Friday, December 21, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 44: Angel (1999-2004): "Smile Time"

I realize that the readership here is divided over the entertainment worlds crafted by Joss Whedon. Some folks hate his series with a passion; some love them wildly. Most of you know where I fall in this debate: I'm a huge admirer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly (and the film version, Serenity). Where I fall on Whedon's second series, Angel is a bit more complicated to explain. In part, that's because Angel itself is a wildly inconsistent series. Each season is very different from the one that precedes it (and also from the one that follows it...) There are some wonderful episodes in the series and some that - for me - just don't really work very well.

I did watch the entire series faithfully during its network run -- every episode -- and was recently given the entire series DVD set as a gift, so I intend to dive back in when I have free time, watch the entire series again, and clarify my thoughts. This is a necessity, I've come to realize, with certain TV series. My first take is not always right. For instance, I originally dismissed Millennium as "serial killer of the week." It was not until half-way through the second season that I realized all the good stuff going on there. Now, I count it as a favorite (and a work of true artistic genius). I could imagine saying the same thing about Angel after a careful re-evaluation. But I'm not there today.

My particular problems with Angel when it aired involved the character of Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). Loved her on Buffy; hated her on Angel. This is not a swipe at Carpenter, by the way. I'm not commenting on the performance, which was always good. My problem was that the character changed so drastically so quickly and I felt the producers were attempting to impose that change without really earning it. They wanted to turn the vapid, acerbic cheerleader into nothing less than a saint (I called her Saint Cordy by the third season...) And I could never really believe that Angel - a vampire of substance - would fall in love with her. It's not that I don't believe people can change, or that strange events (like encounters with hell dimensions...) can help people grow. Instead, I feel Boreanaz and Carpenter had little romantic chemistry together and that Carpenter was a victim of her own success in the role. She so beautifully played the queen-of-put-downs on Buffy, so indelibly made her mark as that shallow personality in the first three seasons of that series, that - well - I just had a difficult time believing that one person's entire personality could be re-arranged so drastically.

Also, Angel (the series; not the character) changed so deeply from season to season that a viewer could get whiplash. One season, we're doing stand-alone cases; one season we're meeting Angel's son; one season we're fighting the evil law firm, Wolfram & Hart. The next season (my favorite; the fifth season), Angel is actually running Wolfram & Hart. It was like the series was fishing madly for an overriding context which would make it work on the same grand, thematic level as Buffy.

All that established, I also realize there are many enthusiastic Angel fans who also prefer the series to Buffy. I am sure they have good reasons; I just don't share them. I do "like" seasons of the show, and enjoy some episodes more than others.

In my opinion, Angel reached its glorious pinnacle in a kick-ass fifth season of downright compelling episodes. From the birth of a great demonic character called Illyria (played with great skill by regular Amy Acker), to the welcome return of thorn-in-Angel's side Spike (James Marsters), to a stunning, inconclusive Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid-style final episode ("Not Fade Away"), it seemed to me that the series was operating on all thrusters for perhaps the first time in five years. That's why I protested so vehemently when the WB canceled the series. It wasn't so much because of what Angel had been; but because of what it was in the process of becoming.

Which brings me to this episode, "Smile Time," which is absolute, utter genius. Written and directed by Ben Edlund (from a story by Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund), this tale is one of those amazing Buffyverse signature stories. You know the ones I'm talking about: the ones so gloriously conceived and so bravely executed that when you find time to stop laughing, gasping or crying, your jaw just hits the floor at the elegance and audacity of it all. These episodes go by names like "Hush" (the silent episode of Buffy featuring the Gentlemen), or "Once More With Feeling," the musical episode in which the characters sing the things they can't bring themselves to say. "Smile Time" is in that league, and if I were trying to convert anti-Angel folks to an appreciation of the series, this is the episode I would recommend. Especially if a viewer has a finely-developed sense of the absurd.

"Smile Time" finds Angel's gang (working at Wolfram & Hart) investigating a children's epidemic that is mystical in origin. Eleven children have collapsed in Los Angeles, all in front of the television; and all between 7:00 am and 7:30 am. That happens to be the time slot of an "edutainment" puppet show guessed it, "Smile Time." One character populating this series is a big fat purple blob with a horn for a nose, called "the Grumpus" (any resemblance to the Grimace is purely unintentional, we assume...) The Grumpus, by the way, communicates entirely in honks. Anyhoo, the children (all between the ages of 5 and 8) have been found unconscious, but with huge smiles frozen on their faces, and bulging, focus-less eyes.

The episode opens with a deeply disturbing prologue worthy of The X-Files in which a boy staying at home sick, named Tommy vegetates in front of the TV, only to watch as a puppet on the screen approaches the "edge" of the tube and tells him to touch the television. "You don't want to be a bad apple, do you, Tommy?" the Sesame Street-style puppet asks. Tommy doesn't want to be a bad apple, so he touches the TV and the puppet promptly sucks out his life-force. When Tommy's mother walks into the room, she finds her pajama-adorning son on the floor, his little body contorted, his neck twisted at a grotesque angle. There's a gruesome smile etched on his youthful features; his eyes are wide and dead. Yikes! This is a potent and psychically-scarring image, especially for a parent!

Back at Wolfram & Hart, this case is just what Angel needs to take his mind off of Nina, a hot blond woman who also happens to be a werewolf and is spending full moons at the law agency (in a jail cell...) to avoid hurting anyone. She and Angel have begun to develop some romantic feelings, but Angel has been trying to ignore the signals because he fears achieving a moment of "perfect happiness" (read: orgasm), because if he does so...a gypsy curse will take away his soul.

So Angel investigates the studio where "Smile Time" is produced and in a splendidly creepy scene, discovers a dank, secret chamber, a hole in the wall behind a file cabinet that descends into an underworld. There, a fat man (with a towel over his head...) sits silently...a mystery. Above this quiescent figure hangs a weird "nest egg" of glowing light (a repository for the souls of children). It flares suddenly at Angel, and before you know it, our champion - he who helps the helpless - has been transformed into..a tiny puppet.

And this is the raison d'etre for the episode. To turn our stalwart hero into a creation who "has the proportionate excitement of a puppet his size." As much as Angel is embarrassed by the transformation, it also helps him deal with some of his personal issues, especially with Nina. And the scene in which Angel's friends and co-workers first see him in his new form is very, very funny. "Oh my God, Angel..." says Fred, at first sounding disturbed, "you're so...cute."

Even better is the moment wherein Spike, Angel's rival for Buffy's affections (and for the title of Shanshu - vampire with a soul) sees his nemesis in puppet form. "You're a bloody puppet!" Spike exclaims, and then it's on. The two vampires engage in a knock-down, drag-out fight in the lobby, staged by the stunt coordinator as though it is a serious combat between two colossal fighters. Only one of them happens to be made of felt.

After some initial embarrassment, Angel goes to Nina and tells her what has happened. ("Nina...I was turned into a puppet last night," Angel explains seriously), and it is here that the makers of Angel turn truly wicked. In the jail cell, pacing in front of Nina, Angel -- after five frickin' seasons of being the strong but silent and sullen type -- engages in a wonderfully-written, self-reflective monologue about his feelings. The tender, human, emotionally-vulnerable side of the tortured, brooding vampire is excavated here. But all the while, we're watching a puppet emote. If that isn't pure, self-reflexive genius, I don't know what is. Sometimes, it takes a puppet to say what's in a person's heart, I guess.

Soon, it's time to take out the evil soul-sucking puppets at "Smile Time" before they can destroy Los Angeles' entire child population (turns out that pure, innocent life force is a hot commodity in some demon dimensions these days...) Gunn does some research and learns that these demons have struck before ("anyone seen the last few season of Happy Days?" he asks, seriously, by way of exposition). So with Angel's portentous declaration "let's take out some puppets," the group marches into battle.

Again, this moment is splendidly staged and orchestrated. The audience is treated to a Michael Bay-style Con-Air/Armageddon "bad MF"/"hero walk" shot replete with slow-motion photography. Armed for battle, Fred, Gunn and Wesley march toward the camera, looking grim and dedicated. In front of them...down a a little...but leading the charge is Angel...a puppet with a sword braced across his shoulders. It plays as perfect parody of solemn action movies and serves as a great visual joke; one that invites giddy laughter and exposes how silly this cliched and overused shot really is.

Just when you think the episode can't possibly get better, we are treated to a battle royale at the studio between our heroes and the troop of sinister puppets. Among the highlights are a puppet decapitation by sword (and the puppet is a cute puppy!), a volley of "macho" action-movie one-liners ("I'm going to tear you a new puppet hole, bitch!") and a slow-motion dispatch of the villain as the puppet ringleader is sent hurtling across the studio and killed. We see his dying puppet legs twitch.

And as long as I live, I shall never forget the death throes of the Grumpus (after Wesley has ripped out his horn-nose...)....

And did I mention that the final battle occurs only after we've been treated to such puppet production numbers as "Self Esteem is For Everybody" and the educational skit, "Action Math?"

As a writer and creator of my own online series, what I admire so deeply about "Smile Time" is that it punctures and pokes fun at its own serious nature. Angel is a dark, broody, angsty series about "redemption," with a mostly taciturn hero leading a pack of committed supernatural fighters against the dedicated forces of evil. "Smile Time" reveals how - with simply one element altered (our hero as a puppet)...the whole enterprise can be viewed as absolutely ridiculous. This episode serves as a parody of TV shows just like Angel and of the character of Angel himself. It makes me wonder if Con Air wouldn't have been made entirely more palatable if Nic Cage had been a puppet. In some ways, this is the same equation wrought by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in Team America: World Police, only here the joke must sustain forty-five minutes of drama not ninety minutes, and thus never has the chance to get old or tired. (love Team America, by the way...).

There's also a nice subtext in "Smile Time" about how television sucks the life out of your child. It literalizes the old canard from Moms' about how sitting too close to the TV can harm you. Well...Tommy finds out that's true in this story. Television here is depicted as a portal of evil since the hellish soul-sucking procedure is transferred via a hidden carrier wave piggy-backing on "Smile Time," effectively making the boob tube a two-way conduit. Or some such tech talk.

There are so many great lines and great images in "Smile Time," I find it difficult to tag them all. There's a great ghoulish moment involving guest star (and producer) David Fury, wherein we learn a puppet has its hand up his back, not vice versa. There's also a good B-story involving Gunn going through a personal transformation of his own. This subplot echoes the journey Angel takes here, and rounds out the episode, nicely granting the story a certain elegance.

Everything -- from humor to action to scares to character interaction (to subtext) -- is perfectly calibrated in this stand-out episode of Angel. And again, that's not easy to accomplish. To do an episode like this on a well-established series is nothing short of amazing. There must be total trust and total commitment on the part of the actors, the writers, the producers and the director, and it is clear that was present here. "Smile Time" reveals that Angel the series has big fat brass (puppet...) balls.

Final note: I must mention that Drew Massey, the puppeteer behind Greg the Bunny's Count Blah, does an amazing job of making Angel the puppet utterly convincing as an extension of the Angel we grew to know for five years. The pint-sized puppet even broods like David Boreanaz.

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