Written by Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali
Directed by Ellen S. Pressman
Original Air Date: May 5th, 1997
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin with ‘The Puppet Show’ because it’s an hour of Buffy, like so much about the first season, that I have rather nostalgic affection for, and yet it’s an episode that kind of makes one wince a little when watched in 2020.
I have no problem in admitting I have a massive soft spot for creepy dolls in horror and this sub-genre of horror has delivered the good and the not so good over the years; Child’s Play and its many, many sequels, is obviously the most famous of them all, while even non-doll related horror films such as Deep Red and the endless parade of Saw movies have used dolls in creepy ways to have an effect on the audience, but in actuality ‘The Puppet Show’ has more in common with Richard Attenborough’s Magic and its tale of psychotic ventriloquism that featured a pre-Hannibal Lecter Anthony Hopkins, and let’s not forget the classic Simpsons episode ‘Krusty Gets Cancelled’ which introduced Gabbo.
The biggest joy to be gained from the episode is without a doubt the debut of Armin Shimerman as Principal Snyder, a vastly more antagonistic figure compared to Flutie, his harsher demeanour and disdainful attitude towards Buffy means that the show now has a recurring authority figure that poses something of a genuine threat to our heroine going forward.
Much of the episode’s best moments of humour comes from the character who clearly has it in for our heroine, and who is prone to making speeches about what he does and doesn’t want in his school, all of which are delivered with darkly funny menace by Shimerman who clearly made such a mark on the show here that it comes as no surprise that they would keep bringing him back and who managed to divide his time between guest starring here and being a regular on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Using the stand-by of a school talent show gives the episode ample chance to have some real fun here with the characters, not least by subverting expectations two thirds of the way through by revealing that the real culprit behind the very grisly murders driving the story is in fact an all too human looking demon.
Nine episodes into the first season of Buffy, and it’s clear that the series and the writing have a very clear grasp of horror and the tropes within them; the first time we see Sid, we immediately think of a plethora of creepy doll narratives, be it Chucky or Magic, and nearly every other genre show worth their salt have ran with versions of the story (Angel would do an equivalent episode centred around muppets and arguably deliver its greatest ever episode with it).
The gravelly voice of Tom Wyner and the suspicious nature of both the puppet and his owner, Morgan (Richard Werner), are enough to make you think we’re in for a teen version of the Magic formula, but the script subverts expectations wonderfully by revealing that the real demon the whole time is wannabe magician Marc (Burke Roberts), while Morgan is given a more tragic backstory that is unafraid to take the episode into considerably darker territory.
Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali did a great job with ‘Never Kill a Boy on the First Date’, and there is a similar sense of jovial pace and humour to some of the proceedings here, with a lovely command of verbal humour and unexpected twists. Setting the entire story against the background of the School Talent Show, being put together by a not very happy Giles, gives the episode a chance to really flex some of its very fine comedic muscles in terms of dialogue and character, with some wonderful jokes thrown at the direction of Cordelia, and the first occasion of her singing Whitney Huston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’ which would be referred to again in the fourth season of Angel.
It has lost points as the years goes on by relying on the trope of the horny dummy routine which one expects to be subverted but which turns out to be an all too real piece of Sid’s character, an element that makes on wince even more given that he’s behaving in such a way towards high school characters, but the episode amazingly aims for some pathos come the end of the episode with the reveal of Sid’s good guy stature and the defeat of the actual villain freeing Sid’s soul from the puppet itself.
It’s a reminder of just how brilliantly elastic the tone of Buffy can be when that scene is then followed by a wonderful slice of comedy when, after the climax has taken place on the school stage behind the curtains, the curtain lifts and Buffy, Xander and Willow find themselves having to perform in front of everyone.
The split screen credit sequence has a habit of being cut from television broadcasts depending on where you’re watching it, but it’s a lovely piece of comedy that lightens the load after the climax and which even sets up a piece of Willow-related character development that’s going to come into play in the next episode.
As the years have gone on, I will admit the episode is probably not as firm a favourite of mine as it once was; some of the horny dummy jokes are a touch obvious and on the nose, but it does share that sense of pace and fun that came from Hotel and Batali’s previous episode and like so much of season one, having watched the episode when it was first broadcast, I guess the nostalgia is a major reason I still have fun with it.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available to stream on Hulu in the U.S, and in the U.K is available on All4 and airs nightly on E4.