Recently—well, over the course of several months—I engaged in an epic, threaded rewatch of Joss Whedon’s signature creations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996–2003) and Angel (1999–2004). These were influential shows for me: major, formative building blocks for the past twenty years of my storytelling life, so I was quite anxious to revisit them. I found both as compulsively watchable as ever, but the rewatch was also illuminating as a barometer for how the medium has changed since these shows came along to help transform it.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer launched in 1997, an unlikely sequel to a failed horror-comedy movie of the same name. It chronicles the coming-of-age of young California teenager Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who also just happens to be “the Slayer,” a mystically chosen warrior whose role is to protect the world from vampires, demons, and the forces of evil. Buffy, a reluctant hero at first, is more interested in boys, friends, and growing up than battling unspeakable supernatural horrors, but when she and her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) move to Sunnydale, California, she quickly learns that the fates have conspired against her. According to the school’s profoundly British school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Sunnydale is situated on a “Hellmouth,” making it a particularly volatile location for manifesations of world-imperiling evil. Indeed, Giles was sent to Sunnydale by the Watcher’s Council specifically to educate, train, and support Buffy in her efforts to protect the world from the Hellmouth’s various and sundry threats.
Buffy, however, has other ideas—namely, being a normal high school girl. She makes fast friends with smart, adorably nerdy Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and snarky loser Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), who become ardent sidekicks and the first of many insiders to her secret superhero life. Meanwhile, she’s frequently pitted against the school’s popular set, led by brutally honest Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), and of course falls for boys, most notably Angel (David Boreanaz), a tall, dark, and broody fellow who edges his way into her adventures—and happens to be a 270-year-old vampire.
Over the course of seven seasons, Buffy and her “Scooby Gang” of friends would battle vampires, demons, mummies, monsters, aliens, robots, and all manner of sinister, apocalyptic threats. In the process, Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped pioneer a new template for serialized television storytelling. Its episodes are quite often traditional, self-contained, “monster-of-the-week” cases; indeed, Buffy’s track record for exceptional one-off masterpiece episodes is impressive. But the seasons also progressed, layering gradual story arcs and character change over episodic, incremental progress. It’s a key show in the medium’s transition to long-form narrative, a hybrid constructing coherent seasons from entertaining modular pieces, each year ultimately coalescing in an epic face-off against an annual “Big Bad.”
For all that, the real genius of Buffy wasn’t structure, but theme. The core metaphor of the series is brilliant: “high school is hell,” in this case literally. Buffy’s not just facing life-and-death experiences, battling scary creatures and dark spirits every week. Those monstrous threats shrewdly comment on her growing pains as a mundane California teenager. Particularly in its first three seasons, Buffy does a masterful job capturing that youthful sense of every personal setback being the end of the world. For Buffy, of course, it literally is, affording the show the opportunity to address real coming-of-age issues in an inventive, funny, and powerful way.
This theme sings out thanks largely to the likable, compelling efforts of an extremely talented cast—especially Gellar, who delivers a remarkable, profoundly underrated lead performance throughout. I think her brilliance in this role only becomes more obvious on a sustained, careful rewatch. Indeed, it’s easy to take Gellar for granted if you’re not paying attention, perhaps even overlook her in favor of Hannigan’s heartstring-tugging charms or Head’s effortless blend of subtle comic timing and understated gravitas. A consistent parade of eye-catching supporting —most notably James Marsters’ scenery-chewing brilliance as bad boy vampire Spike, and Eliza Dushku’s electrifying appearances as Faith—diverts even more attention from the star. But this is Gellar’s show, impossible to imagine without her; she never steps wrong, nailing virtually every onscreen moment, a perfect delivery or facial expression for every situation. In a medium rife with “hole-in-the-middle” protagonists, Buffy Summers is an extraordinary exception, thanks to Gellar’s incredible heart-and-soul performance.
And Buffy the Vampire Slayer stands the test of time pretty well. Its first season is a little wobbly as it finds it legs, but by episode twelve it has its hooks in, and seasons two and three—by general consensus, its strongest—hit an impressive stride, consistently delivering an addictive mix of comedy, action, drama, and horror. Even more winning is the created-family vibe that solidifies during these seasons, particularly amongst Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles, but ultimately a number of additional characters. Secretly bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders, the Scoobies struggle together, their efforts endearing and inspiring.
Of course, high school doesn’t last forever; with the gang’s graduation at the end of season three, Buffy becomes a much less consistent series as the content-churn of episodic television sets in. Season four sends Buffy to college, with wildly uneven results; the largely lamentable season six pits the group against annoying villainy, and throws our heroes into deep pits of despair; seasons five and seven, meanwhile, ultimately provide merely decent journeys to memorable, powerful destinations. The show never again quite recaptures the sustained magic of those early glory days. That said, many of the show’s very best individual episodes occur during this stretch, brilliant one-off hours that slot neatly into their respective season arcs. And every season has virtues and does interesting things. I found the entire run rewarding on a rewatch, and with its series finale (“Chosen”), Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes a powerful final statement, leaving a legacy that continues to influence genre TV today.
Graduation isn’t the only thing that happens at the end of season three, incidentally: Angel begins, claiming Buffy supporting characters Angel and Cordelia as its stars. If you’re wondering whether the departure of David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter contributed to Buffy’s gradual decline in quality—an irrevocable blow to cast chemistry, perhaps?— wonder no more: I think it’s unrelated. Angel and Cordie leave Buffy at the right time; their characters were played out in Sunnydale. What’s surprising, though, is that they got a show in the first place. For all their importance to the first three seasons of Buffy, Angel and Cordie are obviously second-stringers, with far less depth and dramatic range than Buffy’s core cast. In the moment, I never would have imagined Boreanaz’s stiff, broody posturing and Carpenter’s snarky cruelty sustaining a five-season series. Interestingly, though, the promotion of two secondary characters to an unlikely spotlight is part of what initially intrigued me about Angel, and ultimately what won me over to it.
Angel begins with its eponymous hero relocated to Los Angeles, still smarting from his star-crossed, forbidden love with Buffy. With the assistance of a half-demon guide named Doyle (Glenn Quinn), Angel takes up a mission to help the helpless as a private detective, investigating supernatural evil for people with nowhere else to turn. When Cordelia bumps into him at a Hollywood party, she’s enduring her own post-Sunnydale struggles as a starving, aspiring actress. Opportunistically, she seizes on Angel like a life preserver, working her way into his employ. Soon enough, Angel and Cordie are joined by failed former Watcher Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), now a pathetic “rogue demon hunter” trying to make a life for himself in the aftermath of his spectacular failures on Buffy. Angel, Cordie, and Wesley form the core of a quirky new front against the forces of evil, represented on this more metropolitan stage by the nefarious, inter-dimensional law firm of Wolfram & Hart.
After several years away from the Buffyverse, I had a lingering impression of Angel as a show that more than holds its own against Buffy. Watching both shows in a “threaded” way— alternating episodes based on their air dates during the seasons when they ran concurrently—has disabused me of this notion. I admit it: Buffy is objectively superior. But for some reason, Angel still speaks to me, and I relate to it—elements of it, anyway—in a more powerful way. Taking another look at it reinforced my belief in its strengths, even as the passage of time has exposed more of its problematic weaknesses.
Yes, Angel lacks the pithy core metaphor of Buffy. It’s far less consistent. It certainly isn’t as sure-handed in its messaging. But in many ways I find it more interesting, thematically. On Buffy, I think the make-believe geography of Sunnydale constrains the metaphor, bottles it into a fictional space that makes the stories feel more fantastical and symbolic. Its otherworldly threats are in service to the emotional states of the characters—nebulous, random, jarring expressions of their fears and insecurities, more appropriate perhaps to a coming-of-age story, and certainly more effective for the focus. By contrast, Angel’s Los Angeles opens up the metaphor, reaching out into the real world, its characters’ problems more grounded in the external logistics of modern life. It possesses the same demons and monsters and supernatural evils, but deploys them with an eye for evil’s more mundane, systemic nature, the way it seeds itself quietly into the fabric of society. This makes Angel a messier, darker show. If Buffy’s struggles are the rude awakenings and disappointments of growing up, Angel’s are the disheartening compromises of functioning as an adult in a unforgiving, unjust world.
As such, Angel leverages its genre toolbox in service to a different kind of story. It revels in gray areas, ethical dilemmas, thorny lose-lose decisions. Its heroes are individuals scrambling to resist the clockwork, highly organized machinations of adversaries who, for all their supernatural features, are more deplorable for the matter-of-fact way they carry out their garden-variety livelihoods as lawyers or politicians or corporate executives. Angel’s villains don’t always have the epic, world-shattering endgames of Buffy’s Big Bads, but they’re just as horrible, repulsively cavalier in their self-interest and insidious subversion of all that’s good in the world. Indeed, to me they’re a truer reflection of the real world’s evils.
From the start, Angel’s mission is one of rehabilitation, leaning into its spinoffy roots to study characters struggling to recover from the mistakes of their pasts, whether it’s abject failure (Wesley), general reprehensibility (Cordie), or full-blown evil (Angel). Often, this manifests in a tired way: a posturing male redemption narrative that over-mines the details of Angel’s murderous history. But as the series progresses, and the ensemble grows—adding vampire-battling gang leader Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), adorably brilliant scientist Fred Burkle (Amy Acker), and show-stopping demon karaoke singer Lorne (Andy Hallett)—Angel stays true to this theme. Buffy’s heroes tend to get more awesome and powerful as the series goes on; Angel’s go in the other direction, as the show continuously examines their ethics, the ramifications of their questionable decision-making and life-shattering mistakes, and so forth. The characters fail far more often than they succeed, making this show a dark flip side to Buffy; but there’s also a subtle core of hope to the way Angel champions the value of the struggle, even in the face of repeated, gutting failure. Angel’s heroes are fuck-ups, but they never quit.
On the other hand, oh does Angel have problems. Its episodes blur together in a muddy mess on numerous occasions. Vast swathes of season-arc are given over to nearly intolerable storylines featuring the vampire Darla (Julie Benz) and Angel’s impossible son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), characters whose unwelcome appearances suck the life right out of the show. And the gender politics…oof. They’re suspect at the best of times, and abysmal at the worst. Some of the issues are pretty light: Wesley, throwing about the B word? Some of it is triggery, like when the male heroes—any of them, really—turn temporarily evil, which almost invariably manifests as rapey misogyny. A lot of it is systemic to the narrative, like the shameful way Cordie is written out, or the way Fred gradually morphs from a quirky, disturbed genius into a manic pixie dreamgirl, used primarily to pit childish male colleagues against one another in petty competition. Women, to be sure, do not fare well on Angel. It’s sad, because Carpenter really develops an inspiring presence in the first few seasons, and Acker is versatile and charming, and between them they pretty much give Angel what warmth and heart it possesses. Too often, though, they’re playing second fiddle to Angel’s petty broods and Wesley’s sulking descent and, later, the unlikely arrival of Spike from Buffy—who absolutely works thematically in Angel’s context, but sometimes feels tonally inorganic to it. Of course, Buffy isn’t entirely innocent on this score, either. Despite its feminist street cred, it frequently plays ugly male behavior for laughs, most consistently through Xander’s shallow drooling. But Angel takes troublesome gender dynamics to another level.
So why does Angel still hold such a firm place in my heart? In spite of its issues, it still clicks for me, and it’s a lot of little things. Its moral ambiguity and murky grayness and noir atmosphere fuse the fantastical content with other genres I love: the trappings of the PI show, the feel of espionage. Its demons are wicked cool. Remember Merl (Matthew James)? Skip (David Denman)? Maybe I relate, a little too uncomfortably, to Wesley’s mix of awkward goofiness, self-pitying struggle, and masochistic self-loathing. No other show, to be fair, has the motherfucking Groosalugg (Mark Lutz), a magnificently funny character. No other show has Dennis, Cordie’s ghost roommate. And oh, how I love Lorne the demon karaoke singer. Andy Hallett is utterly delightful, lighting up every scene.
Then there’s Wolfram & Hart, the evil law firm and the show’s thematic masterstroke. W&H represent the clockwork, systematized evils of the world—in Buffy, high school may be hell, but in Angel it’s all of civilization, with Wolfram & Hart as its symbol. Angel’s best villainy lies here—in particular, with shamelessly scheming Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov) and the conflicted Lindsey McDonald (Christian Kane, whose brilliantly delivered “evil hand speech” is one for the ages). The law firm is a great foil, the all-powerful Goliath to Angel Investigations’ David, bubbling along under the surface of the first four seasons. Then, in season five, Angel and the gang join Wolfram & Hart—an absolutely illogical narrative move that also ends up being a brilliant thematic one. It’s a “deal they can’t refuse,” an opportunity to leverage the firm’s vast resources toward doing good in the world. But it leads them even further down the dark path of compromise. Like the rest of Angel, season five is imperfect, but it’s the show’s best, delivering its troubled characters to one last fatal confrontation that still stands as one of my favorite series finales ever.
So which do I like better, Angel or Buffy? I refuse to choose. Like I said, Buffy is objectively better, it’s far more emotionally engaging, it has multiple peaks. My reaction to Angel is more confused and complicated. It’s messier, uglier, more problematic, and it only peaks once—right at the end. I think I might like that it’s messier, all of its problems making it feel like a more authentic case of art imitiating life, or something? In some ways I want to dismissively say, “oh, it’s no Buffy,” but then, it isn’t really trying to be. It makes so many mistakes, but somehow that works for it. I thought a threaded rewatch would solve the question once and for all, but I still just love them both.
Ultimately, though, what was really interesting about the rewatch exercise was not comparing these shows against one another, but comparing them against my former impressions. The world has changed a lot since the turning of the millenium, and boy, has the passage of time colored my perceptions. In many cases, my memory inverted itself. On Buffy, Gellar’s performance went from fine to “wow, this is fucking brilliant.” The class-clown, boys-will-be-boys antics of Xander and Spike grew long in the tooth much, much sooner. Cordelia’s shrill honesty annoyed me on the first run, but I found it utterly refreshing and necessary on the rewatch. Meanwhile, ex-demon Anya (Emma Caulfield)—who seemed just fine the first time around—struck me as annoyingly, shallowly written. Some of Buffy’s side characters—good-natured government agent Riley (Marc Blucas), chill werewolf Oz (Seth Green), introverted witch Tara (Amber Benson)—seemed like short-lived experiments that didn’t work out on the first go. This time around, I kind of felt for them; they are some of the show’s truest people, and all of them suffer greatly for their proximity to the more volatile, more “important” heroes. (Weirdly, they felt a little like they belonged on Angel, a show that’s all about supporting characters, getting ground up in the gears.) Then there’s the controversial Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), who arrives surprisingly in season five and felt at first like Buffy’s annoying “Cousin Oliver” character. This time, I thought Dawn was a pretty great addition to the cast, thanks to Trachtenberg’s spirited performance. Similar time-bent impressions ran through me on Angel. I found Wesley’s tragic antihero descent riveting on the first go-round, but this time I saw something icky about his stalkery obsessions and self pity. Initially, I was head over heels for Fred, but revisiting the show makes me feel like I was manipulated into my crush. I had little patience for the hopelessly incompetent Harmony (Mercedes McNab) the first time around, but the second—on both Buffy and Angel—I thought she was a hoot. Meanwhile, Lorne. Oh, Lorne, you son of a gun. I thought I’d loved him the first time, but he was even better than I remembered. The episodes where they visit his home world, which I found totally jarring the first time around, just really, really worked for me, especially for the way they slotted into the show’s overarching themes.
In the greater scheme of things, will Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel stand the test of time? I think they will—particularly Buffy. Twenty years has dated both shows, of course, revealed them as products of their eras. But at their best, their storytelling powers were magical, and it’s hard to imagine the landscape of modern television without their transforming contributions.