For those who need a recap, Angel (David Boreanaz) was introduced in the very first episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER as a mysterious love interest who turned out to be a 200+ year-old vampire cursed with a soul that makes him both heroic (he wants to atone for all his evil pre-soul vamp activity) and wretched (all the guilt that makes him want to atone). As we and the appalled characters discovered in BUFFY's second season, Angel's soul comes with a curse that makes it vanish if he ever becomes completely happy. One night with true love Buffy turned Angel into the monstrous, would-be world-destroyer Angelus. By the time Angel's soul was restored, Buffy had to send him to Hell to prevent an apocalypse. Angel came back for Season Three, but it was too dangerous for him to be around Buffy (he might enjoy himself too much and then where would they be?), so he left Sunnydale for Los Angeles and his own series, in which he heads up Angel Investigations, whose motto is, "We help the helpless."
The previous three seasons of ANGEL have afforded the vampire hero little danger of true happiness. Season Three had particularly breathless plotting: Angel somehow impregnated his vampire sire Darla (Julie Benz), a truly evil being who felt just enough altruism to stake herself in order to allow their son to be born. Baby Connor (who is seemingly human, though with amazing reflexes) was kidnapped first by Angel's erstwhile good friend Wesley (Alexis Denisof), who was afraid for good reason that the vampire might unwillingly kill the infant, and then by vengeful demon-hunter Holtz (Keith Szarabajka), who took Connor into another dimension, where time flows differently. Holtz and Connor emerged months later with Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) now 16 years old and convinced Angel deserves to die. When Holtz goes so far as to arrange for his own murder and frame Angel for the crime, Connor's grief over his foster father's death drives him to trap Angel in a casket, which sinks to the bottom of the Pacific.
"Deep Down" begins with what looks like Angel's fondest dream he's at a holiday table with Connor and all his L.A. friends: Wesley, half-demon and current crush Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), demon-battling Gunn (J. August Richards), the brainy and beautiful Fred (Amy Acker) and tart-tongued singing demon Lorne (Andy Hallett). The only problem is that we know that Cordy has been removed from our dimension by the Powers That Be (the other characters think she's simply vanished), no one is speaking to Wesley and vice-versa, Lorne is in Las Vegas and Angel is still entombed deep under the sea, having vivid hallucinations.
In reality, this leaves Gunn and Fred, who are doing their best to care for Connor in the mysterious absence of Cordelia and Angel. Wrongly believing that Connor is bereft over the loss of his father, the couple persist in their efforts to find their missing leader. Wesley, meanwhile, maintains his sexual liaison with Lilah (Stephanie Romanov), an ambitious emissary of the law firm from Hell (literally) Wolfram & Hart.
Director Terrence O'Hara gives us some sit-up-and-take-notice fight sequences and other cool effects, including Lilah's striking business maneuver and a hand-and-foot escape straight across a wall, making something that looks cooler than we expect out of episodic TV.
The downsides are few, mainly having to do with the fact that even in dream sequences there are few sparks between the supposedly smitten Angel and Cordelia, and Cordelia's current straits still don't make a whole lot of sense (the Powers That Be need an untrained assistant?), although an explanation may be pending.
More than ever, Boreanaz conveys the mass of conflicting emotions battering away at Angel's wry, tense, tamped-down surface, making him vulnerable, intimidating and slightly off-balance straight man as needed. Wesley has undergone a massive transformation over the course of the series, from well-intentioned nerd to seriously dangerous anti-hero, and Denisof plays the character's increasing edginess with a sense of understated glee and dread he shows us Wesley both reveling in and regretting his own growing darkness. The always likeable Fred has been given a plausible and welcome kick-ass upgrade that integrates her into the fighting team, performed with style and physical grace by Acker. Richards holds his own as the plain-spoken token normal person in the mix, and Kartheiser gives Connor a hint of the otherworldly, a malevolent sprite who is also a conflicted teenager. Carpenter is not in the episode much, but reminds us of Cordy's snarky vitality when she's there. Romanov is deliciously Borgia-like as the ever-scheming and resilient Lilah, a sexy and engaging no-goodnik. As for the indispensable Hallett, who along with his character scores a trenchant bulls-eye every time he speaks with inspired delivery and unfailing instincts, the Powers on this show should make him a regular already.
ANGEL went through a bit of an internal shakeup this year. Series co-creator Joss Whedon invited ANGEL co-showrunner Tim Minear to move laterally over to Whedon's FIREFLY, just before ANGEL co-creator and showrunner David Greenwalt unexpectedly left to do a series on ABC. His replacement, David Simkins, lasted about a month before departing, with Whedon and Minear and the rest of the ANGEL staff all banding together to fill the gap. While it may be too early to tell, there's no sign of the writers' room tumult on screen. Season Four of ANGEL is off to one hell of a good start.