[Review by Iguana-on-a-stick]
[Writer: Joss Whedon (Story) and Ben Edlund (Story and Teleplay) | Director: Ben Edlund | Aired: 02/18/2004]
“Smile Time” is one of the funniest hours of television produced in Joss Whedon’s long and illustrious career. I imagine that there are but a few fans of the series who would disagree with that statement. I certainly think it’s true. And yet, you wouldn’t know it if you watched its early scenes it for the first time. Puppets or no, you’d probably think that “Smile Time” is a Stephen King-style horror-story about monster-puppets as a metaphor for child abuse. And you wouldn’t even be entirely wrong.
There is more going on with this episode than just laughs. Not that I mean to ignore the laughter. Angel-as-a-Muppet remains one of the silliest, funniest, and most absurd conceits ever to appear on my television screen. However, this premise could easily have been just a silly gimmick, and at times it actually is. The reason “Smile Time” works —the reason we take it seriously despite the ridiculous concept— is that aside from being a comedy it also works as a drama and even at times as a horror story. The reason it is so funny is that the humour derives just as much from the characters’ own reaction to the absurdity on display, as it does from the absurdity itself.
If I compare “Smile Time” to “The Girl in Question” [5×20] – one of Season 5’s other mostly comedic episodes – this absurdity is the main distinction between the two. “The Girl in Question” [5×20] tries to be funny by forcing the protagonists to behave as Laurel & Hardy with everyone and everything around them somehow conspiring to throw more obstacles in their path. The result is an insult to the characters involved and only very rarely is the comedy actually funny enough to overcome my annoyance at the way characterisation is thrown out of the window. “Smile Time” occasionally derives a laugh from having Angel act as a hyperactive puppet, but mostly takes the characters we know and love, puts them in a strange situation, and lets the comedy flow naturally from there.
Even the choice of Angel being turned into a puppet is not as random as it appears. The abovementioned hyperactive antics aside, Angel’s entire arc this season is about his struggle to keep control over his own destiny as he gets estranged from his friends and loses his will to fight while being manipulated by everyone around him: Lindsey and Eve, the Senior Partners, even W&H’s many evil clients.
Back in “Lineage” [5×07] Roger Wyndham-Pryce’s facsimile wanted to make Angel his puppet in only slightly less literal a fashion, by sapping his will through magic. Roger even goes as far as to tell Wesley: “[Angel] is a puppet. He always has been. To the Powers That Be. To Wolfram & Hart. Now he’s ours.” Harsh, but accurate. It has been a long, long time since Angel could truly call his life his own. He believed Buffy was his destiny and followed her around for three years until a new and bigger destiny in the form of the Powers that Be and the visions they sent him drew him to LA. Since then he has only occasionally been able to assert his own will and pursue his own goals in spite of the demands of his mission and of the people around him. This played out disastrously in Season 2. In Season 4 he had slightly more success in that he saved Connor despite all the machinations Jasmine had put them through, but in return he signed his soul (figuratively) over to Wolfram & Hart and has been struggling to hold on to his sense of purpose ever since.
The irony of “Smile Time” is that being turned into a literal puppet actually helps Angel break free from his isolation for a while and lets him connect with Nina in a way he might not have otherwise. It is by no means enough to turn his path around, not even Cordelia in “You’re Welcome” [5×12] quite managed that. But it is a definite step forward, and it makes the episode serve a useful purpose in the season’s overall arc.
Puppetry aside the episode consists of three major plot-lines and one small but important side-plot for Gunn. The first is the Smile Time story itself about soul-sucking demons possessing puppets and attacking children. It’s essentially a simple but decent monster-of-the-week story. There isn’t much time devoted to the actual mystery or the action scenes, as this story mostly serves as a hook to hang the other stories from. Still, it starts off strong with a very creepy Polo-the-puppet manipulating a little boy and groaning in almost sexual-sounding pleasure as he sucks the energy out of him. Later there’s an effective horror-type scene where Angel investigates the derelict Smile Time studio all while being ignored by all the zombie-like employees and finding the Nest Egg. Afterwards the episode switches to mostly pure comedy, but the puppets are still entertaining in their over-the-top foul-mouthed banter and their Smile Time TV show is actually quite entertaining and believable as a Sesame Street pastiche. The puppets do not have real personalities, but this is no great loss.
No attempt is made to make the puppets seem like a real threat to Angel & Co., which I think is a good move. It wouldn’t have worked anyway. The big battle at the end is entertaining precisely because it takes place on-set and on-camera, with Angel interrupting a song about counting and the alphabet, Gunn throwing a puppet at the camera and another puppet hissing she wants to claw out his eyes. The puppet-action scenes are quite well done, and even if they cannot quite make it look like the puppets are really tossing humans across the room I can easily manage that extra bit of suspension of disbelief. The amount of “gore” (i.e. puppet stuffing) flying all over the place is also amusing. In the end the puppets can’t be dismissed as nothing but a joke and they serve their plot-purpose well. They don’t outstay their welcome and they don’t take much screen-time away from the character development that fills the rest of the episode.
The lion’s share of this development goes to Angel and his budding relationship with Nina. Last seen in “Unleashed” [5×03], Nina-as-a-character works much better this time around. For one thing she doesn’t have to carry the episode’s plot like she did in “Unleashed” [5×03]. For another she isn’t the damsel-in-distress. Nor does she have to go through life-changing shocks. Instead she interacts with Angel a lot and their scenes are —there is no other word for it— cute. Nina adds a nice note of innocence and mundane charm to the otherwise jaded Angel cast.
It’s a neat little arc they go through, from Angel’s initial panic through his inadvertent snubbing-by-hiding-under-his-desk when he’s a puppet to his finally making overtures, even though he’s still in puppet-form. It also has some of the best comedy: Locking your prospective date in a cage and then fleeing the room has to be one of the more effective but less subtle ways of saying “no.” Then we have Angel baring his soul, revealing his puppet-state and for once in his life opening up, talking about his hopes and fears… only to miss Nina changing into a werewolf and attacking him. Then there are some genuinely touching moments, such as Nina trying not to show how hurt she is by Angel avoiding her — trying to be the bigger person and accepting it – and then giving Angel a sympathetic ear and explaining why she likes him. When Puppet-Angel finally asks her to breakfast, I can’t help but smile.
It should be noted that Nina is the first person to actually ask Angel if he’s okay after the change. One aspect of being the big hero is that people rather expect you to be able to take any blow without flinching. Angel gets advice, help, and friendship from his people, but throughout the series there are remarkably few people relating to him on such a basic and human a level. In the final season this is worse than ever, with the original group scattered Wolfram and Hart. In this respect I think Nina is good for him, though she by no means is enough to solve the problem.
This isn’t ever going to be an epic or tragic love affair like Angel had with Buffy or Cordelia. It will not span years and continents. There will be no blood shed and no lives ruined. Even Angel’s curse is hand-waved away, but I think Wesley is right to do so. Perfect happiness isn’t really going to happen for Angel at this stage of his life. It’s nice to see him and Nina finding acceptable happiness instead.
The final major arc of “Smile Time” involves the budding relationship between Wesley and Fred, just in time for her tragic death next episode. Unfortunately it does not work nearly as well as Angel and Nina’s plot does. For one thing, for something that has been brewing in one form or another ever since Season 3, it is certainly abrupt.
A quick recap of their interaction to date illustrates this. Soon after Fred was rescued from Pylea, Wesley formed a crush on her. He occasionally tried to interact and help her out, but mostly admired her from a distance. She chose Gunn instead, who actually spent time with her having fun instead of dreamily fantasizing about her. Wes was crushed and went off on his downwards spiral which ended with Holtz taking Connor to a hell dimension. In Season 4 Wesley found his own path, but he continued to pursue Fred despite his estrangement from Angel Investigations and his relationship with Lilah Morgan. He did this callously and aggressively, trying to drive wedges between her and Gunn and treating Fred as a prize to be won rather than as someone he truly loved. He might have even succeeded in winning her too had Fred not learned of and been repulsed by his relationship with Lilah. In Season 5, after the memory-wipe, Wesley largely reverted to his season 3 schoolboy crush. He tried to find excuses to spend time with Fred by working together, but Fred wasn’t terribly interested. She preferred the company of her colleague Knox and treated Wesley as a platonic friend. Sometimes she was visibly uncomfortable being around him, when he showed himself to be unstable as in “Lineage” [5×07]. That was their last significant interaction before “Smile Time” — seven episodes ago.
And now we suddenly learn that Fred has apparently tried dating Knox and then decided he was evil after all and now is interested in pursuing a relationship with Wesley. Wes for his part seems to have given up on pursuing her. Suffice to say this comes out of the blue. Presumably the writers learned there would be no season 6 and had to suddenly run through the planned relationship on fast-forward. It is not convincing, it is not good characterisation, and it is not good television. This is the plot forcing the characters to act like marionettes, and not in the amusing “Angel is a wee puppet man!” way.
That said, their actual interaction in this episode isn’t that bad, it’s just the utter disregard for continuity that bring the storyline down. In “Smile Time” Fred (broadly) hints at her interest and Wesley ignores or misunderstands her, trying to graciously keep his distance so she can move on. This, of course, is meant to mirror Angel’s failure to deal with Nina’s attraction for him. The difference is that Angel fears starting a relationship because his rather unfortunate track-record to date, whilst Wesley wants a relationship but has long since given up hope it will ever come to pass and has (apparently, somewhere in that seven episode gap) schooled himself not to read anything into Fred’s actions. The scenes are reasonably entertaining. I quite enjoy how Wesley’s speech about Angel being a daft git for not going after Nina seamlessly segues into a ramble about Fred. For the most part the two are engaged in exposition scenes with some mild flirting and Knox-snubbing thrown in (which is fun to watch, knowing what a rat Knox is). In the end it just leaves me not caring all that much.
Gunn does not have as much to do in “Smile Time,” but at least he’s not ignored. The scenes he does get are compelling and form a key turning-point in his seasonal character-arc. For the first half of the season Gunn has been by far the most content with the move to Wolfram & Hart. True, Wesley and Fred’s reactions were never fully explored, and I’ll just ignore Lorne’s inanity of a character-arc for the first 90% of the season, but Gunn is the only one of the crew shown to actively enjoy his new position. The only niggle is that his friends no longer quite seem to trust him after the company messed with his brain. This too makes sense. In a way he has betrayed everything he once stood for, signed up with “the man” in return for… well, not money and nice suits. While Angel may be enamoured of his necro-tempered glass, viper convertible, and high-def flat screen plasma TV, Gunn – as is to be expected — doesn’t care for the material trappings. No, it’s a more insidious thing he craves: grudging respect or even admiration from all those who would have ignored or dismissed him or tried to step on him in the past, if they had even noticed him at all. It is the ability to play the rich and the powerful at their own game and win every time.
So it certainly is understandable why Gunn is desperate when his implants start to fade and he feels himself losing the place he’s gained. However, understanding this does not change the fact that this episode marks the point where he crosses a line. The original deal with W&H was Angel’s doing, going behind the back of his team-mates. Gunn might have accepted regardless, but at least his own deal was above-table and as honest as dealings with the Wolf, Ram and Hart ever get. This time Gunn is the one going behind everybody’s backs, agreeing to do the creepy doctor an (obviously illegal) favour with unknown parameters and, once fixed, pretending the problem never existed. Indeed, given their previous reaction it’s likely the others would have trusted him far less had they known about the deal.
Mind you, Gunn is not being corrupted in the obvious ways. He still cares, still stands with his friends, and still wants to use his powers for good. The first thing he does when he gets upgraded again is to track down the Smile Time demons and give the team the information they need to save the children. We can sense his pride and his joy at being useful, at making a difference, at blazing in to save the day with a skilfully located legal text.
Next episode he will learn he inadvertently gave Fred’s murderer the weapon he needed and it will all come crashing down. Soon he will be stabbed by his former best friend and then voluntarily spend a sojourn in hell. In guilt and disgust he will throw away everything he tried so hard to hold on to this episode. Put bluntly: it sucks to be Charles Gunn, but it does make for a riveting story.
This review has so far not mentioned Spike at all. This is because his role in the episode is limited to laughing at and then getting his arse kicked by Puppet-Angel. Spike’s glee at his grandsire’s predicament is infectious, but ultimately serves no purpose. I laughed and moved on.
In the end, Smile Time is an episode that works. It takes an outrageous concept and runs away with it without ever becoming a parody of itself or an empty gimmick. It manages to cram in a surprisingly large amount of character development in what is essentially a joke-episode. It has A, B and C plots that, together, keep the pace high and keep my attention from ever waning. It even manages to be creepy at times. And of course, the first time I watched this it made me laugh more than just about anything since Monty Python. The novelty of the puppets doesn’t quite carry over to re-watches, but it still makes me smile a lot and the more heart-warming moments between Nina and Angel actually work even better when I’m not distracted by puppet-giggles. It is not the deepest or most shocking episode of Angel, nor the most lyrical or beautiful, but it is an excellent hour of television that is only brought down by the forced nature of the out-of-character Wesley and Fred plot. It’s a pity the writers dropped the ball there, but even that annoyance fades in the face of the memory of Puppet-Angel in vamp-face.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The human creator of Smile Time actually being a hand-puppet, controlled by Polo sticking a hand up his spine.
+ Nina waking up and thinking she did eat Angel.
+ The mad doc referring to Gunn’s “acute ‘Flowers for Algernon’ syndrome. Good to know that Evil keeps up with classic Science Fiction.
+ Puppet Angel managing to be bad-### with a sword despite his felt condition.
+ The classic “Angel” style power-walk, with the camera panning down to reveal scary puppet-Angel in the lead.
+ I hate song-endings. See my “Unleashed” [5×03] review for details. But ending the episode with “Self Esteem is for Everybody” is just neat.
– Since when is Fred a medical expert who can analyse blood-plasma to determine whether anything is wrong on a sub-cellular level? Honestly, people. She’s an elementary physicist! Not a haematologist or a biochemist. It’s lazy writing to make your characters experts in whatever you need them to be.
– While on the subject of Fred, what’s with her wardrobe this season? Since when does she like mini-skirts under lab-coats? Oh, that’s right. Since Cordelia was written out.
– Fred wants a guy who makes her laugh, referring to Wesley. When has Wesley ever made her laugh?
– After writing this review and watching the episode three times, I have the “Self Esteem is for Everybody” song stuck in my head.
* The W&H doctor gets Gunn to help him procure an ancient curio. This will turn out to be Illyria’s coffin.
* Knox’s rejection here no doubt motivates him further to infect Fred with the essence of an ancient god in the next episode.