Angel never seemed to get out of the shadow of its parent show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In some ways, that makes sense. Buffy was a revolution, proof that the blonde girl in the alley can kick some ass and slay some demons. Buffy was a hero right from the start and she stayed that way for seven seasons.
When Buffy’s ex-boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz), the mysterious, brooding vampire-with-a-soul, left Buffy at the end of season three to head to Los Angeles and to his own show, Angel. Things then took a turn for the noir. In turn, we got a different type of hero. On its 20th anniversary, Angel reminds us that even the smallest acts of heroism can go a long way.
“City Of” premiered on October 5, 1999. It’s an appropriate title, a play on the city’s name as well as our main character, while leaving room for all the other possibilities that lurk in the shadows of Los Angeles’ supernatural world. Angel gives us a short narration right at the start, romanticizing the way people, and other things, flock to Los Angeles for all sorts of reasons. His reason, of course, is a girl, a reference to his recent breakup with Buffy.
The narration fits with the neo-noir detective roots Angel is reaching for and the entire first scene perfectly solidifies the genre and our protagonist as the complicated hero that he is. This first sequence, in which he follows a group of two men and two women out to the back alley, might seem like he’s that Captain America-type of hero. He saves the women from a couple of vampires. The women, looking to thank Angel, are justifiably terrified when Angel’s vampire face also makes an appearance. He leaves them without so much as a goodbye, unwilling to make connections with the humanity he’s trying to save.
Exposition reigns supreme in “City Of,” and viewers are treated to a nice little packaged backstory about Angel, covering his arc on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the reason why he left. It was necessary for people watching who weren’t familiar with Buffy, but it was also a little heavy on the details. The exposition mouthpiece comes in the form of Doyle, a half-human, half-demon sent by the Powers That Be to be Angel’s guardian … angel, so to speak. But really, Doyle is there to lay down what Angel the show is all about.
Looking not just at this first episode, but across all five seasons of Angel, what’s clear to any fan of the show is how well it sticks the landing of its thesis statement. Angel’s all about helping the helpless. It’s the slogan for their detective agency, it’s the outline for their weekly cases, and it’s the guiding light to Angel’s epiphany in season two. In Angel, the everyday struggles of the people in the city are just as apocalyptic as the actual apocalypse. Saving the world doesn’t mean anything if you can’t help the people. “Helping the helpless” isn’t a promise to save someone, it’s a promise they’ll try in any way they can. Angel, whether you know him from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or not, clearly struggles with his literal inner demon. Sometimes, that fight against the inherent evil that exists inside all of us gets the better of him. But there’s always the possibility of redemption.
In not so many terms, that’s how Doyle’s first conversation with Angel goes. He tells Angel about a girl named Tina, someone that the Powers That Be have determined might need some help. Tina is a struggling actress, working at a cafe during the day and hitting up Hollywood parties by night, trying to make any connection she can. Currently, she’s got the backing of Russell, a huge investment guy who can make sure she meets the right people. But Russell isn’t exactly the Hollywood agent she was looking for, something Angel catches on to pretty quickly.
Tina represents that human connection Angel’s supposed to make. If he doesn’t, he’ll start looking to balance the scales. What’s one person he feeds off of when he’s saved countless others? Tina isn’t like the other cases he takes, though. There’s definitely a long buildup of the human interaction Angel is supposed to be doing — small talk, accompanying her to the party, etc. Building up Tina as a full-fledged character, something regular episodes don’t necessarily have the time for, is essential in establishing the themes of the show early. When Tina is murdered by Russell at the end of the second act, it only reinforces the importance of Angel’s mission. If Angel hadn’t taken the time to get to know Tina, he might not have been as motivated to go after Russell, and in turn, he wouldn’t have saved Cordelia.
Tina’s death indicates a stark difference between Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Buffy, the heroes always save the day. There’s a sense of triumph at the end of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “Harvest,” Buffy’s two-part pilot episodes. But in “City Of,” the hero fails to save the girl. It might be a justification for Angel to go back to the ways of the opening sequence, turning his back on the people he saves. But in Cordelia, Angel finds an extension of Tina. That makes Cordelia sound less than she is, but for this episode alone, that’s what she represents — a reason for Angel to keep those human connections open that Tina’s death might have discouraged him from.
“City Of” introduces us to our favorite brooding vampire-with-a-soul, but it also introduces us to a more grown-up world of the Buffyverse. Where Buffy certainly treads the waters of growing up and facing the hell that life can sometimes be, Angel gets at the more universal desire to do good in a world hellbent on pushing back against you. Even when outside forces, such as an evil law firm, work to unravel all the work you have done, Angel tells us that even when you want to change the world, sometimes it’s best to focus on what you can do.