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August 20 2008

The storytelling engine of Angel. John Seavey looks at the ideas that made up Angel. It's an incredibly good read and if you want more, then have a look at his examination of Buffy.

An explanation of John Seavey's ongoing series can be found here.

Two words: Awe! Some!
Really? I had the opposite reaction. I found myself wondering what show the writer was watching. I didn't agree with him at all. He just didn't "get it" All these changes, setting, adding and removing characters, schools, didn't really matter to me at all in the larger scheme of things. It was still the world of Buffy.
I completely agree with this analysis. I do not see what you think he did not get; I think he understood quite well what was happening and why, but felt that the show lost focus. Good article.
I think he's largely correct in his assessments of what both series do and how they tell stories; I disagree with him on some of what he considers "mistakes." For example, in the Buffy article, I don't think that losing the "high school is hell" metaphor along the way was a bad choice, but a necessary and ultimately beneficial one. The high school years of the show are great, but I absolutely adore what came afterward. Similarly, I don't think that either show was cancelled because the shows were failing to produce good stories; "Buffy's" exit was planned by all involved, and "Angel" was having what many considered one of its strongest years.
I think Season 4 was a Tour de Force, an amazing piece of work, a 16 hour single episode that swept me and my wife up and shook our world.

Well, that's how I remember it, anyway.

Yes, it was amazing.
Spike doesn't fit in a Angel-shaped box. He refuses to lose a lot of those edges no matter the sanding. And he's all kinds of aggravated to even be in an Angel-like space. Which is great material. That's why he's still interesting when he could have just been the new vampire-turned-good placeholder. He resents the parallel. So does Angel, from what I understand. It's the difference between revisiting a theme and replaying a theme.
Excellent write-up, thanks for sharing!
I think he misses the point here. Half of the problem with the storytelling engines of most comics is their stability. They're too stable. They resist change. And change is the secret to creating a lasting serial product. Sure, you might not be able to run it for 50 seasons, but asking for 50 seasons is missing the point. Shows MUST change or they will cease being new and interesting. It doesn't make SENSE to portray 7 seasons of high school. For one thing, nobody stays in high school for seven years, and so that's a whole lot of trouble with the chronology that means it can't possibly stay synchronized. But more importantly, there can be no long-term fiction without character change, and there can be no character change without significant change in a variety of other ways. The things that happened in Buffy and Angel were inevitable. Sure, they might have fumbled a bit in season 6 of Buffy, but the things that happened had to happen sooner or later, and it was best that they did happen before the show started to stagnate.
I've known John for over 10 years, it's good to see a link to him from my favorite source of Buffy news.

While I think he'd appreciate the link, I know he'd like it more if you spelled his last name correctly.

Seavey not Savey.
I think this write-up has some interesting points to make, but I don't agree with a few of the conclusions. For Angel, I'd say I agree more-or-less with the general assesments of the seasons, up to season five, which I think might even be Angel's strongest season, despite the - indeed - very risky change of status quo. It certainly became a "new show" in many ways, but the change worked and proved true to the story of the characters and gave a new, interesting dynamic to the series. Plus, returning to more episodic storytelling in the "Buffy"-mold, means I can remember more strong single episodes from that season (Smile Time! A Hole in the World!) than any other. In fact, from a storytelling standpoint, the new setting - the evil lawfirm doing evil things, now being ruled by our "good" characters, trying to compromise and make things better - was story gold. It provides a steady basis for new stories, moral ambiguity and opportunities to explore our characters. In fact, it's even a nice metaphor for how many of us have to compromise our dreams in our careers, to make a simple living.

I also don't agree with the assesment of the Angel comic. While not as strong as Buffy S8 in many ways (which - I think - is mostly because of the amazing talent at work in that comic), it's certainly not the fault of the setting or story itself. Indeed, many fans would consider the end of S5 a cliffhanger needing resolution. A point I've never agreed on, but more than enough indication that there are ample story opportunities still there. Not to even mention that Joss already had a season six planned. What's more, the hell-setting is very grounded. It offers clear storytelling opportunities and resonates nicely with the already guilt-ridden character of Angel: was it all his fault? Does he have an obligation to "save" the human race? Do they still keep fighting, even with these odds? It's certainly fairly confined (I imagine this new "status quo" would not have lasted much more than a season - if even that - in a television series), but there's ample storytelling potential there.

As for his Buffy examination, I again think most of his points are spot-on. The series was most coherent in its first three seasons and was always looking for its feet, from a storytelling perspective, in the seasons that followed. What the writer is ignoring, however (perhaps logically, because it's not what this treatise is about), is that the rest of the show remained true to the characters. It had to re´nvent itself and was most succesfull in that (imho) in seasons 5 and 6. Yes, there are things I don't like in those seasons and there are mistakes I think the writers made (which we have all discussed on this site many times before :)), but even then the new status quo - a story about growing up, family and taking responsibility - while successfull, was never as elegant a concept as "high school is hell", which worked and resonated on so many levels. In fact, I'm not sure I ever saw a concept in any show that worked quite as well.

That's not to say Buffy became a bad show, or that the later seasons - which have a lot of fans, for obvious reasons - are worse. Just that from a conceptual, storytelling engine point of view, I'd have to agree with the writer: Buffy was never stronger than in its first three seasons.

[ edited by GVH on 2008-08-21 01:35 ]
Eh. Fear of change dressed up with a bit of jargon (my ears will bleed if I hear 'storytelling engine' one more time). Getting out of high school wasn't a mistake. Both Angel and Buffy are about life with all its vicissitudes and Buffy in particular is about growing up. Buffy is so powerful precisely because it goes from wonderfully entertaining high school drama-comedy to bleak, psychological piece of (kind of) realism where characters face, say, crappy fast-food jobs and mortgages. Add to that the problem that keeping the status quo would quickly become dull and that implausibly keeping the characters in high school forever would destroy the illusion that this the story was really taking place and it should be fairly obvious that not only did the writers have no choice but moving on was for the better.

Besides, seasons 4 and 5 of Angel are my favourites despite the horrendous group of episodes near the end of season 4.
Another objection I might raise to the BtVS piece is that Seavey seems to think that the goal of a TV show is to stay on the air, and therefore wants a stable storytelling engine to crank out tales in perpetuity. He seems to think that only SMG's decision to quit drove the show under, whereas to the best of my understanding, both Sarah and Joss had decided that it was time to end the show. A good story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, something which -- at least on the surface -- Seavey appears to have missed.

(Of course, Joss has decided to start up again. He even wants Season 9. But I suspect he may draw the line there, because we still need that ending.)

The comment on the blog from "Late to the Sky" neatly sums up my opinion of Season Six, because while high school may be hell, graduating and trying to start up your life can sometimes be just as bad. I had my own S6 period, and while in some ways having Buffy right there with me intensified the feelings, it was also an anchor in turbulent waters.
Clearly I'm not the only one who doesn't agree with his analysis. Although I think he has some good points, and I suppose he is correct that the show started with a set of archetypes, and kept bringing in characters when those archetype characters left, I do think he's overly simplifying. Also, he definitely seems to read in "missteps" and "mistakes" into the series that I don't think they made. The idea that Season Two was the peak of Angel is laughable. How could he not see how amazing the later seasons are? Three and Five stand as my two favorite seasons of television, period.

Although I do think he's right about why the Angel continuation has not been as good as the Buffy comics. Both shows ended on fairly final notes, but you have a much better idea of where Buffy could go. But in Angel, you don't even know what happens. There's just so many questions you have to address. You can find Buffy and Co. in a Scottish castle, and you can fill in the parts in-between, setting up the Slayer army. But the fates of the characters in Angel are so up in the air, you have to spend all this time reestablishing everyone in new roles.
graduating and trying to start up your life can sometimes be just as bad. I had my own S6 period, and while in some ways having Buffy right there with me intensified the feelings, it was also an anchor in turbulent waters.

Too true, too true. Buffy has & still does help me get through the dreaded Season 6 phase of my life. There are blips of Season 5 & 7 in there as well, but once high school is over, you basically cycle through these feelings in your life until it's over. Circle of life. I round mine with Buffy, Angel, Billy, & Firefly to keep me warm (& not squared).
I know he'd like it more if you spelled his last name correctly.


That was me posting it just before I hit the sack last night. All corrected now.
alpha5099: The idea that Season Two was the peak of Angel is laughable.

And yet, many people hold that opinion, myself among them.

I'm not saying that Season 5 was bad...I thought it was quite excellent, with the best standalones of any season. It was clearly the second-best season. Season 3 had a great story arc and, in my opinion, the single best villain in the entire Buffyverse. But the second season was magical.

It alone, of all the seasons, really focused on what redemption would mean for Angel, in part by having him do some things that should have been irredeemable. It alone had the four-character dynamic that made those first few seasons of Buffy so successful. (Even better, it had a completely DIFFERENT version of said dynamic.) It solidified our familiar faces from W&H, and brought back some old "friends." It balanced the arc episodes and the stand-alones in a near-flawless fashion.

And then Lindsey quit, Drusilla fled, Darla left -- only to come back the next season as a less interesting character, mind you -- and the show was never quite the same. And Seavey picks the exact right moment at which things go off the rails...the arrival of Connor as a "grown-up" character. I loved Goddard's redemption of Connor in "Origin," but I wasn't willing to give up a couple seasons of development, even for that gem.

Best of all, Season Two contains the ultimate pair of episodes, "Reprise" and "Epiphany." The whole rationale of the show is boiled into just two wonderful hours of television. They fit so well together that even though they weren't technically a two-parter, they might as well be. If you haven't seen them, you haven't understood Angel -- the character or the series.

Peak of the show? Harrumph. Season Two WAS the show. Season One was just tuning the instruments, and the other three seasons, magnificent as they are, exist as nothing more than variations on a theme.

More tomorrow when I'm not exhausted.
I thought season 2 was the best as well. Loved the gray Angel plotline and the Darla/Lindsey relationship. Tim Minear was firing on all cylinders during that time.
Season Two was my favorite, also. I'm just doing an AtVS re-watch, and though I like all of 'em in different ways, much like BtVS, I do have a favorite Season (and it's 5 for the Buffster.)

I'm now onto Angel 5, and while there are many reasons to enjoy it - including an adorable drunken Fred - I think the real secret ingredient is otter.
Nah. Home is probably a better episode than most of the episodes in season 2.
Loved the gray Angel plotline and the Darla/Lindsey relationship.

Yeah Angel going dark was great TV. Not sure season 2 was my favourite (it's close between 2, 3 and 5) but it was definitely a better shape for the show than the episodic detective series of season 1 (even though I like that well enough too) or the intense arciness of season 4. S5 I like because in many ways it mirrors season 1, they're actually pretty good book-ends for the show IMO (where 1 involved very little compromise and more straightforward heroics to change the world, 5 was about the more ambiguous heroism of changing with the world but not so much that you lose who you are - ultimately i'd say 5 suggests it's not really possible to achieve that balance, considering how grey it is it's actually quite "all or nothing at all" in its conclusions I reckon).

Quite well written analyses those with some good points (for instance I quite like the idea that season 7 inverted the teenage sturm und drang of seasons 1-3 with Buffy now in the adult position - even if I don't agree with it 100%) but I think he's looking at it purely from a writer's point of view (i'm assuming he's a writer) hence all the stuff about the dangers of change etc.

Because, of course, as fans we know that change was one of the things that made BtVS such a great show - it's a rites of passage story par excellence and for that you need change (at least through time and, as much as possible, through space as well IMO). Might've made it harder to write the show and i'd agree that the central theme of "high-school is hell" is purer in some ways but Buffy just wouldn't be the show it is (or the character she is) without change, mistakes, growth.

[ edited by Saje on 2008-08-21 10:02 ]
I disagreed so intensely with most everything about the BtS analysis .... another reviewer forever stuck in high-school mentality, unable to deal with change .... that I didn't even bother reading the AtS review.

I think Season 4 was a Tour de Force, an amazing piece of work, a 16 hour single episode that swept me and my wife up and shook our world.
Well, that's how I remember it, anyway.
Yes, it was amazing.

Chris inVirginia | August 20, 23:47 CET


My feeling exactly, about season 4. I've never seen a more seamless, season-long story arc or more perfectly realized character development. Not even mentioning the bounty of mind-bogglingly excellent single episodes.
It is very odd to see how much people are missing the point. He is not taking issue with the fact that they had to move the show out of high school; he understands that. What he is saying is that once Buffy did move from high school, in entering a new "engine" it was only partially able to use the strength of the metaphors that drove it so successfully. To the point where we got to S6, which was in some opinions off the rails compared to S1-3.

As to Angel, I have yet to be able to watch the full series. The few times I saw later shows, with Connor, I so hated him that I had to turn it off. But this is not about fave eps or seasons as about the decisions made to write those eps and seasons. To that extent, I think his analysis is a good one.
Connor's annoying but it's only bad writing that inspires me to turn off, if he's written to be annoying and he is well then the show's working.

He is not taking issue with the fact that they had to move the show out of high school; he understands that.

Yeah but the sole reason he gives is the realities of actors ageing. From which it's reasonable to assume he feels that if the actors aged less (or somehow not at all, looking at you Marsters ;) then the show should have stayed in high-school (i.e. would have been better if it had) - though admittedly that's only an inference, he doesn't state it right out.

Well, most of us disagree - even if entropy wasn't the enemy, the show is still better not worse, because they left high-school and gave the characters a chance to grow. From the perspective of generating stories it might be harder but from the perspective of being told stories it's much, much better IMO.

ET make my English speaking gooder ;).

[ edited by Saje on 2008-08-21 12:31 ]
Okay, checking everyone's reactions this morning before heading off to work I feel compelled to mention that my first post way up top was a knee-jerk response to the IDEA of another Angel analysis, something that imho it doesn't get nearly enough of. Real Life has jumped up in the way of me actually getting to follow the link and read the essay yet, so I can neither confirm nor deny that the substance of the piece is, in fact, either "Awe" or "Some". I'll try to carve out a few minutes during work to actually read the thing and then come back when I have something productive to add.

However, just the idea of someone taking the time to give some attention to the generally ignored Angel gets a certain degree of "knee-jerk" hoorah from me. ;)
Well, most of us disagree - even if entropy wasn't the enemy, the show is still better not worse, because they left high-school and gave the characters a chance to grow.


Agreed. But even if the writer does or doesn't agree with that point (I agree that it could be inferred from his text that he doesn't, which I would then have to disagree with), it's not the focuss of the point he was trying to make. Which was that from a storytelling engine (have a bandaid, Let Down ;)) point-of-view, the show was never as strong as in its first three seasons. Which, I feel, is simply true.

"Highschool is hell" worked on so many levels. And while I agree with the passionate words from people in this thread on later seasons (it needed to happen, life after highschool can be hell too and that's being portrayed very effectively and true-to-life in the later seasons), the engine of the show was never as elegant or effective again. The shows later seasons lack in the metaphorical richness of the earlier ones. While fantastical events in the show keep being there as a catalyst to the journeys the characters are on, they became less strong as metaphors themselves (just take a look at the S6 Willow addiction storyline, which started out as a fine metaphor, but soon became literal). And while, arguably, this is offset by an even more increased level of moral complexity and more ambiguous character dynamics when compared to the highschool years (thus making the later seasons many people's favorites), the fact remains that the basic mission statement and structure of the show became more fluid en less apparent as time went on.

Best of all, Season Two contains the ultimate pair of episodes, "Reprise" and "Epiphany." The whole rationale of the show is boiled into just two wonderful hours of television.


Yep, I would agree that these are - from that standpoint - certainly the best two episodes on Angel (though I personally prefer A Hole in The World/Shells, because of the amazing performances and bigger emotional impact). I still get chills from the "if nothing we do matters, than all that matters is what we do" line, which is - basically - my personal life philosophy as well.

Season two was where the central concept of the first four seasons of Angel (although, arguably, the first season was structured so differently it doesn't count) worked best. It defined Angel as a show, for me. But then, in S5, they rearanged it, making it almost a new show in many ways, which means that - for me - it's hard to compare S2 and S5 and call a favorite. They both worked amazingly well, had outstanding episodes, were structured very, very nicely and connected with Angel's character the most.

And the fact that my favorite character arc on the show (Wesley) doesn't even have its main focuss in those two seasons, says something about the quality of Angel as a whole :).
Which was that from a storytelling engine (have a bandaid, Let Down ;)) point-of-view, the show was never as strong as in its first three seasons. Which, I feel, is simply true.

I sort of agree but with a major caveat - if by 'story' you/the author mean 'episode' then yeah, the show doesn't have as clear a shape, is never quite as "pure", not as metaphorically coherent as during seasons 1-3. My main disagreement is with that definition of 'story' because to me the 7 year story trumps individual episodes and that would be absolutely impossible without messing with the "high-school is hell" engine.

What he seems to see as less coherent, as "never quite [being] the same again" I see as part and parcel of telling a rites of passage story (where your world starts simple but limited and ends up complex - less coherent - but boundless).
"It is very odd to see how much people are missing the point. He is not taking issue with the fact that they had to move the show out of high school; he understands that."

Maybe Dana but - apart from how Saje pointed out that the only reason he gives is that the actors would appear too old - he also uses the word 'mistake' at the end in a way that implies that changing their story engine was one.

"the engine of the show was never as elegant or effective again. The shows later seasons lack in the metaphorical richness of the earlier ones"

You might have a point there. Although I've always thought that season 6 at least was deliberately low on the metaphor. Sure there's the magic / crack metaphor but mostly the evil is human, the problems day-to-day and the monsters representative of nothing in particular. I can't really see that a season that deliberately eschews metaphor is necessarily any worse or better than the early metaphor-happy seasons. Or even that it's storytelling engine (gah!) isn't as good (though that might be true for other reasons).
My favorite season of Angel is also season 2 however my second favorite season is season 4 which isn't as well liked.

As for Buffy, season 2 and season 3 are my favorites although season 5 is also up there as well.I think every season have great stuff and I'm glad we got them.

I think the comics are firing on all cylinders.I'm actually enjoying season 8 more then I did season 6-7.It's almost like Joss got a creative recharge from the break between season 7 and the season 8 comics.

In regards to Angel:ATF,I'll admit,I consider the ending of NFA a cliffhanger.I know Joss doesn't and many here don't but I do.So I'm happy about ATF resolving that in my eyes.Plus I feel the tone and structure of ATF is very close to season 2 and season 4 of Angel which were my favorites.
My main disagreement is with that definition of 'story' because to me the 7 year story trumps individual episodes and that would be absolutely impossible without messing with the "high-school is hell" engine.


Well, I tend to look at Buffy in terms of seasons, which have pretty well contained stories (but share themes and have character arcs that connect them and make them a whole).

And yes, agreed that "high school is hell" was not sustainable after three seasons for a myriad of obvious reasons, not the least of which is that these chracters needed to grow (up) and change over the course of the show. I have no problem with changing the "engine" in a season (or sometimes, even in part of a season, like happened with the Pylea mini-arc in Angel), it's just that the show never found as strong a footing again in later seasons.

Never quite being the same again is not the problem here (at least, not for me). In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there's no problem at all (just look at Angel, which had one of its strongest seasons after completely changing the engine and status quo) in change. And I also accept the fact that after the first three seasons the engine became less elegant. In fact that lack of elegance may even have been a nice reflection in and of itself of the confusion of growing up in the later seasons (though I doubt that was a conscious choice). But it is a fair point to state that it did, in fact, happen that way. Although to call it a mistake is one bridge too far for me as well.
He raies one interesting point in the BtVS article; that, once they decided to try the new college metaphor, perhaps they should've tried to stick to it.
I think that the author paints a rather negative and cynical view of Buffy after the high school years. Sure, the "high school is hell" metaphor is amazing, and some of the best eps occurred during the first three seasons, (lord knows the SHS years will always have a very special place in my heart) but just b/c something works doesn't mean it should never be changed or made better. Clearly, the adages, "if it aint broke don't fix it" and "why improve a good thing" don't apply here, at least not in my humble opinion. If the show had stuck with the HS years, never venturing out to new territory or taking new risks. Well, the show would not have been as relatable as it was. To me, that is one of the wonderful things about the show is that it is so relatable and true to life. To stick with the HS formula just because it worked, would have been a mistake imo. and that's the great thing about this show. They were never afraid to take new risks and explore new territory. Joss and Co could always be counted on to push the envelope. Who knew that a show about vampires and the supernatural could turn out to be one of the most relatable things on television? Buffy was never afraid to touch upon those sensitive and controversial issues, (much of which takes place in S6) for that alone the show should be praised, not condemned as the author seems to be doing here, imho. Yes, the high school years were golden, but some of the best eps took place in the post HS years, and as a matter of fact, S7 happens to be one of my fave seasons. I feel that the author is not giving nearly enough credit to the inventive nature of the last four seasons.

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