I've said before that early Angel was much more noir. I was talking out my ass, because I hadn't watched it in so long. I was right though, as I realize now that I view the DVDs. Here's a list of things that caught my eye, contributing to a richer, more complex universe:
* Other characters. Agents, actresses, gym queens, museum guards, baristas, bouncers, waitresses, massage parlor managers, spa boys, cops, acquaintances of Cordy's.
* Cordy's personal life and her attempt to build a career. Auditions, bit parts, star-struck adulation of celebrities.
* The Hollywood parties, the club scenes, the premiers.
* Fantastic use of L.A. itself--the real city. Crisp location night shots of streets, traffic, people on the hoof, building exteriors, knitting together scenes so that you had a firm sense of place for each plot, all of it establishing that there was actually a world outside the A.I. offices.
* Angel speaking Korean to a contact as he plumbed the underworld where demons and humans mingled.
* Angel with his own private life and personal space and quirks. Reading books, making breakfast for Wes and Cordy, having down time, and in general possessing history and feelings and issues that had nothing to do with them. Angel with an interest in art--hello, continuity--who could turn on a dime and extemporaneously lecture on the context of a Manet to an interested museum crowd (with sidenotes on Baudelaire), or recognize a minor sculpture from a bad sketch.
* Believable human concerns dealing with money, careers, social standing.
* A hero who had to work at what he did. Who had strap-on stakes and grappling hooks to climb buildings; who broke into shabby offices and riffled through desk drawers for clues. Like, you know, a detective.
* Interstitial scenes where characterization linked together plot elements. Small stuff, like Angel changing his shirt as he discussed a case, or Cordy on stage in a theater production as her pals sat watching painfully.
I think I had some other entries in that list, but it's too much effort to reconstruct everything.
Anyway. I was saying to S. the other night that as shows age, they become stylized versions of themselves. Current season Angel has been stripped down to essentials, and turned into a lean, efficient storytelling machine, if you like that sort of thing: we have epic drama and we have relationship angst, and that's it. What we lack is a context, where the characters deal with each other in a more mundane way, brushing up against each other with gripes and gossip and grins over the small stuff.
The personal claustrophobia is paralleled in setting; the show has hermetically sealed itself into the Hyperion, and rarely ventures out into L.A. proper any longer. In early Angel, Hollywood and underworld were two faces to one town, light and dark, building an atmospshere lifted from the hard-boiled detective genre, where in one scene the hero might attend a glamorous industry party, and in the next visit a seedy massage parlor. The demonical element added a unique spin to that universe. Now, instead of season one's compellingly plausible Hollywod parties, we have the kind of bland, unmarked events we saw in "Players." Who cares what business this guy is in, or who the people at his party are? No one is going to name-drop David Paymer's brother any more. These are just anonymous businessmen and faceless background noise. No one is trying to construct a tapestry of the universe. They just want undemanding sets against which the plot of the week can play out.
In early Angel, it was all about networking, as Cordelia would have said. People knew each other; Angel had contacts, cops had snitches, Cordelia had people who fed her news, and it was all part of one big food chain that was Los Angeles. In current Angel, the A.I. crew only talk to each other. They have no friends; they don't shop in supermarkets; they don't get their nails done. They don't even eat any more, or bring each other lattes, or read tabloids. They exist solely to worry about the end of the world, and to sleep with each other in incestuous, broody misery.
I know I'm making a critical comparison--I admit there were things to find fault with in early Angel: they overused guest stars who held no inherent interest for regular viewers; they played Wes too broadly; they built themselves a boring Kate and got bogged down in ephemeral plots with no real resonance. They didn't always know how to distinguish themselves from every other detective show out there, despite having a premise that allowed for almost anything. And yet at its best, early Angel was a richly constructed world where career ambition and social status and vampire angst, fame and loneliness and money, all whirled around each other in a storm of significance. It wasn't just about a Big Rubber Demon threatening to knock heads together. It was instead a complicated web and if you twitched one string, another trembled; it was a show fundamentally about human connections, social and emotional and financial, and the rule above all others was, you couldn't cut yourself off from the rest of humanity. Which is what the gang has done to itself now.
Plus, Cordelia was damn perky. She was peppy, wide-eyed, funny, and endearing. When she nailed her two-hundred year old employer with sharp advice, it was plausible because she was nineteen years old and confident that she knew what was best for him. She was full of beans, and she had a life. Now she's haggard and wan, and when she talks to Angel, it's with the easy condescension of someone who's been to the ethereal plane, bought the tee-shirt, and didn't bother to take snapshots because it was all too dull. It makes me sad.
Hmm. I think I've forgotten a bunch of stuff I said before in my fabled lost post, but this'll do.