City of Angel

Buffy's guilt-ridden vampire squeeze lives by night in L.A. Also: "My So-Called Life" meets "The X-Files" in WB's new teen drama "Roswell"

Published October 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spent years establishing that Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz) were star-crossed soul mates, so the idea of Boreanaz's brooding, tongue-tied slab of vampire beefcake skulking around in his own spinoff, sans his One True Love, sounded pretty, well, scary. Angel without Buffy -- isn't that kind of like the wax without the flame? But "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon has pulled off one of the best surprises of the season. Not only does "Angel" make sense as an extension of the "Buffy" mythology, it makes Angel seem more alive than he's been in about, oh, 240 years.

Whedon and co-executive producer David Greenwalt have astutely placed Angel at the intersection of the two genres in which his wounded, night-crawling loner mystique makes the most sense -- film noir and the superhero graphic-novel. In a Raymond Chandler vision of Los Angeles, where bloodsuckers prey on fallen angels' dreams of stardom, Angel takes to the night streets like a vampire Batman; he joylessly saves humans from the clutches of vamps -- they have them in L.A., too -- and kills his own kind with a bitter, self-annihilating relish. He's a damaged protector.

When last seen in the 1999 "Buffy" season finale, Angel had helped Buffy defeat the demon mayor and his flesh-eating minions (long story) and was gallantly bidding her adieu. Angel, you should know, is under a Gypsy curse levied on him a century ago for his viciousness; he was given a soul and a conscience -- real occupational hazards for an immortal killing machine -- and is able to feel guilt and compassion. Angel can no longer kill to feed (he lives on drippings from the butcher shop and the occasional stolen bag of plasma). But the real drag is the curse's stipulation that the moment he experiences "perfect happiness" (i.e., sex with his true love), he'll lose his soul and revert to his beastlike ways. The last time that happened, after he deflowered Buffy, it was no fun for anyone, believe me. His soul restored by a healing spell, Angel left Sunnydale to spare Buffy the pain of pining after a celibate 200-plus-year-old dude who can't even go to the beach. She deserves better.

So Angel is now in L.A. -- yeah, yeah, the City of Angels -- trying half-heartedly to forget. When Tuesday's pilot episode opens, he's drunk on a barstool babbling about his beloved Slayer: "She has this hair." (Even when he's wasted, Angel isn't much of a poet.) His monastic routine in L.A. is pretty grim. He lives in a sub-sub-basement apartment, rising at night to put on his game face and pick fights with bad vamps. Although clearly aroused by the blood trickling from a rescued damsel's forehead, Angel restrains himself, hissing through his fangs for her to get lost. Angel is neither quite monster nor quite human. Cut off from daylight and humanity, he's a lonesome Dark Knight, picking at his emotional scabs down in his Batcave, with a fridge full of pig's blood and maybe a few old issues of Maxim under the sofa. Swell way to spend eternity, huh?

One night, though, Angel is visited by Doyle (Glenn Quinn), a wisecracking, Irish, half-human, half-pin-cushion-faced something else who delivers a proposition from "The Powers That Be." Angel will gets the chance to atone for his murderous past (and maybe even lift the curse) if he agrees to perform a few vampire mitzvahs -- he must find troubled humans and save them from harm. But there's a catch. He has to "reach out" to these people and "show 'em there's love and hope left in the world."

OK, here's the part of "Angel" that worries me. The pilot is suitably dark-toned, but it never approaches a "Buffy" level of nightmarish fun; this is supposed to be L.A., the big, wicked city, but it isnt half as terrifying as suburban Sunnydale. The bold unsentimentality of "Buffy" is missing, too. This whole "reach out and feel their pain" thing -- is Whedon getting New Age-y on us? Is the show going to turn into "Touched by Angel"? Possibly fearing the same thing, Angel initially resists Doyle's proposition ("I'm not good with people"). But, then, because he's an old softie, he gets drawn into the problems of the first sad person he's sent to save, a scared young waitress/actress who's trying to escape from a powerful and violent boyfriend.

Angel discovers that there's a whole infrastructure of vampires running L.A. in cahoots with -- big surprise -- a high-powered law firm. Angel also unexpectedly meets up with snotty Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) from Buffy's circle at Sunnydale High. It seems that Cordelia was unable to go on to college with the rest of the gang because of Daddy's little problem with the IRS. Now, she's a starving would-be actress. Cordelia puts up a typically sparkly front (she tells Angel she's doing great and living in a beachfront condo), but Whedon lets us in on her secret, to establish sympathy for Little Miss High and Mighty. It works; the sight of the once imperious Cordy meditating in her flophouse room ("People will be drawn to me by my positive energy") is strangely heart-tugging. By the end of the pilot, Cordelia has talked Angel and Doyle into putting out their people-helping shingle and giving her a job as office manager; her hilariously blunt wit undimmed, Cordelia explains to Angel why he has to charge a fee for his services: "You're not exactly rolling in it, Mr. I Was Alive for 200 Years and Never Developed an Investment Portfolio!"

On "Buffy," Boreanaz had a tendency to drift off into an impersonation of a large oak tree when he was in his Good Angel mode -- the whispering monotone, the love-pained stare. (The same stillness turned lethally charismatic, however, when Angel was bad.) So it was, dare I say, a genius move on Whedon's part to remove Angel to a setting where Boreanaz's underplaying seems even more alien than it did among the yakking, super-sarcastic teens of "Buffy." His lack of guile in a town lousy with it is completely endearing. "Why would a woman I've never met talk to me?" he asks Doyle, who is urging him to strike up a conversation with the bedeviled waitress. Replies Doyle incredulously, "Have you looked in the mirror lately? No, I guess you wouldn't."

Clad, as always, in fashionable black at his first Hollywood cocktail party, Angel turns heads (a gay talent agent even hits on him) because he looks so much like he belongs, like he's playing the game. But Angel's got a secret, and it isnt that he's undead -- it's that he's unhip. I mean, his hair always looks like he slept on it wet, he's a lousy conversationalist and his ultra-deadpan wit arises not from quiet self-confidence (the way Sunnydale werewolf-rocker Oz's does), but from shyness and uncertainty -- his jokes are offered tentatively, as if he's not sure the humans will get them. And let's not forget how, on "Buffy," Angel got endless grief from his old vamp rival, the punky Spike, for being so square -- imagine, a black-hearted bastard like Angel falling in love with a little all-American schoolgirl! Angel has an almost childlike need to do good, to be forgiven, to be accepted. If Whedon infuses the show with a little more bite, Angel could fulfill his destiny as one of pop culture's most intriguing dark innocents.

But that Romeo and Juliet problem remains. There's a lot of unfinished business between Angel and Buffy; their obstacle-strewn romance is just too hot to drop. Until the day when these lovers meet again (crossover, anyone?), WB is shrewdly filling the lovers-from-different-worlds void with "Roswell," an engaging "Buffy" meets "The X-Files" meets "My So-Called Life" drama about a human girl and an extraterrestrial boy who fall in love in Roswell, N.M.

Created and written by Jason Katims ("My So-Called Life," "Relativity"), co-produced and directed by former "X-Files" director David Nutter and based on the popular "Roswell High" series of novels for middle-school readers, "Roswell" has the best-written, most charming pilot episode of the season.

Liz Parker (the captivating Shiri Appleby) is an A-student who works in her parents' Crashdown Cafe, a diner that caters to/mocks the town's place in UFO-hunter lore (it's the site of the alleged 1947 crash of an alien spacecraft) -- the Crashdown's menu offers such items as "the Sigourney Weaver" and "the Will Smith." One day at work, there's an altercation between two patrons and Liz is shot by a stray bullet. A classmate of Liz's, Max Evans (Jason Behr), who is in the cafe, leaps to her aid; in the commotion, he touches her wounded abdomen, she experiences some sort of mind-meld and the wound heals. He begs her to tell people the bullet didn't touch her, only broke a bottle of ketchup near her, then he flees. Later, she finds a silver handprint on her stomach.

Liz staunchly protects Max's secret (she always did have a crush on him, with his shy puppy-dog eyes), even though she's a little freaked by his confession that he's not of this earth. But Sheriff Valenti (William Sadler), who, unfortunately, is Liz's jealous boyfriend's father, is snooping around. Valenti's father was an FBI agent who was laughed out of the bureau when he became convinced that the silver handprint he found on a corpse in the 1950s was proof that aliens really did crash-land in Roswell. Now the sheriff wants to believe, in order to clear his father's name.

"Roswell" is an enchanting, bittersweet first-love story: "My whole life changed in an instant," Liz writes in her diary. "It's just so ironic that when something like this finally happened to me, it was with an alien." And the sci-fi stuff is pretty cool, too. Max, his sister Isabel (the imposing Katherine Heigl) and their surly pal Michael (Brendan Fehr) believe they survived the spaceship crash at Roswell and were hidden in suspended animation pods for over 30 years. When they hatched (taking human form), they were found wandering around and were assumed to be abandoned children.

Max and Isabel lucked out and were adopted by loving parents; Michael lives in a trailer park with his abusive foster father. Max, Isabel and Michael have the power to heal, can change the shape of solids and listen to CDs by just holding them up to their ears. They also have a strange and as yet unexplained fondness for Tabasco sauce. When they learn about the sheriff's autopsy photo of the corpse with the handprint, they become excited: Do they have a relative somewhere? Can they go home?

The "Roswell" pilot deftly blends breathless teen romance with witty nods to our alien-conspiracy soaked culture. At the show's climax, everyone in Roswell dons sci-fi movie costumes and gathers in the desert for the Crash Festival, where a model of a UFO drops and alien dummies burn. (The show's co-executive producer, Jonathan Frakes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" fame, has a cameo at the Crash Festival.) But "Roswell" also poignantly depicts what it feels like to be an outsider, a minority, a stranger in a strange land. The looks on the faces of Max, Isabel and Michael as they watch the dummies burn is heartbreaking.

The second episode of "Roswell" is less beguiling; the conspiracy widens to include the obligatory duplicitous government agent (played by Richard Schiff, doing double-duty between this and NBC's "The West Wing"). And the theme of small-town secrets introduced in the episode feels a little "Twin Peaks"-y, without that show's genuinely upside-down weirdness. (Peakheads will be amused, though, by the presence in "Roswell" of actor Michael Horse; he plays the sheriff's deputy, just like he played on "Twin Peaks.") For now, what grabs you about "Roswell" is its lyrical depiction of being 16 and in love and feeling like everything you thought you knew about yourself has become alien to you. "Five days ago I died," recites Liz from her diary. "But then the really amazing thing happened. I came to life."

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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