Joss Whedon's Focus On Firefly Came At A Cost For Angel

"Angel" might be the most underappreciated show in Joss Whedon's entire oeuvre. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is rightly touted as his greatest achievement (it's my favorite show of all time), but if you ask me, its spin-off deserves more affection than it gets. "Angel" might get less attention from fans than its parent series or Whedon's space western "Firefly," but during season 4, it actually wasn't getting much attention from its creator, either. Because the allegations against Whedon have understandably tarnished his legacy, it can be difficult to remember there was a time when the filmmaker was so in demand that he had three shows on the air at once. Like anyone working on too many things simultaneously, Whedon was simply spread too thin, which directly affected the much-maligned fourth season of "Angel."

"Angel" never reached quite the same heights as "Buffy," but the series was consistently great, at least until season 4. While the show's fourth year was certainly a disappointment, "Angel" did rebound in spectacular fashion for its fifth and final outing. The spin-off, which ran from 1999-2004, followed its titular vampire with a soul (David Boreanaz) as he left Sunnydale (and Buffy) behind to start over in L.A. as something of a paranormal PI. Of course, by its fourth year, the show was in a drastically different place from where it began, and it was in desperate need of some leadership. Unfortunately, Whedon was busy working on "Firefly," which would be unceremoniously canceled before it even aired all fourteen of the episodes that were shot (though it would receive a feature film continuation).

Don't get me wrong: I love "Firefly." But you can feel the effects of Whedon's split focus not only in "Angel" season 4, but in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" season 7 as well. So what happened during that time?

The undoing of Angel

There was quite a bit of upheaval on the set of "Angel," and it started before the show's fourth season. As "Firefly" progressed from pilot to series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was in the midst of season 6 and "Angel" was in its third season. Longtime "Buffy" writer Marti Noxon was running that series, while "Angel" co-creator David Greenwalt was heading up the spin-off. However, Whedon needed someone to fill that same role for "Firefly," considering he'd be quite busy juggling three shows at once. The issue was, the only person he trusted to do the job was already working on "Angel."

According to "Joss Whedon: The Biography" by Amy Pascale, Tim Minear had been the first writer to break stories without Whedon and seemed the best choice to be his right hand on "Firefly." Whedon had promised to never steal Minear from the spin-off, and though he did search for other options, in the end, that's exactly what happened. Minear, a longtime "Star Trek" fan, could not resist the chance to run Whedon's space western when asked. Further complicating matters, Greenwalt left "Angel" at the end of season 3 to pursue other projects and Noxon would be gone for much of the final season of "Buffy" due to her pregnancy. Minear was meant to become the showrunner for "Angel" in Greenwalt's absence, so when he left for "Firefly," the spin-off was in complete disarray.

Charisma Carpenter, who portrayed Cordelia Chase, explained in Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman's "Slayers & Vampires: The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Buffy & Angel" that without Greenwalt, Whedon, and Minear, "Angel" was utterly lost in its fourth season. Without "the main men who ran our show and made it great," she said, "how could it not suffer?"

A show begins to fall apart

Showrunner David Simkins was brought in briefly, though by all accounts, he did not mesh with the show's established sensibilities. He was only involved for a few months, and his responsibilities were later transferred to "Angel" writer Jeffrey Bell. "Buffy" writer David Fury, who was also working on "Angel" at the time, spoke about the increasingly dire circumstances on the set in "Slayers & Vampires."

"Joss was very focused on 'Firefly' and they didn't want to think about Angel. They said, 'Good luck with it.' The feeling was almost they couldn't care less; just let somebody else run it. I don't know if that's the case, but it felt that way at the time. I would seek out Tim [Minear] and Joss; I would go to the set of Firefly to try and talk to them about, 'Here's where we're at with my story to the third episode,' and I would be going to them directly, because I wasn't getting what I needed from David Simkins. Everyone was kind of struggling and morale was down. It was a very tricky time. I just wanted us to be able to do good work. I wasn't looking for anybody to get in trouble or leave. I was just concerned that the show was going to fall apart, and that's exactly what was happening."

What happened in season 4?

Pretty much everyone from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" who had a major arc on "Angel" (including Angel himself) became a better character as a result of being on the spin-off (imagine if all we ever got was the Wesley from "Buffy" season 3), and Cordelia was no exception. However, season 4 destroyed years of character growth, transforming Cordy into a villain before pretty much killing her off. It's hardly the only reason season 4 is a mess, but it's probably the show's most egregious sin that year, especially considering what we now know about what was going on behind the scenes between Carpenter and Whedon. Though no fault of the actress, the writers had to figure out how to work Carpenter's pregnancy into the arc they had already established for the season. I'm sure all involved did their best, but there had to be something better than "Cordelia gets possessed by a Big Bad who gives birth to itself after seducing Angel's teenage son," which remains the most cringeworthy plotline on the entire show. It's also incredibly upsetting to consider what Carpenter was going through on set at the time. Both she and Cordy deserved better.

Knowing how much behind the scenes turmoil there was on "Angel" between losing its showrunner, getting a new one who wasn't a great fit, and having a creator whose focus was severely split definitely helps make sense of the mess that was season 4. Whedon was simply being pulled in too many directions, and "Angel" was the show that most obviously suffered for it — though many "Buffy" fans will tell you that the parent series had its own issues during season 7 as well.

Justice for Cordelia

Look, "Angel" season 4 had its moments: It had a great premiere, featured an awesome arc for Faith that included a Willow appearance, and let's never forget all that sexy Wes and Lilah stuff. However, the season will always be remembered for ruining Cordelia, as well as the rather gross "romance" between her and Connor. Whedon said in "Slayers & Vampires" that a heel turn from Cordelia was always the plan. I could've lived with it if they had found a way to do her character justice, rather than just ending her story so abruptly after sabotaging her character.

Cordelia was at least given a satisfying sendoff in the season 5 episode "You're Welcome," but when Carpenter agreed to come back, she returned assuming her character would live to fight another day. That wasn't the case, though, as it turned out Whedon only extended the invitation as a means of writing her off the show for good. Carpenter told Complex:

"Eventually, I was approached to come back for the 100th episode and I said I would with the caveat being, I didn't want to die. I didn't want to come for Cordelia to die. Then I was told after I agreed to do it that then she would, in fact, be dying. And I think I cried for a good little bit and I was having all the feels lamenting the whole situation in general. Just the sadness around it all. I would have loved to have seen her not die and [end] on a positive note."

It's a sentiment viewers can relate to. Admittedly, "You're Welcome" is an excellent episode, but most fans would've traded it to see Cordelia go down fighting with Team Angel in the series finale. Alas, we'll never know what that version of the show would've looked like or what could've been if "Angel" season 4 had gotten the attention it deserved.