Some time back, I wrote a glowing post about how Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most feminist thing I'd ever seen on television. I hold to that position. However, Buffy creator Joss Whedon is not beyond reproach when it comes to the portrayals of women in his work. And boy howdy does his Buffy spin-off show, Angel, prove it.
Unlike the nuanced and powerful women we are treated to in Buffy, Angel basically serves up two varieties of female--the virgin and the whore.
On the virgin side, we get Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who turns from a feisty capital-B Bitch on Buffy to a boring saintly sap on Angel, and who is punished appropriately for her brief sexual forays (two of them in five years) by not one, but two demonic pregnancies. Following up on Cordelia's lead, there's Fred (Amy Acker), who is even more sweetness and light, and who also has the unfortunate luck to have her body taken over by demons more than once in her tenure. Though Cordelia is shown training with Angel a few times in the third season, I can count on one hand the number of times either she or Fred actually defend themselves physically. It's a far cry from Buffy. Mostly, Angel's "good girls" exist to be possessed/get pregnant/get kidnapped, get rescued, serve as moral foils and thwarted love interests for the male characters, and eventually die martyr deaths. Blech.
The whores don't do a whole lot better. Over five seasons, the show serves up some fairly formidable female villains, from Angel's vampire-turned-human-returned-vampire sire Darla (Julie Benz) to Cruella-esque super lawyer Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov, who I just loved on the show), and culminating in season four's big bad super deity Jasmine (Gina Torres) and season five's morally ambiguous resurrected god Iliyra (Amy Acker). However, unlike male villains, female ones on Angel are neatly pigeonholed into villains-who-are-really-victims of a big bad male machine (Darla, Lilah) or odd body-snatching deities (Jasmine, Iliyra). That the show's two female regulars had to die in order to give birth to the goddess villains seems to speak volumes about how many female characters are allowed at any one time in the Angel-verse.
My favorite female characters, and oddly the ones that seem to be the best developed, are those who appear for only a handful of episodes, including Julia Lee's Anne (a crossover from Buffy), who runs a homeless youth shelter, and Gwen (Alexa Davalos), an electricity-channeling super freak who has the nerve to use her freak powers to make herself some cash and throw in the occasional helping hand to Team Angel (plus makes time to seduce Gunn) without needing to sulk and brood about it for several years. These characters, as well as guest appearances by Buffy women Faith (Eliza Dushku) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) only served to show how little the permanent female members of the Angel cast were given to work with.
While Angel stacks up very poorly to Buffy when it comes to gender, it does better on race. To begin with, unlike Buffy, Angel has a permanent black character, Gunn (J. August Richards). Gunn's role as the show's only black character is neither ignored nor trivialized. Being black is an essential component to Gunn's character and to what he adds to Angel Investigations, but every story line in which Gunn is involved doesn't have to be about race, either. Gunn is my favorite character on Angel--I think he's the most self-aware of the whole tortured lot of them.
Another interesting use of race on Angel is Jasmine. Jasmine is the physical representation of a god, and the body she is in is African-American. Neither of her "parents" (Connor and Cordelia) is black, and she's born in a full adult form, leaving the viewer to assume she somehow chose her own shape/color. She's looked upon by all who meet her as a great beauty. It is interesting, and positive, to my mind, that the show's casting staff chose a black woman to fill this role.
None of which is to say Angel gets a completely winning score when it comes to racial issues. The Mexican wrestlers episode in season five was just bizarre, but the episode when Spike and Angel go to Italy ("The Girl in Question") was undeniably racist, drawing on pretty much every Italian stereotype in the book. So while I think on a whole Angel does a better job than Buffy with race, it still behaves much like a typical American network TV show.
All in all, for the fan of Buffy, Angel is a very distant second place. I still think it's worth watching--it has a few characters I truly dig (Lilah and Gunn chief among them, along with Lorne and, once he makes his appearance, Spike), and boasts the occasional brilliant episode. Sadly, though, none of the groundbreaking cognizance of and occasional finger towards traditional gender roles that makes Buffy so great moved over to Angel with the many crossover cast members. At the end of the day, Angel is a show in which a white dude runs the plot, makes the calls, and saves the girl. And we've seen that before.