It’s almost impossible to look at Angel in the first year of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not think of everything that awaits him in the second, and beyond. There’s the big, obvious, unforgettable stuff, of course, the events of “Surprise,” “Innocence,” and of course “Becoming.” But it’s little things too: in “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” Cordelia gets her first sighting of the Broodiest Vamp Ever. For seasoned fans, this whisper of an encounter brings up so many memories, calling up the whole story of Angel and Cordelia and their peculiar evil-fighting partnership.
Big things happen to Angel in his opening year in Sunnydale—that much is indisputable. He meet the Slayer, falls for her, and comes out to her as a vampire. He sacrifices Darla, gains Buffy’s acceptance and... well, other than that, he spends a lot of time avoiding her, actually.
It’s too painful, he says, by way of an excuse, to be around Buffy.
Love, pain and the death of innocent bystanders are inextricably wound together in BtVS, but in S1 we only see the first cruel glimmerings of this particular law of the Buffyverse. This season sketches in a mere outline of Buffy and Angel’s romance (and a second doomed love story, too!) without ever coloring in much detail. We see the duo fall for each other, see them struggle a bit with commonsense, the notion that really, they just plain shouldn’t. A Slayer and a vampire... bad idea, right?
But as the curtain falls on S1, we have no idea how bad. Sure, there’s a whiff of Capulet and Montague in the air, not to mention the age difference: Angel is so much older than Buffy. He’s got that terrible past as Angelus to live down. Perhaps most significantly, both parties can clearly see there’s no real prospect of them offering each other anything resembling a normal life.
So they fight the attraction and stay out of each others’ way... but they can’t choose not to fall.
There’s so much going on in the first season of BtVS, so much groundwork being laid that a mostly-implied romance is plenty, in a lot of ways. This is even truer because the on-screen chemistry doesn’t really start crackling between Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz until further into the story. Boreanaz’s initial appearances as Angel are stiff and more than a little smarmy. He got to be quite a good actor, in my opinion, but that came with time and practice. The Angel of Los Angeles—Cordelia’s work-hubby, if you will—has so much more depth than these initial appearances in BtVS suggest: in the very beginning, he mostly alternates between being a wise-ass and wobbling on the verge of tears.
(Nathan Fillion auditioned for this part, did you know? Imagine the alternate universe where that came together. Seriously—dig your favorite Angel scenes out of mental storage and make the substitution. Even if it’s just a second to revisualize “Smile Time,” I guarantee fun.
Oh dear, and now my fanbrain is running off on a tangent whereby I’m imagining Nathan Fillion as Captain Jack Harkness—another great coat role!—and maybe one of the male leads in Heroes.... and sorry. Where was I?)
Boreanaz. That’s right—he got better. His character was scripted with increasing finesse over time, which didn’t hurt. It’s one of those self-evident things: when Angel stopped being a brash, off-putting stranger who lurked into the Bronze with warnings about Impending Evil, he got more compelling.
By contrast, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was a much stronger performer from the start, doesn’t seem to have grown that much. I’m watching Ringer now, and enjoying it, but as I simultaneously rewatch BtVS, I have to say what I’m seeing is essentially the same bag of actor tricks. The primary difference is that Ringer is much less funny, which is a shame—Gellar did some terrific comedy in BtVS, and it’s too bad she’s in a series that takes itself far too seriously to cut up.
But maybe that’ll change. For the moment (it’s December as I write this) she and Ioan Gruffudd are also trapped in the Hell of No Chemistry.
(And now I’m thinking about Ioan Gruffudd as Angel, and Captain Jack Harkness... oops!)
The other budding romance in S1 is of the blink-and-you-miss-it variety... it’s the very beginning of Rupert Giles and Jenny Calendar... and I’m betting that if you’re reading this, you already know how that turned out. It’s tempting to dismiss their early flirtation as minor Scooby action, because in S1 that’s about all it comes to. It’s only in hindsight that we realized that even as the Master made his play to escape and open the Hellmouth, these two couples were on a collision course with a huge tragedy... one that seemed unthinkable as S1 ended, but inevitable as it played out, week after heart-stopping week, half a season later.
If all this sounds like I’m saying that S1 is mostly build-up... where romance is concerned, there is an element of truth to that. But I’m going to talk about “Prophecy Girl” and the Master and how it all wrapped up, next week, and there’s genuinely good storytelling there. It’s not uncommon to hear even devoted fans dismiss the BtVS freshman year, but it’s important to remember: it was good enough to hook us, to bring us back in September ready and eager for more. It was the gateway, the opening act that earned our affection and loyalty before things in Sunnydale started to get really messy.