It happens every time you see someone write about Joss Whedon, which is often these days considering he delivered a contender for best superhero movie of all time. His storied resumé is listed, starting with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the crown jewel (of late '90s and early aughts TV as well), Firefly, his most complete, most beloved work, Dollhouse, his most bizarre but at times most genius project and...mayyyybe Angel gets a mention. If it's lucky. Like a stepchild who may or may not make it in the family portrait.
Why is this so? Because it's a spin-off taking place within the same universe already established in Buffy, and thus not as attractive a highlight. That's a shame, but then again Angel is used to being overlooked—it has been since it quietly delivered one of the best series finales of all time 10 years ago. It doesn't have its parent series' sexy high-school-is-hell metaphor going for it, nor does it have many event episodes to match Buffy's musical. But after a shaky first season, it went on to low-key become Whedon's most consistent work and one of the best things he's ever done, period.
The show follows Buffy's ex-boyfriend (David Boreanaz), the eponymous vampire cursed with a soul, obsessed with doing enough good to erase the centuries of unspeakable evil he committed before he found a conscience. Unburdened with trying to bag Sarah Michelle Gellar, he moves to L.A. Along with a few other Sunnydale transplants, plus new faces, he does battle against evil and corruption—personified by recurring bad guys Wolfram & Hart, a supernatural law firm (think Al Pacino in Devil's Advocate).
While Buffy made an iconic mark on TV, Angel's theme of atonement is rich enough to put it toe-to-toe with its parent series. It also allowed Whedon to let his geek flag fly a bit more with badass villains and ambitious arcs so rich you'd think they were adapted directly from a comic book source. Angel is more hardcore than Buffy. It's more mature than Buffy. At the end of the day, it just might be better than Buffy.
Are we declaring that here? No. But it's about time you give the redheaded stepchild it's due. In honor of the finale's upcoming 10th anniversary, here are 10 episodes that depict Angel's wide range of tones, narrative capabilities, and general awesomeness (all on Netflix). Get familiar.
10. "Lonely Hearts" (Season 1, Episode 2)
Much of Angel’s first season plays like a procedural with a supernatural theme, because in true Whedon series fashion, it doesn’t really hammer out its identity until season two. As such, the first season is the weakest but in no way is it bad, especially when early episodes like “Lonely Hearts” offered strong hints at what the show was capable of and the ways it could thematically and stylistically step out of the Slayer’s shadow.
The series’ increasingly ambitious serialized stories in the latter seasons are more than welcome, but if it remained a procedural, the result probably wouldn’t have been so bad if the stories consistently met this level of freaky. The demon of the week is a parasitic burrower who uses sex to jump from one body to the next, lurking at singles bars for easy marks. Delivering an ep with unsettling sequences like the body jump montage the second time at bat? Good sign of things to come.
9. "Guise Will Be Guise" (Season 2, Episode 6)
Series have big, game-changing episodes. Series have event episodes contextualized by a major theme or narrative gimmick. Then there are hours like this one, where absolutely nothing happens but you still have a great time watching. When a series can pull those off, that’s when it’s clear you’re fucking with a great show.
A group of goons Angel would easily dispatch instead show up when he’s not around, assuming the nebbish Wesley is the man himself, forcing him to protect a rich heiress. It’s totally inconsequential, and also funny as hell. The kind of episode that’s only pulled off when the writer’s room finally hammers down the tone and the cast’s chemistry is firing on all cylinders.
8. "Salvage" (Season 4, Episode 13)
The city is plunged in permanent midnight. Angel’s evil alter-ego is awake and on the loose. The gang turns to sidelined hero Faith (Eliza Dushku) to safely take him down. Meanwhile, villains are teaming up and double-crossing each other left and right. It may not be the most nuanced hour of the series, but you can feel Joss Whedon’s comic book influence all throughout to the point of it feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon, and that’s always undeniably fun.
7. "Hell Bound" (Season 5, Episode 4)
Angel is generally an action show, but a series about a vampire who battles other supernatural demons has to cater to its horror roots every once in awhile too, right?
If you want the show’s scariest hour look no further than this final season entry, the first to cast the spotlight on new cast member/Buffy transplant Spike. The start of the season finds Angel’s frenemy as a ghost confined to Wolfram & Hart’s halls, but his snarky Casper act turns serious when the evil office’s elder ghosts give him a cold welcome to the fold.
6. "Soulless" (Season 4, Episode 11)
Sean Astin takes a break from Middle Earth to guest-direct this episode about Angel going soulless at a moment's notice. It’s the rare writer's room that would hold back on this for a full three seasons, especially when the hero’s villainous alter ego’s arc on Buffy is regarded as that series’ peak.
The audience’s patience is rewarded with an all-out Angelus arc, which finds the gang purposely de-souling Angel to interrogate Angelus for pressing information on the season bad guy. David Boreanaz as Angelus, a pseudo-Hannibal Lecter type, may be a tad over the top, but who cares when he’s having this much fun causing dissension in the ranks and doling out damage despite behind bars? And of course, as the final twist suggests, he won’t be for long.
5. "Spin the Bottle" (Season 4, Episode 6)
Angel doesn’t have as many event/theme eps as Buffy, but “Spin the Bottle” is a brief foray into that territory. It’s one of the rare times the spin-off is blessed with a dolo Joss Whedon script. A botched attempt to restore an amnesiac Cordelia’s memories instead causes the Angel Investigations crew to revert to their teenage personae, which opens up a damn near endless supply of hilarity and hijinks, especially considering Angel's teenage years were spent in 18th century Ireland.
The episode is an incredibly welcome moment of levity in what's otherwise the series’ bleakest season, and a nice throwback for the universe’s most dynamic characters, Cordelia and Wesley, who basically revisit the personalities they had when fans first met them on Buffy.
4. "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?" (Season 2, Episode 2)
This is the one every Angel fan highlights as the the series’ first big leap out of its parent’s shadow. With two centuries of dirt under his belt, the titular vamp has a history that can offer richer, more nuanced stories than “he was evil then, now he isn’t.”
In the present, Angel becomes fixated on a run-down hotel, while flashbacks reveal he stayed there for a time during the paranoia-infused McCarthyism era 1950s. As thematic relevance would have it, an evil entity in the hotel makes everyone increasingly suspicious of each other in a story that explains why it took so long for the hero to regain his trust in humanity.
3. "Smile Time" (Season 5, Episode 14)
Angel gets turned into a felt puppet. The villains are a group of foul-mouthed/mannered Muppet-esque kids TV show characters who are really demons from hell plotting to steal young souls. It’s written by Whedon himself. And this happens. If you need more reasons to watch this episode then you might be made of felt, too. Go watch it on Netflix and try getting the “Self-Esteem” song out of your head for the rest of the week.
2 & 1. "Sleep Tight/Forgiving" (Season 3, Episodes 16-17)
A drama is only as good as its episodes about the world crashing down. By those standards, it’s easy to see why season three is Angel’s best year. It houses two back-to-back soul-crushing episodes like “Sleep Tight” and “Forgiving.” Things are going so well for a stretch of the season that you can practically see the metaphorical axe hovering above everyone’s heads, but even foreshadowing can’t prepare you for how quickly the team’s world goes to shit.
It starts with Angel’s nemesis, a time-traveling vampire hunter whose family was massacred by Angel during his evil days, plotting the perfect revenge. By the time the two-parter’s over, the back-to-back jaw-dropping endings will have you completely fucked up.