Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Angel-a-Thon: Season 4

It’s hard to top a peak. The third series of “Angel” was such a taut, exciting ride that season four had a lot to live up to. And while it’s rarely rotten, Angel’s penultimate series falls a bit short.

There’s great momentum at the start of this season, as the cliffhangers of Series 3 are wrapped up and the apocalyptic Beast comes to town, raining fire on the streets and blocking out the sun. There’s a real sense of danger and drama in these early episodes – the Beast is by far the most inhuman villain the series has had, and it really seems nothing can stop him. The various psychodramas continue as Angel bonds and brawls with his bad-boy, instantly teenaged son Connor, Wesley works his way back from his dark exile into redemption (it’s amazing what a bad-ass Alexis Denisof has become as Wesley, especially when you view his first few appearances way back in “Buffy”’s third season), while Fred and Gunn wind down their increasingly annoying relationship.

But then it all kind of turns to custard. The writers apparently feel they have to keep one-upping the threat level, and so the Beast turns out to be a pawn of a now-evil Cordelia, who turns out to be yet ANOTHER pawn of the smiling goddess Jasmine. Really, the Beast could’ve been a solid enough protagonist to fuel the entire season, and the ridiculously labyrinthine plot by Jasmine is insulting to viewers (apparently pretty much everything that ever happened since episode one has been a part of the plan). But the worst misstep is how the writers abuse poor Cordelia, who’d shown the most fascinating growth as a character over the first 3 years, moving from selfish diva to selfless heroine. Her “ascension” at the end of the third season was tearjerking and yet very right.

But it’s all dumped on this year, as Cordy’s forced into an icky affair with Connor, gotten pregnant, turns evil, then is clumsily just written out of the series entirely. It’s a real shame that poor Charisma Carpenter goes out on such an awkward note (although fortunately, she has a better swan song in Season 5). Jasmine, played by “Firefly” star Gina Torres, is a character with potential – an ancient god who is bringing enforced world peace – but she never quite comes across right.

There’s still a lot to like in series 4 – we get the return of Angel’s evil alter ego Angelus, who’s sinister fun, and a guest appearance by Faith (Eliza Dushku) always provides a lot of energy. There's lots of great moments, but the meandering of the overall season storyline and the egregious waste of Cordelia do spoil it all a bit.

Best episode: In a season filled with dark twists and turns, it’s the lighthearted change of pace episode “Spin The Bottle” that provides some much-needed levity, and a chance for the cast to show how much the characters have grown. While the “everyone gets amnesia” plot is beyond cliché, it’s played out in a very fun fashion as we witness the return of bitchy high-school Cordelia, foppish Wesley and medieval young Angel and everyone bounces off each other in a nice locked-room mystery. It's a good showcase for the actors and just nice to get a break from the never-ending apocalypses. Runner-up: “Home,” the energetic season finale, which delivers a much-needed change of setting and mission for Season 5 and gives the entire mauldin, overlong Connor storyline a fitting, bittersweet sendoff.

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