How "Angel" Perfected the Art of the Spinoff
Blog Post by Jeremy Grayson (Jeremy G.)
[Television] Posted on November 9, 2016 / Last Updated on November 11, 2016
The Angel's in the Details
Television, as the current deluge of shows across broadcast, cable, and the Internet can attest, is quite the hungry beast, constantly in need of new ideas to freshen and sustain a year-round schedule. And with millions of dollars at stake each time a new series premieres, it's understandable that network executives would be skeptical about trying ideas that stray too far from the cultural norms. Though recent years have seen a handful of high-art, auteur series make their way to the airwaves, the majority of shows understand that they must hook an audience in order to stick around.
To industrialists, familiarity is key – whether in the comforting routine of a procedural or the immersiveness of a large-scale TV epic, everyone has a genre or setting which connects with them. Viewers are by nature drawn to shows which connect with them, which may in turn lead them to checking out other, similar shows in the future. Networks, understandably, are always on the lookout for the next Cheers or Law & Order or Breaking Bad. Sometimes they'll discover them through reverse-engineering, while other times, they'll find success in a spinoff.
Yes, spinoffs are an easy means of audience connectivity – thanks to its parent property, the new series practically has a built-in fanbase before it even premieres. If you like The Vampire Diaries, try The Originals! If you enjoy Arrow, check out The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow! Spinoffs don't need to even be natural outgrowths of a pre-existing show – as the four million Happy Days offshoots have proven, you just establish a tangible connection with a popular series before breaking off into your own ratings dynamo.
But the success rate of popular spinoffs can be deceiving. For every Frasier or Special Victims Unit or Better Call Saul, there are a dozen AfterMASHes and Trial By Jurys and Beverly Hills Buntzes. The majority of spinoffs don't last more than a single season, and many never even make it past the planning stages. Why?
Part of the problem may stem from the very design of spinoffs. Turning a beloved supporting character into a central figure can be difficult, since it's too easy to make them feel overexposed. The base mentality – "If you loved Joey in small doses on Friends, wait'll you get a load of him on HIS OWN SHOW!" – ultimately proves many spinoffs' undoing. Supporting figures can get away with exaggerated personalities and a relative lack of depth, but shining a spotlight on them just reveals their inherent flaws.
There are ways around this, of course. The best of spinoffs have succeeded by remodeling and repurposing themselves around their newly-centralized character. Lou Grant put its gruff, spunk-hating lead in a more hard-edged and serious world than the upbeat Mary Tyler Moore Show. Daria placed the Beavis and Butt-head foil in a more grounded, character-centric world which she was free to mock but eventually come to terms with. Frasier took the snobbiest and most erudite character on Cheers and surrounded him with other snobby and erudite characters, thus downplaying the more exaggerated aspects of his character.
Still, there's one series that capitalized on the potential of the spinoff like no other. And if you've spent enough time on this website, you can probably guess what it is.
(Spoilers for both the show and its spinoff follow...)
The idea of giving the soulful, brooding love interest on Buffy the Vampire Slayer his own series did not spring from thin air. David Boreanaz took some time to grow into his role, and he wasn't even given a regular contract until the second season. But, by and large, he began to display genuine signs of talent, particularly when Angel lost his soul and became one of the show's most formidable Big Bads. By the time Buffy began production on its third season, Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt were already mapping out plans for an Angel series.
As aforementioned, launching a spinoff can be a feat on its own. (In later years, Joss would draft plans for spinoffs centering on Spike and Faith, as well as a prequel series centered on a teenage Giles – none of which ever made it past the drawing board. An animated Buffy series nearly made it to air, but was scrapped when the studio financing it shut down.) But in the fall of 1999, Angel had its premiere, right after the fourth-season debut of its parent show.
From its early days, Angel aimed to establish that it was more than just a quick money-grab. With this second series, Joss and co. wanted to expand the world of demons and vampires they had created a few years earlier. Over each of its first three seasons, Buffy had grown more and more confident, complex, and serialized. Now it was time to take things to a new level.
Airing the two shows back-to-back was in itself a smart decision, and not simply because it sustained good viewership from one series to the other. Though Buffy and Angel took place in different locales, it was important to remind viewers that their worlds were inextricably linked. Be it through a brief phone-call crossover between "The Freshman" and "City of" or Oz and Spike dropping by Los Angeles in "The Harsh Light of Day," Joss and his team were careful to establish a bond between their two series. They also took pains to ensure that these crossovers didn't come off as cheap ratings stunts – a guest star on one show would then lead to a guest star on the other, with the entire procedure seamlessly integrated into the overall narrative.
Easily the most ingenious of these crossovers occurred in the fall of 2000, when Buffy's "Fool for Love" aired alongside Angel's "Darla." Though the two episodes never directly interacted, they were clearly interwoven thematically, with flashbacks that fed differing perspectives and added up to an even more intriguing whole than its excellent parts. One could easily follow one episode without having seen the other, but their combined effect enhanced both immeasurably.
But the "Fool for Love"/"Darla" combo was the last back-to-back crossover the two shows would ever do. In the spring of 2001, the WB's contract with Buffy ran out, and the network, having struggled to support the show for five seasons, declined to renew it. UPN swooped in to save the Slayer, eager to turn her series into a hit of its own. Angel remained on the WB, and the spinoff managed to eke out one more semi-crossover in its Season Two finale, where Alyson Hannigan made a brief, wordless cameo.
The split was complicated from the get-go. The fifth season of Buffy had ended with the title character's dramatic death, an event that would doubtlessly impact all those close to her. Naturally, the Angel writers felt compelled to respond to Buffy's death and subsequent resurrection. The WB balked at the idea – Buffy was now allied with their network competition, and they were hoping to minimize interactions between the two shows. Joss eventually talked them into allowing a few references, but no onscreen crossovers were permitted.
The writers turned this to their advantage, however – the ending of "Flooded" and beginning of "Fredless" imply that Buffy and Angel arranged a meeting following her revival, but the events of said meeting are never shown or elaborated. It's a level of ambiguity which makes the emotional rift between the two characters incredibly potent, perhaps more effective than the onscreen alternative.
Still, the message was clear: Avoid crossovers. This wasn't the worst of restrictions, though – after two seasons, Angel had very much established its own tone and mythology, and was now fully capable of standing on its own. (Or at least standing after new episodes of 7th Heaven.) Thus, the two shows went their separate ways, with Angel diving even deeper into its increasingly complicated mythology than it had before. A newcomer, in fact, could be forgiven for not connecting the spinoff to its parent series at all.
By early 2003, Buffy was flagging in the ratings, and Joss Whedon mutually agreed with UPN that it was time to end the show. At the same time, the highly serialized fourth season of Angel had begun to put off some viewers, some of whom were abandoning it as well. Thus, restrictions loosened, and crossovers became key to Buffy's farewell and Angel's survival. Faith did a multi-episode arc across both series, and Willow popped up for one more Angel episode. (Though even the latter example was botched by some unfortunate outside circumstances – "Lies My Parents Told Me," the Buffy episode which paved the way for the crossover, was meant to air before Angel's "Orpheus." But "Lies" was nationally preempted by a news report signaling the American invasion of Iraq, and thus did not air until the week after "Orpheus," fudging with the arc's chronology.)
Angel popped up one final time for the last two episodes of Buffy, an arrangement made complicated by Boreanaz's WB schedule. (He was only available on the Buffy set for about seven hours, which meant his scenes in "End of Days" and "Chosen" had to be filmed rather quickly.) And that was that – in May of 2003, Buffy ended its run, leaving Angel the sole standard-bearer of the franchise. (And, by extension, the Whedonverse – Firefly had come and gone just a few months prior.)
Ironically, with Buffy now out of the picture, the WB was not only more receptive to more cross-promotion – they demanded it. Fan popularity of the parent series was still going strong, and the network realized there were still ways to capitalize on it. As the Angel staff made their yearly request for a new season, the WB demanded that they bring fan-favorite character Spike aboard the show.
Angel had, by this point, grown so independent from Buffy that the idea of adding in one of that show's most recognizable characters seemed like a regression. Nevertheless, rules were rules, and James Marsters was given an Angel contract. (It helped that several Buffy writers were now transferring to the spinoff, eager to keep the franchise pumping.) For good measure, the producers also brought back Mercedes McNab as Harmony, whose past history with Spike could give the character some extra balance in this new world.
The transition could have been tumultuous, but without the need to worry about any further Buffy continuity, Angel was able to liven up its world in fresh and innovative ways. The network's other informal request – cut down on the heavy serialization – forced the writers to flex their muscles in new ways every episode. Angel had by this point not merely grown out of Buffy's shadow; it was casting a formidable shadow of its own.
Still and all, cross-continuity was not completely forgotten. "Damages" served as a follow-up to the events of the Buffy finale, going so far as to feature Andrew in the guest cast. (The use of Andrew – who would return in "The Girl in Question" – was a good choice, as he was recognizable enough to the Buffy cast to form a tangible connection while still not integral enough to the parent series that it would detract from the closure that "Chosen" gave.) Not every bit of cross-breeding worked – a couple of Sarah Michelle Gellar doubles in "Soul Purpose" and "Girl in Question" rubbed off as awkward in context – but the fifth season of Angel respected the ending of Buffy while still keeping a few of its embers alight.
Angel finally drew to a close in the spring of 2004, ending the televised Buffyverse along with it. (Both shows continue in comic book form, with no signs of stopping; as of this writing, Buffy is about to begin Season Eleven.) But the legacy left behind was incredible: two shows, 254 episodes, one sprawling and immersive world.
In recent years, spinoffs have been generally reserved for the procedural crowd – your CSIs, your NCISes, your Chicagos. Networks have found replication most appealing when the original formula is safe and simple to duplicate. Still, there are those who understand the appeal of spinning off and cross-branding different TV series (most notably, the various Marvel-based shows currently streaming on Netflix). If capitalized properly, spin-offs can add new depths and dimensions to worlds we only thought we knew in the past. It's just one of many marks left by the double-masterpiece of Buffy and Angel.
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