when they see Angel’s acts of goodness and his lapses. Then Angelus fights Angel, an obvious yet awesome idea. Meanwhile, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) drops in to cast the same soul-restoration spell from Season 2 of “Buffy,” yet it doesn’t feel repetitive, in part because we’re distracted by the flirty banter between Willow and Fred (well, Willow is being flirty, Fred’s just being Fred, and that’s why it’s funny).

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6-5. “Five By Five” (1.18, Jim Kouf) and “Sanctuary” (19, Minear and Whedon) — The “Buffy” body-switch episode “Who Are You?” ends with Faith having learned the value of being good while she’s in Buffy’s body. So why is she evil as heck in “Five By Five?” Poor writing? Not at all; in the brilliant conclusion, the Angel-Faith confrontation gradually devolves from a fight into Faith begging Angel to kill her. And we, as viewers, realize the whole episode is Faith’s cry for help. Our epiphany corresponds with Wesley, the audience surrogate at this point, dropping his knife. Then in “Sanctuary,” Angel’s hard work of saving Faith’s soul begins, and both characters gain tremendous depth in the process. Intriguingly, Buffy comes off as the villain when this episode is watched outside the context of the preceding “Buffy” episodes.

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4. “I Will Remember You” (1.8, Greenwalt and Jeannine Renshaw) — Ah, the love letter to Buffy-Angel ‘shippers. I was very much in that camp back in the day, although I now appreciate Angel’s need to move on and define himself by something other than Buffy. This is very much an “Angel heroically puts others before himself” episode — Angel turns back time to erase his recently gained humanity, for crying out loud. But I have to admit Gellar gives the best performance, especially when Buffy cries “I’ll never forget … I’ll never forget.”

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3-2. “A Hole in the World” (5.15, Whedon) and “Shells” (16, DeKnight) — In terms of emotionally devastating a viewer, this two-parter chronicling Fred’s death via infection by an ancient demon ranks as one of Whedon’s best “Oh my god, they killed so-and-so!” yarns — simply because it’s Fred. Acker’s transformation from the sweet and lovable Texas gal to a cold and calculating ancient blue-haired goddess is a tour de force, which is of course why Whedon — always an actor’s writer — came up with Illyria. From a writing perspective, Illyria is an outlet to explore the nature of humanity from an entirely alien perspective. I see her observations — and transformation into a more human character — as a more serious answer to “Buffy’s” Anya. Although Illyria’s arc is cut short by “Angel’s” cancellation, this is one character for which the comics are a godsend: We learn a lot more about her in both the “Angel” and “Buffy” titles.

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1. “Harm’s Way” (5.9, Craft and Fain) — “Angel’s” answer to the “Buffy” Season 3 classic “The Zeppo” allows Mercedes McNab to showcase her comedic chops as we follow Harmony’s sloppy cover-up of what she thinks is her vampiric murder spree. We also get a sense of the day-to-day challenges of a vampire who just wants to be liked by her co-workers. Writing for Harmony requires a delicate balance, and we see it go off track in some “Buffy” and “Angel” comics, but McNab always elevates the material. This hour is relentlessly sharp — in a great gag, Harmony keeps apologetically piling her knocked-out victims in a broom closet — and its brilliance is enhanced by being a comedic hour on a series where most of the standout episodes are, at least in a broad sense, not exactly laugh riots.

What are your 20 favorite episodes of “Angel”? Share your lists in the comment thread below.

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Related: John’s top 20 “Buffy” episodes