Angel, “Smile Time”

The triumphant return of Busty Nina and her little, felty friend (originally posted – 2/18/04)

By Anthony Karcz
September 16, 2004

After last week’s horrific attempt at a flashback episode, Joss comes to his senses long enough to work out a story and hand it over to Ben Edlund (creator of THE TICK, in all its incarnations) for a superb one-shot episode.

We start out typically enough — with your standard “TV is Evil, m’kay?” parable. Young Tommy is at home watching TV when the puppet from his fave show, Smile Time, gives a whole new meaning to “soul-sucking box,” literally draining the life force from him and leaving Master Thomas with a case of rigor that’d make the Joker jealous (a point that plot device character #161, Knoxy, picks up on after the break).

So the hints start early and often that this is going to be a little more than your standard monster of the week fare. Knox makes half-hearted attempts to woo Fred, who’s having none of it; Gunn’s legal mojo, which he was singing the praises of a few weeks back, is fading; and Busty Nina makes her triumphant (and, of course, bosom-heaving) return by practically propositioning Angel. Of course, what does our hero do when confronted with the erstwhile hairy Busty Nina? Makes a lame excuse, locks her in a cage, and runs away.

Who does he go running to, but the one guy who probably has the most relationship issues out of anyone else at W&H, Wesley. Wes proceeds to give Angel a stern talking to, telling him to stop hiding behind his gypsy curse and to be more than a “sexless shoulder to cry on.” But, here again, he’s not really talking about Angel, crossing over into that obsessive area that is Wes and Fred. Once she appears with her file folder in hand, Angel goes running off to follow a lead, any lead. Fred, in the meantime, tries to send out signals, signals that Wes was just telling Angel that he ignores (though, apparently the entire female staff of W&H picked up on), signals that Wes promptly ignores himself.

Over at the Smile Time studios, it becomes quite obvious that something’s not quite right (well, as right as anything can be at a children’s puppet show). For those of you doubting that Edlund, given his resume, could pull off creepy, let me clear things up. Edlund can do creepy. From the odd camera angles to the leering, smiling posters everywhere, the office, in and of itself, sets the tone for what’s down the rabbit hole (or, in this case, behind the filing cabinet). The poorly lit room with it’s single sign on the door, “Don’t,” is more unsettling than any number of smoke pots going off or glowing mystic ruins. It taps into much baser, much more childlike fears. Of course, Angel ignores all this, is confronted by a jiggling fat man (who sounds as terrified as we are) who tells him he “shouldn’t,” and is then promptly zapped to felt-ville by a big, black, glowing egg.

And so Puppet-Angel rolls onto the scene. He’s scowly, he’s cute, he’s got bad hair and felt eyebrows that threaten to cover his eyes completely when he’s upset. Despite this, the Angel Inc. crew does an admirable job of holding it together, even getting in a couple of choice observations. Like the fact that, emotionally, Angel now has all the depth of, well, a puppet — albeit, a puppet that fires Fred and attempts to gas bomb Smile Time. Then there’s Spike, who has no reservations about egging Puppet-Angel on. In one of the best fight scenes this year (forget all those pseudo-Matrix slo-mo shots from the beginning of the season), PA not only takes Spike on, but leaves him stunned in an elevator. Oh, and we can’t forget Busty Nina, who Angel has to hide from as soon as she walks in the door (despite the rousing Smile Time song about self-esteem that’s playing just before she makes her entrance). It’s a poignant love story between werewolf and puppet as Angel has to turn her away (while giving some very ambiguous reasons as to why he can’t come out from under his desk).

Back at Smile Time, Lorne and Gunn show up on the scene to give the Puppet-Master the whatfor. It’s here that Gunn’s legalese really falls apart and it becomes obvious — this is not the Gunn that we knew. He’s grown accustomed to this new way of thinking, of doing things. He’s gained confidence and comfort in the knowledge that the Partners mainlined into his brain. Without it, he quickly loses control of the situation (without any help from Lorne, who hurls epithets of “bad man”…ooooh). Framkin (played with zombie-ish aplomb by your pal and mine, David Fury) turns out to be a puppet himself (in a thoroughly ick-inducing sort of way) as it’s revealed that it’s the diminutive stars of Smile Time that are running the show. Turns out the puppets plan to take out their entire demographic in one shot and retire to a nice little corner of Hell (or build their own). It’s an oddly convincing and amusing scene. I actually feel for the stuffed dog when he gets called a dickwad for trying to provide quality edutainment. And, you know, it’s a bit unsettling when you realize that the only ones that can truly get away with saying “dickwad” on TV are puppets.

Back at the W&H dungeons, Angel comes down to make amends with Busty Nina. Luckily, she’s able to see past the fluff and admits to being interested in Angel, felt nose or no (Brilliant line here, by the way — Angel’s answer to “How are you?”… I’m made of felt. And my nose comes off.). This is just before she rips him to shreds and Lorne gets to scream “Little Prince!” and wail for a medic (or maybe a good seamstress). It’s about this time that Gunn sneaks off to Dr. Frankenstein’s lab for a look-see into what’s going on in his noggin. Turns out that the Partners only wanted to give him a taste. For the “permanent” upgrade, he’s got to sacrifice some of those hard-coded morals of his and help the Doc with a sticky legal situation. Shouldn’t be an issue for Our Man Gunn, though, because those shady ancient artifacts never turn out to be pure evil. Right?

Back at the ranch, Knox is further spurned (sub-plot anyone?), Fred tries again to catch Wes’ eye, and Super-Lawyer Gunn gets to the bottom of things, uncovering the demon-puppet’s contracts and giving the Angel Inc. crew the info they need to go in and kick some cotton-filled ass (also gives us one of the funniest “fight walk” scenes I’ve ever seen). The puppet-on-puppet action reaches a head as we get the debut of a, possibly even cuter, Vamp-Puppet-Angel and Fred blows holes in Horatio Hornblower to save her man’s hide. Then it’s back to W&H so that Puppet-Angel (who doesn’t get his real boy status back for a couple of days) can ogle Busty Nina and ask her to breakfast and Fred can finally stop all the pussy-footing around and plant one on Wes in a triumphant moment for science geeks and bookworms alike.

It’s a brilliantly done episode. It not only moves the characters’ development along (the pairing, finally, of Wes and Fred, Angel coming out of his shell, Gunn’s insecurity causing him to turn to the Dark Side a bit more), it provides a damn fine (and damn original) monster-of-the-week, and a bit of much-needed comedy to the standard Angel mix. Edlund’s mark is all over it as well — who else could drop in asides to FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON or name a huge, purple, trumpet-nosed puppet Horatio Hornblower and make it work? Kudos go to Boreanaz — for spending most of the episode off camera, he still makes Angel work. Every one of his Puppet-Angel lines managed to have that tinge of barely-contained emotion (be it glee or anger) that only kids’ show characters seem to have. And the Self Esteem song? It’s going on the top of my MP3 list. Followed, of course, by “Courage and Pluck.” This is possibly one of the most enjoyable hours on TV. It’s a shame that the plug is getting pulled right when the show’s hitting high marks like this.

Joss makes his triumphant return next week. Ever notice that people seem to die whenever he makes one of these trips back to the set? Looks like Wes should’ve wised up a bit sooner if he wanted any kind of lasting relationship with Fred.