What bedeviled Angel.
I don't run a weekly TV series, much less a weekly TV series whose fantasy/horror premise requires a good deal of stunt work and special effects, which spun off from another series whose canon is a fairly complex root system of its own. So, I can claim to understand the limitations the writers on such a show have to work within, and up to a certain point, I do understand them -- doing what I do for a living, I've developed kind of a heightened sense of why TV is put together the way it is sometimes.
But I don't understand it in the sense that I've done it myself -- that an actor comes into my office and tells me she's pregnant and I have to write with an eye to that when the season arc is already planned out, that I have to look down the long hallway of 22 hours of programming and figure out how to re-hang half the doors before opening them. It's not an easy job, the medium has restrictions, and I can sympathize with that up to a point.
But the problem with the fourth season of Angel is that I did sympathize with the creative team up to a point -- and then the creative team pushed me well beyond said point. What went wrong?
Before I get into that, let me say first that I didn't loathe the fourth season -- far from it. I liked it a great deal; this isn't a bad review. It's a diagnosis of wasted potential. Unfortunately, a lot of what I liked about the season got obscured by various distracting elements that I didn't like -- or, more to the point, just couldn't understand, and by "couldn't understand," I mean in the "as written, this is confusing" sense and in the "I think this is the wrong creative choice" sense.
Okay, enough abstracts -- let's get into concrete examples. The customary warnings re: spoilers and boring process exegesis apply.
Cordelia. Where to begin. I'll take the nitpickiest part first: what is going on with foregrounding Charisma Carpenter's gigantic breasts in every shot? If the character is not yet pregnant, you might want to draw attention away from the fact that her already formidable bosom is half again as big as when we last saw it. Writing around the pregnancy is really your only choice here, at least until you can position the plot around it properly, but next time, tell the costume department that that's the plan, and frame her shots a little tighter. I could see a difference immediately -- in her face, in her butt, I could tell she had put baby weight on, and Carpenter looked great, actually, but that isn't the point. Viewers read the entertainment press; don't dare us to find evidence that an actor is pregnant. Sit down and redo the shot list.
And after you do that, put together a Plan B for the story arc, and let the actress in on it. I don't doubt that it played better if you watched it on a weekly basis, instead of all the episodes right in a row like I did, and if you didn't know in advance that Cordy is the Big Bad like I did…but I don't think it played much better. One of the writers admits on the commentary of a mid-season episode that, at that point, Carpenter had no idea Cordelia would become the Big Bad. So, she's just playing her scenes straight -- scenes like, you know, seducing Connor during the rain of fire. And several episodes' worth of scenes after that.
Let's review: She had developed feelings for Angel; she knows Angel had developed feelings for her; she works with/for Angel; and she slept with his son. Who is a teenager, and who has a wretched haircut, and who has never known the touch of a woman because he spent his formative years in a hell dimension. Her stated reason for doing the Posturepedic polka with Connor, at the time: it looks like everyone's going to die so what the hey. Fine. But then when everyone doesn't die? How does the Cordelia character move forward from that? Because if she's not the Big Bad, she's mortified, I think -- and if she is the Big Bad, she's got to telegraph a steely no-regrets attitude somehow. Carpenter sort of split the difference, emotionally, and I don't blame her for that, but -- it's disorganized writing, at best.
I mean, basically, they had the character make a decision that said one of two things: 1) I have plunged us all into a horrendous Freudian clusterfuck, or 2) I have ulterior motives that bear all the hallmarks of evil. And then they just kind of…tabled the issue. Again, I sympathize with the limitations, and I understand that a lot of last-minute scrambling probably had to happen, but you need to have that Plan B in place already, not make it up as you go along.
Connor. Another area where the failure to delineate the Big Bad and do the prep work caused some problems for me. The addition of Connor period caused some problems for me, because the Jump The Shark rule about not adding a kid exists for a reason. In the case of Angel, giving Angel a child had some interesting implications, but…you know how Michael on Lost is always "my son" this and "my son" that, and in addition to never using the kid's name, he becomes a monomaniacal character who sees everything through the prism of his child's welfare, and Jack offers him a drink of water and he's duty-bound to respond, "Yeah, I need to stay hydrated so that I can find my son"? It's not that parents don't, or wouldn't, behave this way; it's that, week in and week out, it's not interesting to watch. For a few weeks, sure. For a season or more? Every week, the same gritty delivery of "not without my son" and "this is about my son" and "I'm going to save my son" and "give me back my son"?
"Well, but the wrinkle is that his son hates him." Right, but: see above. It's like the writers threw the entire father-son angst aspect of the relationship in neutral for a dozen episodes to focus on that pile of bricks calling itself the Master's second in command, which is a valid choice, creatively, but Connor's ongoing petulance and distrust and refusal to listen to reason -- it's not that it's unsympathetic, or out of character. It's that it's a serial TV show, not a movie, and either you can evolve the character somewhat and resolve a couple of the issues, or you can put him in dry dock somehow until you need him again for the plot, but "meanwhile, Connor is still conflicted" isn't the solution.
Buffy had the same problem in the sixth season regarding Buffy's downward spiral and how she supposedly hooked up with Spike to purposefully degrade herself so she'd feel something. I didn't love the Spuffy pairing, but as far as seeing what they'd intended to do there, sure, I could dig it. But then it just went on and on and on, she fucks him against a dumpster, she works at a burger joint, she's divorced from genuine emotion and self-medicating with pain and self-loathing, YEP, WE GOT IT, MARTI. The idea itself is not a bad one, but again, this is not a movie, and it's not that viewers can't handle unremitting darkness or depressive choices or whatever; it's not about giving us a happy ending that doesn't fit. It's about understanding that a realistic portrayal of an emotional state is not automatically good television.
Connor is a frustrating character for me, because while I get where he's coming from, he's…annoying, a lot of the time, and while I think his twitchy, PTSD-ish interactions with other characters ring true, it did get old after a while, like, again with this? The character has to move forward. It's not convenient, particularly, in series TV, to try to get your characters out of various ruts while plotting your major and minor arcs, and trying to fit those developments together so it seems organic -- it's not an easy job. But it is in fact the job on a serial drama, like it or not.