At this time last year, the producers and cast of The WB Network's "Angel" faced the prospect of standing on their own for the first time, as elder sibling and former time-slot companion "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" moved on to the United Paramount Network.
With the show's season finale set for Monday, May 20 (9 p.m. ET), "Angel" is still alive and coming off what may be its most universally praised season.
Asked whether the show finally found itself or the audience just caught up with it, executive producer Tim Minear says, "It's a bit of both. I think we really hit, and people just noticed. I thought we hit it a bit last year, to be honest with you. I do think they're not wrong if they like it this year. You're going to find, particularly, the season finale is kick-ass. It's the biggest cliffhanger we've done."
"Angel" stars David Boreanaz as the title character, a vampire seeking redemption after a curse restored his soul. During three seasons on "Buffy," he was the Slayer's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) broody, romantic, great love; discovering who he was in the context of "Angel" proved trickier.
Boreanaz originally signed on to "Buffy" for just a few episodes. "I had two shirts, one coat, one pair of shoes," he says, "and the character has developed from there. This year I found out what he's made of."
The original idea for the series was Angel working off decades of bad vampire karma by helping the helpless as the head of a Los Angeles-based private-detective firm.
Toward the end of last season, the focus shifted more to the mythology of the character and developing the relationships among Angel and cohorts Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), Wesley (Alexis Denisof), Gunn (J. August Richards) and empathic demon The Host, aka Lorne (Andy Hallett).
Added to the mix last year was Fred (Amy Acker), a lost Texas girl rescued by Angel from Lorne's home demon dimension.
This season, cases have been eclipsed in importance by a season-long story arc that saw the return of Darla (Julie Benz), the vampire who created Angel, who became inexplicably pregnant after an encounter with him last season.
Sacrificing herself in childbirth, Darla produced a son heralded in prophecies, the full extent of which have yet to be revealed. Making things more difficult was vampire hunter Holtz (Keith Szarabajka), a foe from Angel's past brought forward in time to seek revenge.
Holtz eventually stole Angel's son, Connor, and took him into another dimension. The boy later returned as a teen-ager (Vincent Kartheiser) -- time passes differently in other dimensions -- burning for revenge against the "evil" father he never knew. This all leads up to the explosive season finale, "Tomorrow," written and directed by executive producer David Greenwalt, who co-created the series with Joss Whedon ("Buffy" ).
"I think the baby arc was a very good idea," Minear says. "Everyone was a bit iffy on it at first. It's so out of left field in some ways, and yet it fit perfectly with what happened in season two. It afforded us wonderful melodrama in its different stages, from the revelation to the birth to the abduction to the return. And I think you'll find that it goes on."
"It was a big story arc for Angel's character and the people around him," says Boreanaz, who became a first-time father himself when wife Jamie Bergman gave birth to a son on May 1. "It developed a strong bond between the people he's affiliated with now. So it determines a lot of what happens in season four, too, big time."
Minear also is unapologetic for jumping Connor forward in age, something more commonly seen in daytime drama. "We actually said that. Cordelia, in episode 20, said, 'Tell me we don't live in a soap opera.'"
"People were complaining about, 'They're making baby talk,' which, if that continued, would be unbearable. But, of course, you have to play the beauty of the child for the abduction to mean anything," Minear says.
"The baby was there so the baby could be taken so the baby could come back so Angel could interact with this kid."
"We knew it would spin some heads," Boreanaz says, "with this kid coming back."
Also up for grabs in the finale is the sputtering romance between Angel and Cordelia, who also made the crossover from "Buffy." Despite feelings on both sides, the two have not quite come together. But even the suggestion was enough to miff some fans.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," Minear says. "Change is always difficult for fans of a show, and particularly when there's something attached to it called Buffy-Angel, which is the great mythic romance of all time."
"We never will [get past that]. I don't think we ever will. That may not be the opinion of everyone here, but in my opinion, it's not something you can get by. I get the Cordy thing. I understand it, and I think it's going to go to an interesting place. I wouldn't worry, because we're not going to go anywhere where anyone would expect."
Although UPN would gladly pick up "Angel" as a companion to "Buffy," it's staying put on The WB - continuing to quash any possibility of crossovers between the shows. Minear doesn't see that changing.
"I don't think, as long as we're on The WB, that there'll be crossovers. That's my guess."
Besides, the denizens of "Angel" have enough problems of their own. "More melodrama. The big pain. It's all about the pain on 'Angel.' It's always all about the pain. We'll probably even ratchet it up one more degree. You'll see less downtime between the pain," Minear says.
"There will be an occasional happy, so that it might be crushed under the boot of the writer."
by Kate O'Hare, Zap2It.com