A horny puppet's
also a demon hunter.
Um, wiggins indeed.
The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is chockablock with ridiculata, from preying mantis teachers to principal-devouring hyena cliques to cyber-dating book demons. “The Puppet Show” is little different, featuring a sentient dummy who’s fighting against an organ-harvesting demon hiding amidst the cast of a high school talent show. It’s a lot to take in - and take seriously. Because unlike the previous endeavors of the outlandish, “The Puppet Show” doesn’t quite elevate itself out of the bizarre.
The main issue with “The Puppet Show” is, frankly, the puppet himself. While it’s a worthwhile twist to make him friend instead of foe, it doesn’t exactly shift him into actual hero territory. The problem? It’s near impossible to empathize with a puppet, even if we know his tragic back story. (He used to be human, and was cursed to live the rest of his days as a puppet. If he kills the final demon, he’s free, and by free, we mean dead. See? Plenty tragic. But it means well nothing when the face emoting it is wooden. Literally.) The fact that Sid the Puppet was also a weird 30s-era gangster film stereotype - complete with sexist overtones - didn’t help make him any more likeable. Add this to the fact that Sarah Michelle Gellar is literally grappling with a doll in their fight scenes and it’s way too easy to check out from even TRYING to take it seriously.
But even when Sid was meant to be creepy, the episode somehow missed the mark there as well. Spooky puppets are a long-established horror trope, and “The Puppet Show” did its best to capitalize on that. Buffy reasonably had the wiggins, and so did we. The head turning to look at her, the unsettling noise of something skittering across the floor, Sid’s face appearing in Buffy’s window? All working hard to be skin-crawlingly awful. But using those conventions just made everything feel extra campy. There’s a difference between taking advantage of commonly-held fears and repeating commonly-used beats. Overdramatic cinematography with heavyhanded music didn’t help, and so the tone of “The Puppet Show” emerged somewhere in the region of horror soap opera.
One thing “The Puppet Show” did reasonably well was delineate its own mystery. As a “whodunnit,” it succeeds in its twists and turns. We naturally believe that Sid is the demon, because, well, creepy wiggins puppet, and it turns out he’s actually a demon hunter. The episode simultaneously introduces the new principal, Snyder, and does a good job making him a plausible suspect. Even without lurking in the shadows, ears aglow with backlight, Snyder actually poses a real threat to Buffy - he’s got his eye on her. Where Principal Flutie was basically harmless, Snyder vows to monitor Buffy’s behavior at school, believing her to be delinquent. There’s even a delicious hint that maybe he knows something of Buffy’s supernatural life, which could be doubly as damning. “The Puppet Show” does a great job setting up Snyder as a potential problem for Buffy and the Gang.
Other than that, “The Puppet Show” falls a little bit short. The final act is a bit wacky, as somehow Giles, being of sound mind and able librarian, willingly straps himself into a guillotine contraption and asks WHAT IT DOES minutes after being shown a cleanly bisected melon. Honestly, Giles, if it weren’t for your meddling kids, you’d be naturally selected right out of the Hellmouth for that one. This clumsy oversight could possibly be forgiven on account of the clever moment where Buffy pushes Mark the Magician Guy into his disappearance box only to be greeted with a Human-Harvesting Demon when he reemerges. But then Buffy couldn’t push a chandelier off of her in the same episode as she obliterates a locker dial, so we may be back in the lose column on episode logic.
Anyways, “The Puppet Show” is a weird hour of supernatural television. That’s really all can be said about it. Oh! I feel as well that we should pour one out for dear Morgan, who operated with the aura of a decade-straddling Ben Savage-Michael Cera hybrid, then turned out to not only be completely innocent but also have brain cancer, and then was needlessly slaughtered. Poor Morgan, man. That has to be a contender for the coldest incidental death on Buffy. Except maybe Principal Flutie. Season 1 goes hard, I guess.
Stray Observations --
- Cordelia was working overtime as comedic relief! You can start to see the writers trying to figure out what to do with her. This works. (It will work even better in future muahahaha.)
- How fitting that Xander play Oedipus opposite Buffy’s Electra? Awkward.
- Xander and Willow’s complete stage fright in contrast to Buffy’s case of Over It and Gives No Fucks is hilarious, and actually something worth keeping an eye on in the dynamic. This rewatch has started me thinking on Xander and Willow’s insecurities, and how those traits manifest in each character as they grow - for better and worse. It’s an interesting exercise!