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On TV Today's Date:

Smile Time
original air-date: 02-18-04

Only the most hermit-like Angel fan won't know that this is the much anticipated episode in which Angel gets turned into a puppet. That event will no doubt be very polarizing: Some fans will love it, some fans will hate it. Really, though, the puppetry is ancillary to the story telling, character development, and so on. So look past the puppet.

What's left is a mixed quality offering that might make fans yearn for the old days of Angel Investigations taking on specific cases (and Lorne was a more active member). Here the Wolfram and Hart setting adds very little. The same story would have worked with a few screenplay tweaks, a cage in the basement of the hotel, Wes' pouring through moldy spell books, and Cordy manning the internet. (Remember those funny demon info sites? Sigh...)

The episode opens with a young boy watching Smile Time, a Sesame Street-esque kids' show supposedly ultrapopular in the so-called SoCal market. Unfortunately, sitting too close to the TV really is bad for you in this case. But don't worry, kid. If it had been real horror, that thermometer would have gone somewhere else!

Afflicted kids end up with frozen smiles reminiscent of The Joker's victims in Tim Burton's Batman. In fact, the rip-off is so blatant, that Knox even mentions it while he and Fred investigate. That's OK because it's probably the least annoying thing that comes out of Knox's mouth. Here the writer's would do well to rip-off Dead Poets Society and have his W&H co-workers nickname him "Knox-ious."

Meanwhile Angel deals with werewolf girl Nina, who has developed a crush on our would-be hero (and thus brings a new definition to puppy love). A lot of fans didn't like the Nina storyline the first time round. Really, though, she's not that bad. Far more dreadful is DB's atypical acting in his initial exchange with Wes. Maybe he was saving up for his puppet scenes.

The two storylines come together when Angel uses the need to investigate the Smile Time studios as an excuse to dodge Nina's affections. This makes perfect sense except it seems unlikely that Angel would discover a key clue unobserved by Fred (or even Knoxious) if she had been over the show recording many times. Perhaps Fred is distracted by her new found feelings for Wes. More on that later.

When Angel goes to check out Smile Time, he finds a secret passage behind a file cabinet. Unfortunately, the passage does not lead into John Malkovich's brain, but instead to the "Don't" room. But Angel does, and ends up a puppet for the rest of the episode.

OK, OK, a few words on the whole puppet thing. It's fun. Seeing puppet Angel is fun. Seeing puppet Angel almost get the stuffing beaten out of him is fun (though the set-up is clumsy and obvious). Seeing puppet Angel vamp out is fun. And the other puppets, especially Ratio Hornblower, are fun too. So for any fan who thought it was lame or stupid: Lighten up, Frances.

That the Fang Gang ends up saving the day is pretty much a given. In some ways, the Smile Time story is just background for a few key scenes no doubt tied to the upcoming arc. There's Gunn going back to "imprints-are-us" for a legalese recharge. Charles acts out of vanity, one of the Seven Deadly Sins (if we are to believe The Devil's Advocate, Seven, or even The Bible). His decision will clearly have repercussions.

And there's Fred and Wes finally coming together. Fred, who with stick figure and nano-skirt looks the geek equivalent of Ally McBeal, tries to tell Wesley several times that she has developed serious feeling for him. Wes, however, has so convinced himself that his love is unrequited that he fails to note these advances. He must be that out of it because it's a real stretch to believe that Wes, under any circumstance, would encourage Angel to risk turning back into Angelus. But judging from the preview of next week's episode, Fred-Wes shippers would be premature to celebrate.

Finally, a few words about last week's upsetting news of Angel's WB cancellation. I wish it wasn't true. On the other hand, something Lorne said made me feel a little better, i.e., "remember the last few seasons of Happy Days?" Well, I don't remember those very well, but I do remember the last poor seasons of Buffy and The X-Files. So maybe it's a good thing that Angel's going out while still in good form.

But while I mull that over, I've got lots of postcards and petitions to fill out...

Chris Crotty

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