The more emotionally disturbed sister-show of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel is on this list not only because of some great writing and acting. It is here because of its great ability to affect emotion.
Of course the problem is that emotion is depression and sadness.
Angel is based around the title character played by David Boreanaz, a vampire with a soul. In the Buffy-verse, when you get turned into a vampire, your soul goes into the afterlife and a demon animates our body, but has all of your memories. But with Angel he is cursed to have his soul reunited with his body and he remembers all of the horrible things he has done and can never achieve true happiness.
Cheery, am I right?
But even in the midst of this, creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt managed to build strong emotional ties to the characters who would often laugh their way through the pain, even as they dragged you through a long day's journey into night.
As a Catholic, I obviously take issues with these themes. But I can appreciate this show not only as an expression of atheistic despair (which should in turn teach me more compassion), but also in how the creators struggle against that despair. As I've written before on this blog, Whedon is an atheist who intellectually accepts the idea of meaninglessness in life. But in his art he strives for something more, even though he cannot understand why. In his world every human life is ultimately tragic, but he wants there to be more. That is why I think there is a sliver of hope for redemption.
The stories of the show were also grand and epic sci-fi. The show explored demons within and without in its examination of the human condition.
And there was some great action too.
The series begins with three regular cast members: Angel, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and Doyle (the late Glenn Quinn). Cordelia was the spoiled rich girl who came out to LA to make it as an actress but struggled. Doyle was a half-demon who would have visions to guide Angel to his next quest. This particular episode centered around trying to get Angel to embrace his full hero destiny. But in the end, Doyle ended up sacrificing his life to save a group of innocents. Perhaps it happened before, but I never saw a show kill off one of its main characters less than half-way through its first season. It was shocking to say the least. And it set the tone of danger and sadness for the rest of the show.
JUMP THE SHARK
At the end of an epic story arc, Angel and his crew are offered to take over control of the main bad guy's business: Wolfram and Hart. This is an evil demonic law firm. This is a bad idea. You know it is a bad idea. This will not end well. And yet the characters inexplicably accept because that is what the 5th season was about. This episodes sets up the worst and most tedious season of the show.
"A Hole in the World"
As I said, my Catholic sensibilities are a little frayed by the underlying despair of a show like this. But this where it was pushed into overdrive. This episode is not bad because of the acting (it is fantastic) or the skill of the writing (it is superb), but in the ugliness of the themes. If you ever want to end an episode and feel the darkness of existence, watch this episode.
"Five by Five" and "Sanctuary"
Faith, one of the main villains from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, comes to Angel. And she is just as violent as ever. When she comes across her former Watcher Wesley (Alexis Denisof), she proceeds to torture him. But all of this builds to a head with the final moments of the first of the two part episode. Every time I see it, it still gives me chills. Even in all of this darkness there is the tiniest light.
Angel my be too dark for some people, and I respect that. A special shout out needs to be made to Denisof who took his character from a one-note comic punchline to the show's emotional whipping boy, to being the heart of the entire series. Watching his transformation over the course of 5 years was amazing.
But the for skill in making this show alone, it deserves its place on this list.