It's Sunnydale's Got Talent Time. And our beloved Scooby Gang are feeling the heat. Give Buffy and co vampires, demons and Mantis things to battle, and they're as happy as pigs in mud. But thanks to the entrance of the new school “Führer”, they're forcibly plonked at the heart of a variety line-up so half-arsed, a 1976 edition of Summertime Special suddenly feels like a golden age.
The Puppet Show itself is fortunately far more agreeable. It's essentially a murder mystery – think Poirot meets Degrassi Junior High meets Monster Slasher TV Movie. Having already established a formidable reputation for twisting and turning plots into unexpected areas, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a natural for producing its own spin on the Whodunnit genre. Not only that, it's also upping the ick factor by introducing a killer who takes away vital organs such as hearts and brains. Poor old Emily's dancing career is cut brutally short in the opening moments of the episode after she is found to have less heart than the new high school principal. As the episode progresses, another victim's brain almost leaps into Buffy's shaky hands like a past its sell by date jelly.
It's a winning combination, The Puppet Show. It has its fair share of gross-out moments, but it's also a crazy pavement of a murder mystery. It constantly teases the viewer as to who the killer is, with several possible suspects, red herrings and humming and hahhing as to whether the culprit's demon or human. The fingers point to any number of oddballs: A worried looking young chap and his creepy ventriloquist's dummy; a magician; a tuba player; and even the brand new school principal who accomplishes the feat of managing to be a complete monster in less than 10 seconds of meeting him.
Having reduced the luckless Flutie to a hyena ready meal, Buffy The Vampire Slayer cleverly substitutes him with the Principal From Hell. Enter Principal Snyder, a pompous, whiny voiced short-arse, who evidently must have paid his interviewers a lot of dollar to nab the post (mind you, we later find out that he's in cahoots with Mayor Wilkins, so maybe he used his influence to win Snyder the job). Quite why Snyder opted to become Principal is a puzzle. He actively dislikes kids, so his chosen vocation is a bit like a quaking herpetophobe taking a job in the reptile house. The most likely reason is that being Principal gives Snyder a bit of a power boost, a bit of lofty status which he undeniably wouldn't reach otherwise. Already, in his first confrontation with Buffy, he's setting out his stall of torment which he'll wheel out at every opportunity in the next two and a half years. “My predecessor, Mr Flutie may have gone in for all that touchy feely nonsense, but he was eaten. You're in my world now.” It's a world that bigs up discipline and knocks down understanding and humanity. “That's the kind of woolly-headed, liberal thinking that leads to being eaten,” he spits. Although consider the irony of this train of thought at the conclusion of the Graduation Day two-parter.
The episode toys with the viewer by implicating Snyder at almost every possible opportunity. Not only is he portrayed as the epitome of evil, we get to see regular shots of him frowning intensely and skulking shiftily in shadows, as if he's going to turn into a demon bat. But in the end, Snyder is very much human – not that that's any less evil of course. Red tape. Bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. Prejudiced snarling. Humans came up with all that you know, and these traits (plus many more) are all condensed down into one egghead midget shaped package. The great Armin Shimerman threatens to steal this particular show with a fine portrayal of the principal (or headmaster if you're a tea-swilling Brit) from your worst nightmares.
Another clever bit of finger pointing leads to the evidently troubled Morgan Shea and his sinister vent's dummy, Sid. Tuba girl Lisa swiftly denounces Morgan as “strange”, singling out his moaning and head pains. Given that the Hellmouth's cooking up all sorts of nasties, it would be easy to deduce that Sid is some sort of demon who's mentally possessed Morgan. In fact, it turns out that Morgan's troubles are tragically more down to earth, as it's revealed he is suffering from cancer of the brain. Sid, however, isn't helped by the revelation that he can move of his own volition (as seen in his intrusion into Buffy's bedroom) – if you like Doctor Who, then it's more than likely that you'll have seen The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, a story that also features a psychotic homunculus masquerading as a Chinese magician's ventriloquist dummy. Sid's case looks to be well and truly screwed, until it turns out that he's actually a demon hunter on the side of good. That's a clever bit of writing, and the script doesn't let up until the very end into making you think that he's a good guy. Even at one point, Xander pipes up: “Does anybody else feel like they've been Keyser Soze'd?” How is it possible for a vent's dummy to go from scary to funny to even sad at the end? Not many shows can do that, but the skilled script, snappy dialogue and top class voice acting from Tom Wyner make Sid an unusual but memorable Buffy character.
The conflict between human psycho and nasty old demon is nicely played out in the episode. Willow finds that in some cases, inanimate human objects such as dummies and dolls can make themselves become human by murder. But in fact, an exasperated Giles comes up trumps with a reference to a brotherhood of seven demons who take on the form of a human youth – but in order to keep the pattern, the demon needs to harvest organs, or it will revert to its true, unappealing form. So the script cleverly widens the net of suspicion. Any one of the talent seekers could be the demon – even wannabe warbler Cordelia, who's been making strange noises like a defective paper shredder. Even in the early stages of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, anything is possible. But in the end, the penny drops when Giles is recruited to be Marc's unusual choice of magician's assistant in the hoary old guillotine trick. Well, as Marc would say: “Trick? There is no trick!” As with all good murder mysteries, it's always the one that flies under the radar. Luckily, the day is saved to confused applause as Buffy hoists Demon Marc by his own petard.
It's a satisfying conclusion to a highly entertaining episode. It may lack the depth of future stories and arcs, but sometimes don't you just feel like settling down with a tub of popcorn to enjoy a bit of escapist fantasy? A good murder mystery still manages to tax the brain, and The Puppet Show scores greatly on this point, with its many plot twists and detours. It's an engaging romp, and well written by Dean Batali and Rob des Hotel. The script contains an even mix of scares and humour, and the regular cast are lapping up the chance for a bit of light hearted fun. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the detective very well, while Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan and Anthony Head all provide their own solid support – at times, the regulars apparently threw in a bit of improvisation (eg: Brendon's “REDRUUUM!”), which adds to the appeal. Giles' forced vocation as a pre-Cowell talent show impresario is very amusing. The last credits shot of the three Scooby Gang kids caught in the headlights while attempting Oedipus Rex caps off the laughs in fine style. Poor old Willow's worst nightmare has come true (see the next episode and Restless for an extension of this theme).
The Puppet Show is not the most demanding of Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes. It's not the most sophisticated. But it is a hugely successful melding of the absurd, the creepy and the humorous. It's genuinely funny in places, well acted and also well filmed by director Ellen Pressman (who makes good use of the predatory monster POV trick to ramp up the tension). The Puppet Show deserves every scrap of applause, bouquets and rave reviews for being an entertaining and amusing Buffy tale.
* Does the era of the Third Doctor deserve applause? Find out in my new Doctor Who ebook on sale at Amazon now!