Heh. This was a great episode. For the first time I found myself getting in touch with friends and saying ‘You know how I’ve been saying all along that Angel isn’t as good as Buffy? I was wrong.’
It’s always a good sign when the really funny lines aren’t funny because they’re written to be witty but because of the context and the way they’re delivered. My absolute favourite was ‘Stupid plastic piece of crap!’, closely followed by ‘Pretty sure you don’t,’ and ‘Hey, it’s Smile Time!’ (the Kermit gape that followed was just perfect).
The opening sequence was beautifully shot (one of my biggest complaints about Angel is the directing). I loved Tommy tilting his head to see past his mother, and the way we never saw her face and until after he’d collapsed. How clearly can you say ‘Kid addicted to TV and no longer interacting with reality’? And then right after the credits Werewolf Girl walked through the door, and then in short succession Knox appeared and got the brush-off from Fred, and Gunn went to see the doctor about his upgrade. I got that feeling you get when your train’s been stuck in a station for ages and finally moves off and picks up speed – wow, plot progression. Rapid plot progression!
Of course, the whole thing was really damn funny. I have nothing to add on this front. The puppets were excellent. I liked the maths news, and I was seriously impressed at how Polo’s expression could be changed from innocent to evil just by pulling down his cap to the level of his eyebrows. Funniest of all was the Angel/Spike fight, which actually looked like a fight (nice cross-cutting). And for all that the whole sequence can’t have lasted above a minute and a half, it contained lots of layers. Spike’s immediate reaction is concern, and only then laughter. Angel’s fury at Spike is what makes him come out of the closet, paving the way for his apology to Nina (see, Spike is good for Angel, it doesn’t only work the other way round). Spike is still out doing good, even after the Lindsey debacle, and Angel’s lending him resources. It seems the boys have reached an accommodation with each other.
But what I liked best about the episode was that it was All About TV. Yup, it was self-reflexive, it was post-modern, it was meta-textual. All this and Muppet!Angel, too. What’s not to love?
I’m working on this really great song about the difference between analogy and metaphor.
One of the hallmarks of a truly great episode is that it is so tightly constructed that nothing is wasted. Grufus’s suggestion for a song works at the level of satire on children’s programmes like Sesame Street, with their overtly didactic content. But like the Self-Esteem Song, which is clearly intended to function as a comment on the Fang Gang’s own various inadequacies, it seems reasonable to suppose that the choice of subject matter reflects on some other aspect of the episode. So what is the metaphor and what is the analogy? Both seem pretty obvious – Angel is a puppet of Wolfram and Hart, or at least he’s afraid he is. His transformation into Muppet!Angel is an externalisation of his deepest fears. Framkin making a deal with demons to save his show when the ratings plummet, only to have them take over completely, is as obvious an analogy for the deal Joss Whedon struck with WB to save S5 as anyone could wish. But there’s more to the episode’s take on TV than ‘networks are run by demons’. The more interesting metaphor is concerned not with Muppet!Angel but the relationship between producers and consumers of television.
At one level, the episode is critical of unconstrained TV watching by children. It opens with a little boy absorbed in a kids’ programme (already absorbed at 7am). His mother doesn’t approve. She doesn’t want him ‘watching this crap’ all day, but there’s not a lot she can do about it. Tommy’s mother is evidently a single parent, she can’t afford to take time off work to look after her sick son, and since she’s not there, she can’t control what he watches. Tommy clearly isn’t listening to her anyway; he’s entirely focussed on the TV, tilting his head to see round her when she blocks his view (that shot was the moment when I knew this was going to be a good episode). Her voice rambles on in the background, unattended to by her son, and, significantly, we don’t see her face during this entire sequence. She’s much less important to Tommy than the puppet faces on screen. Only when he collapses into his coma do we finally get to see his mother's face. Hannah’s parents seem to be even more irresponsible about their daughter’s viewing. The child is seen sitting alone in her bedroom, happily glued to her very own TV, while the adults get on with their off-screen life. We don’t get to see Hannah’s mother at all, just hear her voice, as she calls out in annoyance to find out what’s making all the noise. Hannah’s answer, that it’s the TV, seems to satisfy her curiosity entirely – clearly she doesn’t actually care what’s going on, or what her daughter’s watching, and Hannah feels no urge to tell her about the distinctly frightening experience she’s just had. So far, so moralistic.
The metaphor backs up this moral stance. Here we have TV sucking the life force from children, stealing their innocence (innocence, it turns out, is a marketable commodity, properly used it can be transformed into a ‘nest egg’ for the people who make TV). Smile Time the puppet show is all about decent values – who could object to a programme about the importance of self-esteem, or the value of a good education? But the loveable stars of the programme are also foul-mouthed TV executives, who talk with breath-taking cynicism about ways to exploit ‘our demographic’, even if Grufus naively believes that ‘upholding standards in quality edutainment’ is a worthwhile goal in itself (he’s wrong, of course, and not just from Polo’s POV. I’m with Tommy’s mum, who dismisses the entirety of children’s TV as ‘this crap’).
The children, though, know nothing of the reality underlying their favourite programme. They don’t even realise that a TV puppet shouldn’t be able to talk to them directly. This failure to distinguish between TV and reality is a theme that runs throughout the episode. Children like Tommy, who can’t tell where the boundaries between a TV show and reality lie, cross over that border and end up in a coma, completely cut off from the real world, a fake smile plastered immovably over their faces (just like the puppets). Getting too caught up in a TV programme is clearly dangerous.
The audience, however, is not a bunch of kids; surely we can be trusted not to make the same mistake? We are the ones who are shown the utterly unglamorous reality of the Smile Time studio lot, with its cramped, dirty corridors and zombie-like staff (Framkin may be a rags to riches fairy tale, but the business end isn’t wasting any of that gold on fripperies). We aren’t children, we can tell the difference. But it’s more complex than that. In the climactic fight, brutal violent reality invades the sanitised TV world (and it really is brutal and violent. If we’d seen people rather than puppets being killed like that, it would have been horrific – just the sort of thing concerned parents complain about). The audience of children is ironically already too out of things to notice that two realities are intersecting on their screens, with a strange new puppet and a human man slaughtering their Smile Time friends. However, what the viewers see are not two realities. Gunn and Angel are no more real than Polo and his gang. What we see is a TV show invading another TV show (a show which has no existence outside the show that is invading it); the puppets who are ‘really’ demons are in fact really only puppets; manpire Angel is no more real than Muppet!Angel. The fact that Angel remains a puppet at the end underlines this, as does the ironic use of the self-esteem song to accompany Fred and Wesley’s kiss (‘The curtains close on a kiss’ – Joss really does love his metatextual commentary).
So we have a TV show deconstructing the process of producing and comsuming TV, ending with an ironic reminder that the events of show itself are no more real than the events of the fictional TV show with which it appears to contrast. Given the news that Angel won't be renewed, this is a timely reminder that, after all, it's just a show.