Can you remember what it feels like to fall in love for the first time? With a TV show, that is. Unlike movies, which last three hours at most, good television can drag out the infatuation for years—gradually unfurling characters and story lines, deliciously tormenting our desire for resolution. Only a few current series have managed to keep the romance alive past the paper anniversary, one of them being ER.
Despite years of devotion, I had lost the will to watch the drama after the death of Mark Greene, the gentle, morally centered character played by Anthony Edwards. It seemed unlikely that I could find anything new in ER‘s dilapidated formula, which basically boils down to rapid-fire occupational patter (later taken up by The West Wing), agonizing but not overly graphic medical procedures, and an endless torrent of interoffice romances and ethical dilemmas. It had become utterly predictable, televisual comfort food. Only an extreme intervention could resuscitate the show. And so ER performed radical surgery on itself: It yanked two of its most cherished doctors out of that ramshackle Chicago hospital and propelled them into the third world.
These aren’t your usual cheesy “on-location” episodes though—more like The Killing Fields than the Brady Bunch’s infamous Hawaii vacation or Friends in London. Last spring the series left off with sexy Croatian exile Dr. Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic) volunteering for a humanitarian mission in a war-torn corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the do-gooding Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) joined him there briefly, then fled the chaos. At the start of this new season, Carter heads back to Kisangani—this time to search for Luka’s body. Not an easy task, since thousands of people are being slaughtered every week, corpses piled in heaps for later reckoning. A creature of privilege despite his rich-boy guilt, Carter brandishes $20,000 in cash, hoping to buy people off—but instead pisses people off. “I didn’t mean to offend you,” he apologizes to Debbie, an icy blonde aid worker (and possible love interest). “I was led to believe money can sometimes be helpful in situations like this.” Spoken like a true American.
Although ER has always dabbled in hot-button issues like abortion and assisted suicide, it rarely waded into sticky world politics. Yet here it is, dramatizing a brutal war that has barely entered into most Americans’ consciousness. “I consider myself reasonably well-informed,” Carter tells Debbie one night, “but before I came I hadn’t heard a thing about the Congo.” Carter accuses the U.S. government of ignoring the situation because there’s “no oil here” and then indicts himself too, admitting that, unlike the more noble Luka, he hadn’t come to Africa with gloriously selfless motives: He got on the plane because he wanted to escape his needy girlfriend.
There’s something creepy about using real-world atrocity as a backdrop for TV drama. Yet, so far ER has done more than just co-opt suffering, the show has used it to illustrate the viewer’s gaping disconnect from this world, and to deepen a character like Carter, who hates himself for being so privileged and who redefines American intervention as altruism rather than preemptive self-defense.
It’s one thing to renovate a show voluntarily, quite another to do so at gunpoint. Angel began four years ago as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, with a tight ensemble cast and a Buffy-esque mixture of pathos, hilarity, and ass-kicking. At its best, this saga of a vampire with a soul was one of the most melancholy, piercing series on prime time. Until last season, that is, when it succumbed to a bloated story line involving a mind-controlling god-dess sired by Angel’s son, who grew up in a hell dimension, and Angel’s paramour, who turned all devilish and ended up in a coma and . . . See what I mean?
The word is that Angel was on the verge of cancellation last spring. To avert certain death, the producers concocted a whole new framework for the program. Angel and the remaining gang of do-gooders (minus the girlfriend in a coma) would take over the L.A. branch of Wolfram and Hart, a wicked law firm whose controlling partners reign from hell. They’d work their way through evil, one case at a time—a postmodern, supernatural L.A. Law, if you will. Initially it sounded like a terrible idea, but the two episodes I’ve seen suggest the revamped Angel might just work. Out with the old mawkish meditations on redemption and mercy, in with a giddy, self-consciously clever approach. The season debut opens with a familiar scenario: Angel (David Boreanaz) swooping into a seedy alley to rescue a damsel from a nasty vampire. After slaying the bad guy, Angel stalks off into the darkness—only to be greeted by a phalanx of Wolfram and Hart bureaucrats who induce the damsel to sign a contract indemnifying the company against damages. “You run a law firm?” the young woman asks with undisguised horror.
Angel does run a law firm now, but he’s not quite sure what to do with it. He and the gang wander around Wolfram and Hart’s corporate skyscraper joking about the ridiculous plot premise. “We’re crusaders against evil and now the law firm that represents most of the evil in the world has given us their L.A. branch,” jabbers Fred (Amy Acker), the show’s giggly female brainiac. “Probably in an attempt to corrupt and divide us. And we all say yes in, like, three minutes.” That’s because they’ve been enticed with personalized bribes: Fred is given her own state-of-the-art scientific lab; Wesley (Alexis Denisof) has access to all the mystical reference books he could want; Gunn (J. August Richards) trades his street smarts for book smarts; and Lorne (Andy Hallett), the green lounge singer, becomes an entertainment industry power broker, allowing him to riff on the stars who’ve made pacts with the devil, e.g., the Olsen twins.
Angel is the character most adrift in this new setup. No more of that dashing “find the bad guy and put a stake in him” stuff. Our hero now presides over a firm whose clientele is primarily demonic; if Angel kills all his fiendish clients, then the company falters and he loses the resources and power that Wolfram and Hart puts at his disposal. So Angel CEO must keep up his bottom line while also working to conquer the evil empire from within. This gives rise to some witty legal set pieces. Discussing the details of one upcoming case, a lawyer explains, “The jury is tamperproof. Literally—I think one of the D.A. shamans has conjured a mystical shield around them.”
Meanwhile, there are plenty of inside jokes for longtime Angel and Buffy fanatics. Harmony (Mercedes McNab), who has transformed over the years from Sunnydale airhead to devious vampire (and sometimes sycophantic girlfriend of Angel’s nemesis, Spike), pops up here as Angel’s comically ditzy secretary. When asked why she’s at Wolfram and Hart, Harmony replies, “Duh—I’m a single undead girl trying to make it in the city!” Even more enticing to slayer devotees, Spike (James Marsters) has joined the series, adding a frisson of sexual tension and jealousy between the Men who Loved and Lost Buffy. Spike—destined to play ghostly sidekick to Angel—feels as sorry for himself as ever: “I save the world, throw myself onto the proverbial hand grenade for love and honor, and what do I get?” Just as ER‘s Dr. Carter can never measure up to the long-suffering Luka, Spike forever lags behind the ever noble Angel.
This sudden abandonment of apocalyptic gloom for lighthearted jokiness may back-fire: Messing around with the emotional investment of longtime fans is a risky strategy. And the self-referentiality could drive away new viewers not sufficiently versed in slayer lore—presumably the very audience that this overhaul was designed to attract. But in the wasteland of prime-time television, Angel remains an oasis of ambiguity, an eccentric genre series once again pulsing with undead energy.