By Anthony Breznican
The Associated Press
Like many survivors of near-death experiences, the supernatural TV thriller Angel is starting a new life.
Angel and Spike (David Boreanaz, left, and James Marsters) are both former boyfriends of Buffy.
Warner Bros./JUSTIN LUBIN
With the WB network seeking to attract a broader swath of the coveted youth audience, the show's creators have been forced to fix something that many longtime fans felt wasn't broken.
Last spring, WB flirted with canceling the show, which stars David Boreanaz as a vampire with a soul who tries to atone for centuries of wickedness by "helping the hopeless" in demon-infested Los Angeles.
But influential critics praised the show's offbeat storytelling and urged WB to preserve it for a fifth season.
The execution was halted, but the show's budget was slashed and WB told Joss Whedon, who spun off the show from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that Angel needed more teeth.
The show (9 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 64) is prospering after moving from Sunday night. With its second episode, total viewership was up 21 percent to 5.1 million watchers, compared to the same period last year when it drew about 4 million.
"The WB hoped for a show that would be a little more stand-alone-y," Whedon said. "When a show is in its fifth year, they don't expect it to get any sudden heat. They were hoping to pump the audience a little bit ... with episodes people could jump into without being confused."
The main changes: dropping Charisma Carpenter by abandoning her character Cordelia in an offscreen coma, and adding James Marsters as Spike, the bleached-blond other vampire-with-a-soul who was last seen burning alive on the series finale of Buffy.
For four years, Angel and his human partners - which also include the streetfighter Charles Gunn and the bookish British occult expert Wesley Wyndam-Pryce - waged war on Wolfram & Hart, a massive law firm that secretly represented evildoers in everything from contract law and criminal cases to hexes, blood oaths and ritualistic sacrifices.
Now Angel is in charge of Wolfram & Hart - but was the firm's surrender real, or just a new bid to corrupt him?
"It's really brought a new energy to it, having the characters relocate to the enemy's quarters and become the generals of the opposing team," said Alexis Denisof, who plays Wesley, and sees the Wolfram & Hart alliance as a nefarious ploy.
Spike brings a blood rivalry with Angel to the show. Both vampires had a rocky romance with the vampire-slayer Buffy, and both are competing to be the one bloodsucker who gets to become human again by fulfilling an ancient apocalyptic prophecy (that's the long-term "one-armed man"-style plot line Angel established when it started in 1999.)
Ghost in the machine
At least for now, the two won't be getting into any fistfights: Spike has returned as a ghost, a phantom in the shape of his corporeal self connected to a mystical amulet.
"I just get to make life as miserable as I could possibly make it for Angel," says Marsters, "and poor Angel has to deal with it as a hero always does, with as much patience as he can muster."
The longtime fans, however, are still debating the value of Spike, the abandonment of Cordelia and which new character should become Angel's love interest.
"Right now all I can really say about whether the changes will be good, is that whatever Joss Whedon does to Angel keeps the show on the air for several more seasons, I'll be happy," said Karen Drowne, 41, who runs the fan site www.solitaryphoenix.com. "And that will be good."
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