Spin-off pilots are their own breed. In some ways they have it easier than regular pilots, already having a waiting audience. For Joss Whedon creations, this effect is even greater. In other ways, they have it harder, since fans can be demanding. The pilot for a spin-off has to balance enough familiar information to let existing fans feel like they’re in on something, but still lay out the exposition and character introductions needed to get the series started.
In Angel, we’re reintroduced to the title character (David Boreanaz), now living in Los Angeles. He brings us into the setting with a few words describing the City of Angels (pun not spelled out but certainly implied), while he sits somberly in a dive bar. We get that the city is going to be as a much a character as anyone. Angel is drunk off his ass, and we could open a whole discussion on the chemistry of vampire intoxication, but not here. He is slobbering to the unwitting barfly next to him about the girl who got away, without naming Buffy. (For some reason, there is a giant rainbow flag hanging in the bar, but there is no other indication that it’s a gay bar. Or why Angel would be in a gay bar.)
Within moments our hero is dispatching with some evil vampires about to feed on some nubile young clubbers. It’s a big, bad comic-book style brawl that leaves Angel jonesing for blood. He heads home, to his dark basement apartment, to find a half-human Irishman named Doyle (Gleen Quinn) waiting for him. Doyle fills us in on Angel’s origin story and the Buffy-Angel relationship. Doyle is some sort of psychic with migraines. He’s got an assignment for Angel, to go meet a woman at a coffee shop who is some kind of trouble.
The girl is being hunted by a wealthy investor who turns out to be a powerful vampire named Russell. Angel tries to protect her, but she gets herself killed, and Russell decides to lure Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who is now an aspiring actress, into his lair. And some other stuff happens.
It’s best not to think too much about the plot. Everything happens a bit too easily: Doyle just pops in and Angel obeys without question, then Angel just happens to be at a party where Cordelia is, then the same vampire that kills the girl in the coffee shop just happens to have his sights set on Cordelia as his next victim. Angel, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, succeeds more on its wit.
For all its action-packed mellowdrama, this pilot is full of laughs. Even Charisma Carpenter’s painful acting is saved by some great one-liners. My favorite is, when she calls Russell out as a vampire, she accuses: “I’m from Sunnydale. We had our own Hellmouth.” Another one is, after Cordelia babbles on about her fabulous life and then walks away to talk to more important party-goers, Angel remarks, “It’s nice to see she’s grown as a person.” Other bits are more subtle and surprising. Angel jumps gallantly into his convertible to chase after bad guys only to realize it’s not his car.
David Boreanaz’s social awkwardness is just adorable. Lest we forget how beautiful he is, the writers remind us at least twice in this episode. As a character he is oblivious to his own hotness (vampires don’t have reflections, remember) which makes him that much more appealing. Darn it, he just wants to do the right thing.
So for Buffy fans or the uninitiated, this pilot is super entertaining. And it ends with a beginning, the launch of Angel Investigations, so it keeps the viewer coming back for more.