By Ken Tucker
December 03, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The great thing about Angel (David Boreanaz) when he was a regular character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that he lurked in stark contrast to the rest of the cast. In creator Joss Whedon’s conception of the series, Angel was not merely Buffy’s love muffin; he was a cursed tragic figure: a demon with a soul, a vampire who loathed his own potential for evil, who knew that every time he gave in to the temptation to peck Buffy on the cheek, he might succumb to the instinct to sink his fangs into her throat.

And so he skulked among the rest of the Buffy crew, a rain cloud of what Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia called ”morbid gloom” always floating over his head. Dashing and morose in his black greatcoat, Angel was a bloodthirsty Byron without the gift of poetic garrulousness—a monosyllabic sufferer adrift in the chatty clubhouse atmosphere of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Cordelia, and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head).

In spinning this handsome sad sack off into his own series, Angel, Whedon and cocreator David Greenwalt have reimagined him. Because these guys are serious pop artists working from their hearts and minds in the frivolous horror genre, Whedon and Greenwalt’s idea of a spin-off is inevitably different—riskier, more audacious—from the norm. They have therefore taken care to create an atmosphere entirely different from Buffy‘s.

Angel has been relocated to the City of Angels, where he runs a private-eye agency out of what looks like Sam Spade’s leftover office from The Maltese Falcon—only, in addition to appropriately wisecracking girl Friday Cordelia, Angel gets the partner Spade lost—Doyle (Glenn Quinn, in a nicely low-key performance), a half demon who has premonitory visions and whose face breaks out in stubby porcupine quills when he’s angered. (Alas, he’s rumored to be killed off in episode 9.) Some weeks, the series works beautifully, moving along like the otherworldly detective show it’s meant to be. The Oct. 26 edition, in which a baddie could detach various body parts and send them off to do naughty things (an eyeball is sent to spy on a girl he likes, for instance), was full of crackerjack wit, as was the Nov. 16 show, in which Doyle’s brains are nearly eaten by his ex-wife’s new in-laws (Whedon and company excel at gruesome variations on the hellishness of family life).

But other times Angel can tip too far into jokiness—or, worse, come off like a supernatural version of hollow USA Network shows such as Silk Stalkings. Angel‘s weaknesses were highlighted in the Nov. 23 Buffy/Angel crossover, in which Angel briefly regained his soul and, in the words of Cordelia, ”got groiny” with Buffy, alternating kitchen-table-clearing make-out scenes with dueling-demon tableaux; it was like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein for a Last Tango in Paris, yet fully satisfying across a whole range of emotions. Angel‘s uneven writing and production values need that kind of oomph every week.

The crossover was delightful, but it was also a holding-action event that merely slowed down, for a week, the marvelous situations unfolding on Buffy. There, this season’s sporadic guest-star turn by Lindsay Crouse as Maggie Walsh, an imperious college professor, has blossomed into a full-blown X-Files-ish subplot: Walsh, it turns out, is the leader of a literally underground group bent on capturing Sunnydale’s demon populace and performing experiments on them. One of the captured included longtime Buffy nemesis Spike (the inspired James Marsters), who has been enlivening Buffy (and Angel) with semi-regular appearances. Case in point: Spike’s spectacular scene with Willow in the Nov. 16 episode, in which the always-latent metaphor of vampiric attack as rape was made explicit. That the scene was then defused for Buffy‘s teen audience by having Spike prove impotent in his attempt to murder Willow did not lessen the power of those moments, nor did they shirk the show’s general mandate to humiliate and neuter all aggressors. ”Maybe you should wait an hour,” she suggested. ”It happens sometimes.”

In fact, Hannigan gets a preemptive EW Emmy award for best supporting actress this year. Whether weeping over a breakup with her werewolf boyfriend, Oz (Seth Green), or offering dating advice to Buffy suitor Riley Finn (”She likes cheese!”), this Willow does not bend from the challenges she’s been handed. But then, neither does Boreanaz as Angel. Faced with the job of doing more than delivering a (again, Cordelia’s words) ”crabby scowl,” he’s made his character richer, deeper: a flawed, sometimes flummoxed, always agonized good guy. Buffy: A Angel: B+