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"Buffy" season 4 premiere,
"Angel" pilot episode

Even though Buffy and Angel broke up at the end of last season, they're still together -- aww, how poignant -- as a double shot on the WB every Tuesday. Give the WB credit: They were smart enough to keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its new spin-off Angel joined at the hip. Buffy and Angel may not belong with each other, but their shows do. Ratings-wise, it's a shrewd move; perhaps the WB is not eager to copy the mistake made by Fox when it moved King of the Hill away from its natural lead-in The Simpsons (Fox later wisely moved KotH back to its rightful spot). Thematically, it's a good fit: the relative lightness of Buffy and Sunnydale segues nicely into the grimness of Angel and Los Angeles. Both series also benefit -- at this early stage in the season, anyway -- from the off-center wit and always-fresh characterizations of Joss Whedon, who created Buffy and co-created Angel with Buffy executive producer David Greenwalt.

The block last October 5 -- the fourth-season premiere of Buffy and the debut of Angel -- was full metal Joss; Whedon directed both episodes, wrote the Buffy ep, and co-wrote the Angel pilot with Greenwalt. So how'd they do? Let's start with the Slayer...

8:00 ET, Tuesdays

I've already heard some grumbling around the Organized Chaos office about "The Freshman," Buffy's maiden voyage this season. Ken Souza waxed less than ecstatic: "I thought Buffy was good, but I'm a little worried that Joss is just reusing the same ol' Buffy-as-the-outsider plotline transplanted to college. It felt a lot like the beginning of last season, and I hope we don't get more of the same ... I just think watching Buffy trying to fit in is getting a little tired." Kevin Gawthrope came down harsher: "Didn't really dig Buffy all that much. The first 1/2 hour sucked except for Giles gettin' some. It picked up when Xander the stripper showed up."

Damn, y'guys are a tough room. Granted, my socks remained on my feet after Buffy was over -- that's my overly clever way of saying it didn't knock my socks off, get it? ha ha? ah, t'hell with ya -- but the ep did function nicely as a set-up for larger doings Joss and company may be planning. After all, Season 3's opener (as Ken pointed out) didn't rock the house much, either, and there was little hint of the Mayor/Faith shenanigans to come. "The Freshman" didn't break much ground, but it did lay some groundwork.

For one thing, we're seeing a neat reversal in the Buffy/Willow dynamic: here, it's Willow who's in her element (she's so adorably psyched to be in college!), while Buffy is going to find that blowing off college courses is a lot more costly -- in every respect -- than blowing off high-school classes. Look for Willow to get promoted to Giles status, if not officially (she'll be the brains and research wonk of the Scooby gang), while the crumpet-eating former Watcher himself eventually gets tired of boffing old flames and (I predict) takes a job as a professor of occult studies at Sunnydale U, perhaps to replace a prof who gets conveniently dead.

Really, the motif of Buffy always beginning a season on a down note -- insecure, unprepared -- has worked for the show so far. In the series premiere, she found herself at Sunnydale High determined to be a good girl and put all her slayage behind her (Giles put the kibosh on that); at the start of the second year, she came back all cold and pissed-off (being dead for 30 seconds will do that to a girl); by the opening of Season Three, she was off somewhere posing as a waitress (sending your evil vampire boyfriend to Hell will do that to a girl); and now here she is, overwhelmed by the campus hubbub, easily beaten by a sneering fashion-plate vamp, dropping books on a hunky TA, and pouting most becomingly at the Bronze. By episode's end, you feel Buffy has a better handle on things, but it's been a tradition since day one for Whedon to toss his heroine into a new vat of hot water and see how well she swims.

As written and directed by Whedon, this was as witty a Buffy episode as any I've seen. I particularly enjoyed the swipes at Celine Dion (Buffy's new roomie, a perky gal who snores, may be positioned as the next Cordy or the next clueless Joyce Summers -- nobody on campus is supposed to know about Buffy's slayage) and the "predictable" freshman taste in wall art. (Only Whedon would've had the inspiration to have a pack of vamps looting freshman dorms and having a competition to see how many Klimt prints, as opposed to Monet prints, they can accumulate.) There's no sign of a worthy season nemesis yet, but give it time: last season, the Mayor didn't show up until the fifth episode, and Whedon seems to be setting up something intriguing involving a band of anonymous agents (soldiers? SWAT team?) who taser a vamp into submission -- for what purpose, God and Whedon only know.

Disappointments? Well, I was sorry to see the vicious vamp chick achieve oneness with Mr. Pointy; she'd have been a nice new squeeze for Spike, who's supposed to be dropping in on Buffy sporadically this season. I also hear that Oz isn't going to be around as much this season; Seth Green's peerless deadpan will be missed, though if Willow gets as busy as I expect her to get (I smell a campus coven in the works), she won't have as much time for her lycanthropic BF. Overall, though, I approve of the new direction -- Whedon had plumbed the high-school milieu for all it was worth, and it'll be interesting to see what he does with the campus angle. The plus side, as Sean Jordan pointed out in ZENtertainment, is that Buffy can no longer be blamed for high-school violence. The minus side, as I pointed out last season, is that Buffy should really have been retired with dignity when everyone graduated. I hope Joss proves me wrong there. He, like Buffy, is working at a disadvantage -- our familiarity with the show, its new-but-not-radically-new setting, the presumably dwindling roster of guest monsters -- and I'll be curious to see what he does to prevent Buffy from going the way of Mulder and Scully.

9:00 ET, Tuesdays

As with the Buffy season premiere, my esteemed OC brethren weighed in with their thoughts via next-day email. This time, though, we had a split decision. "I thought Angel rocked," raved Kev. "Very Batman-y but it works for him." Ken noticed the Batman angle too, but not as fondly: "The whole Angel-as-Superhero/Detective framework," he yawned, "seems a little silly to me. Maybe I took it the wrong way, but some of those shots of Angel standing against the LA skyline were both odd and derivative -- is this Angel or Batman??" Ken also said he "doesn't see the show having as much potential as Buffy," though he "liked parts" of it; Kev enjoyed the law-firm subplot (about which more below). Both gentlemen agreed on one thing, however. Ken: "I will say that Cordy has never looked yummier!!" Kev went further and invoked Office Space: "Oh yeah, and I want to show Cordy my 'Oh' face ..."

Okay, guys, hose yourselves down. Here, I find myself closer to Kev's appraisal than to Ken's, though I do share Ken's general boredom with a certain 243-year-old bloodsucker. Excitingly satanic in Season 2, he morphed into Mopemaster Angel last year, slouching around the margins of the show and yearning for Buffy's touch. He seemed like a bone thrown to the Anne Rice fans in the viewership: he began as Louis, turned into a sneering Lestat, then reverted to remorseful Louis again. A lot of the third season seemed out of whack, since Angel had been so bastardly that you couldn't really see anyone trusting him again no matter how much he pouted and posed in the fog. So I really didn't expect to enjoy Angel as much as I did.

Yes, the show is Batman-esque. There's more than a hint of the Caped Crusader as well as Darkman in this grim avenger of the night with his long black trenchcoat (glad to see the WB didn't let Columbine scare them into outfitting Angel in darling pastels). The great thing about Joss Whedon is that he gives you the borderline cheesy superhero stuff, while at the same time he's tweaking it, so you can enjoy it on both levels. It can't be a coincidence that our first view of Angel in his new show is a scene of him at a bar pretending to be shitfaced, telling some bald black guy how much he reminds Angel of Buffy ("especially the hair"). Later, in the midst of a tense chase scene, Angel smoothly leaps into a sleek black convertible to pursue some bad guys; turns out it's the wrong car. If the show continues its delicate balance of taking Angel seriously and not taking him too seriously, Angel could stay interesting.

It helps, too, that Angel has a couple of comic foils. There's Doyle (Glenn Quinn), a demon sent by "the powers that be" to guide Angel on his do-gooder quest for redemption. Doyle seems to be cut from the same cynical cloth as Whistler (Max Perlich), the demon who steered Angel to Sunnydale (Season 3, "Becoming, Part I"), and as played by Quinn he's good, sarcastic sidekick material. But the main draw for Buffy holdovers is Cordy (the always entertaining Charisma Carpenter), now a struggling actress in L.A., who by the end of the pilot episode has manipulated her way into Angel's mission: she'll organize the savior-for-hire business she envisions for Angel and Doyle. The show will be worth watching just for Cordy's snide capsule reviews of Angel's gloomy redemption kick. She was always funniest when dissing stuffy elders like Giles, not peers like Willow or Xander, and she could be the show's much-needed reality (and irony) check.

What remains to be seen is whether the vamp has legs of his own. I like the premise of L.A. as a playpen for monsters who prey on gullible would-be starlets, and I'm intrigued by the idea of the "law firm" that appears to be in the business of cover-ups and generally enabling evil behavior. But the disposable villain of the pilot episode was your garden-variety vampire, and I wonder if Angel will run into the same dilemma that The X-Files and, to a lesser extent, Buffy have faced: the monster-of-the-week syndrome, which necessarily exhausts the villainy options after a while. Also, even a non-stickler for detail such as myself noticed several logical flaws in the pilot concerning Angel's abilities. Sometimes daylight sears his flesh, sometimes he's standing idly in a well-daylit room with no harm done. This was especially jarring in the climax, when he visited the evil vamp at his office and introduced him to the wonders of gravity. How'd Angel get there in broad daylight? And isn't he unable to enter anyplace he's not invited? (Why would a strange man in a black trenchcoat be invited to enter a rich businessman's top-floor office? Where's this guy's security? Glitch.)

Regardless, I'm with the show unless and until it starts to get stupid. Joss Whedon obviously can't be as hands-on with every episode of Angel as he was at its birth; as with Buffy, he'll oversee the show, leaving the bulk of its installments to other keyboards and writing or directing the occasional important episode. I hope Whedon isn't spreading himself too thin, though it seems that TV producers (Bochco, Kelley, et al) can keep an infinite number of plates spinning at once. Whedon has only two, and so far he's shown a pretty good touch.