Saturday, August 2, 2014

Vampire Noir: Review of Angel by Stacey Abbott

Angel. Stacey Abbott. TV Milestones Series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Angel, the spin off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has always been in the shadow of its more famous sire ever since its debut on the WB network in 1999. The show would run for five seasons and end in 2004. Not surprisingly the show has also been in the shadow of Buffy in the world of academic publishing. While Buffy has been the subject of hundreds of articles and almost a dozen books Angel has been the sole subject of Stacey Abbott’s edited collection, Reading Angel (Tauris, 2005) and this one hot off the press from Wayne State University Press.

Like other books in Wayne State’s TV Milestones series Angel is short and leaves Abbott little room to manoeuvre. In five chapters and an introduction Abbott focuses on the collective and collaborative nature of Angel’s creation (Abbott critiques auteur theory arguing instead that Angel is the product of writers, directors, actors, and craftspeople and not creator Joss Whedon alone), Angel’s narrative and visual generic hybridity (a fashionable term these days which simply means that Angel mixes and matches multiple genres in this instance noir, horror, melodrama, comedy, and parody), Angel as horror (Abbott defends Angel as horror against those who claim that TV, because of its inherent limitations, can never be “true” horror), Angel and masculinity (Abbott sees Angel as post-masculinist buddy TV), and how Angel broke the rules of American television “stylistically, narratively, and generically” all the while challenging its viewers to step outside the box.

It is hard to disagree with Abbott that Angel mixes genres, including horror, and that it puts masculinity under its looking glass (as do Whedon’s other shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse). I do have some qualms about Abbott’s critique of auteurism in Angel and auteur theory in general, however. Abbott’s critique of auteurism is hardly novel. Many auteurists (and there are a variety of them ranging from Francois Truffaut to Andre Bazin to Robin Wood to Andrew Sarris) themselves have noted that film is a collaborative enterprise. Even Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema) limited the status of auteur to only a few “Olympians” like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks). The question then is not whether film, TV, or even literature are collaborative and collective enterprises. They are to varying degrees. The question is whether Joss Whedon, the co-creator or Angel along with David Greenwalt, is Angel’s auteur, Angel’s conductor-creator. And while all things Whedon may not end with Joss they certainly, as Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse writer Jane Espenson says, begin with him and return to him throughout the creative process. Joss, as Buffy’s costume designer says, even had a hand in what Buffy’s characters wore. Anyway, one only has to look at the themes that suffuse Whedon’s work in general (feminism, masculinity, family, existentialism, and moral choice to name only a few) to recognise Whedon’s guiding hand in the series. Finally, it would have been nice to see greater engagement with Angel as Angel, as narrative, as opposed to Angel as cipher of late twentieth century authorship, genre, and masculinity.

Wayne State is to be applauded for its publication of milestones in American TV show history. However, the format of the series is too brief to do justice to a complex series like Angel. Within these constraints Abbott has written a book that will likely, along with the essays in Reading Angel, be the academic standard for Angel Studies and the jumping off point for books on the series in the future.

This review originally appeared in a slightly different form as “Review of Angel by Stacey Abbott in the Journal of Popular Culture, 43:2 (April 2010), pp. 419-420.

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