Dark Angel is very much a tale of two different shows during its short run (which I’m writing about at Geeks Unleashed right now, I might add): the self-contained first season, which told the story of Manticore, and Max and her fellow X5’s dealing with real teenage life, and the second, which was a much more oddball, supernatural show, one with magic viruses, dog-people, and a whole lot of clues that Max is important (without giving us a lot of solid reason as to why). Given how different they are, some might consider it unfair to determine which one is a “better” season of television – but I don’t, and the first season of Dark Angel kicks the second’s butt… and it’s not even close.
Throughout its first season, Dark Angel was a show concerned with setting and characters; however clumsy they may be at adding to the show’s mythology and world, the first season utilizes Logan as Eyes Only to create this undercurrent of social justice, a government weapon fighting back against the post-pulse government that created her. It had it all; lots of awesomely over-the-top John Savage, a fun occasional sidekick/big brother in Zack, a romantic story between the two leads that wasn’t totally unbelievable, Jam Pony characters like Herbal Thought… the first two dozen episodes of Dark Angel tell a very succinct story of cat and chase between Lyedecker and Max, exploring what it’s like to have possibly the worst family ever, a group of potentially violent brothers and sisters, led by a patriarch whose conflicting professional interests and personal affection for his “children” made him as unstable as the teenagers he’s chasing around throughout the entire first season.
Season two? Not so much: all of a sudden, Dark Angel becomes a show about a woman being hunted by nefarious men (Ames White in season two, after John Savage was poorly written off the show to cut costs), and the key to some evolutionary puzzle the “Sandeman” was trying to solve. In a move that feels pulled right out of a cheap Buffy knockoff, suddenly Max’s partner is young Kevin Durand in a dog mask, the first creature created by a man we didn’t know existed for the entire first season. Zack’s gone, his memory wiped and living in the countryside; most of the X5’s are either dead or gone, the second season moving onto Alec (the twin of season one’s murder-y X5, and a typical Swaggerific Pretty Boy), X7’s (hive minds!), and the “freaks” of Sandeman’s and Manticore’s experiments, half-animal creatures that only made Dark Angel feel more like silly camp, than one of television’s finest action shows.
It all combines to make the show feel silly, a feeling that’s only furthered more with dumb stories like Max’s fever dream in “Boo”, or the season-long virus that keeps Logan and Max from having any kind of physical contact (still one of the dumbest plot twists I’ve ever seen). Gone was the girl with a gene deficiency that sent her into convulsions (or made her horny); all of a sudden, Max is less of a character than a device, a change that occurs when she suddenly has “perfect genes” (as Madame X notes), genes interwoven with a mystery the show would never get to (in short, the creators wanted to make Max the living cure to a recurring virus that wiped out populations over centuries). That change in central conflict, combined with the show’s change in tone, are what makes the second season of Dark Angel a much weaker collection of episodes than the butt-kicking first 24, an unkind reminder that when FOX cancelled Dark Angel in 2002, it was probably a smart idea.