This May will mark the end of a television era.

That's when the WB is expected to air the final episode of their vampire-lawyer-Los Angeles series "Angel." Late last week, in spite of improved ratings this season and a renewed creative vigor, the WB decided to issue an early cancellation for the show. This has the nice benefit of giving the cast and crew of the show plenty of time to find new jobs for next season. It has the huge drawback of taking a really great show and flushing it down the toilet.

It's the end of an era because it means that next season will probably be the first TV season in seven years that will not feature a show executive produced by Joss Whedon. In fact, Whedon just began the 2002-03 season with three shows on the airwaves: "Angel," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "Firefly." "Buffy" exited last spring after seven seasons, "Firefly" met a grisly demise at the hands of impatient Fox executives, and "Angel" is now a victim of its own cost to produce.

Or, it's one too many vampire shows on a network that's staging a much-hyped relaunch of the gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows" next season. You pick.

At any rate, it's not as though Mr. Whedon is digging a deep hole in the desert and planning to live there until a ripe old age. He'll still be around, and with any luck, we'll have a new Whedon show, or a "Firefly" movie, or some other amazing creative explosion to enjoy very soon.

Still, it makes one a bit wistful that Whedon's first golden age has come to a close. For when the history of geekdom is written (by some overweight nerd in a zero G suit on Neptune's moon in 2315), I believe the figure of Joss Whedon will loom large.

First and foremost, it will loom so because he's always been an innovator. "Buffy" broke new ground by establishing a fresh, unseen tone for a TV series. It could be serious in one moment, hilarious in the next; often it was scary and funny and sad at the same time. It whipped up its own frothy brew of pop culture references, droll one-liners, and naked emotion. It was unlike anything that had ever been seen on television before.

His other shows have followed similar paths, especially when it comes to the distinctly Whedon tone and humor, but they've also established unique textures. "Angel" was the dark, brooding cousin of "Buffy," a spinoff that emphasized the loneliness and bitter edge of the battle against evil, even as "Buffy" continued to celebrate enduring friendship and hope. "Firefly" took the "Star Trek" template of exploring strange new worlds and stood it on its ear, focusing not on the wonderment of space or offbeat sci-fi allegories but on nine characters looking into the blackness of the sky and seeing nine different things.

Which is also something Whedon should be celebrated for: His shows are about CHARACTERS in a way that genre television has rarely seen, before or since. Series like "Star Trek," "The X-Files" and "Smallville" all boasted great writing and compelling characters, but the weight of their premise always took precedent. Mulder and Scully might be hot for each other, and we might get some movement on their lovin' front...but damn, there's that pesky conspiracy getting in the way.

Meanwhile, Buffy fought evil on a weekly basis but never without a constant awareness of herself as a human being doing a job that no one else wants. On all of Whedon's shows, the stories inevitably proceeded from the characters, from their emotional states and their relationships with each other, even though there was always some kind of supernatural or sci-fi adventure to experience. The same allegories that "Star Trek" employed to highlight the ills of our society were used to explore the attitudes and relationships of Buffy and her Scooby Gang.

Whedon's devotion to his characters above all else meant that fans could develop sincere attachments to his shows, knowing that the people and situations they loved were in good hands. This gave Whedon the freedom to stage his stories over the course of whole seasons of television. (Okay, no one GIVES Joss anything; he just takes and takes and takes. The ***!) It means that DVD sets of his series will be meaningful to fans of great television and great genre entertainment for many, many years to come.

The rise of Joss Whedon as a creative force in TV also happens to dovetail with the rise of a new creative force in all of pop culture, the Geek. As a matter of fact, Whedon's the first true geek to find himself making TV for other geeks. Chris Carter, creator and exec producer of "The X-Files," never worked any classic "Star Trek" references into his series, for example. There was a sense in which Whedon was always just another nerd making stuff he thought was cool, and the fact that so many of his fellow nerds responded to it just testifies to his great creative vision and genius. In movies, we now have folks like Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer, the creative children of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, making great geek movies for an audience of geeks and non-geeks alike. Joss Whedon is the first of a similar breed making their mark in genre television, the creative descendants of Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling.

But beyond his innovation, his commitment to strong characterization on television, and his own geekiness, you have the simple fact that he made damn fine shows. We will miss his hand in prime time because its absence means there will be less great TV to see. For some, "Must See TV" means Ross and Rachel and Will and Grace and Dr. Carter. To me, it has always meant that tingle of anticipation before watching a show created and steered by Joss Whedon. Losing "Angel" now doesn't have quite the sting as losing "Buffy" did last May, but it still stings. I'll miss "Angel," like I miss "Buffy" and "Firefly," but I'll miss you most of all, Joss.