\m/15-Minute Hellmouth\m/: Buffy the Vampire Slayer DeepWatch: Season 1, Episode 9: “The Puppet Show” (airdate: Monday, May 5, 1997): Part 1 of 3

00:00 – 15:00

On May 1, 1997, a mere four days prior to this episode’s first appearance, Tony Blair took over John Major’s spot as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. For the first time in eighteen years, the Labour Party is in control of UK government.

The day after this episode—Tuesday, May 6, 1997—the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is held at the hall itself for the first time. This year’s inductees were the Bee Gees, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills & Nash, The Jackson 5, Joni Mitchell, Parliament-Funkadelic, and The (Young) Rascals. I’ll allow it.

The following Friday, May 9, 1997, Bob Saget hosts his final regular episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos on ABC. The other castmembers of Full House are present, except for the Olsen Twins. Mary-Kate and Ashley did appear at his funeral in 2022, however.

“Hypnotize,” by Notorious B.I.G. maintains its top position on the Billboard charts in the US. Meanwhile, Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” peaks at the #9 position, and Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch” peaks at #50.

After the dismal previous episode, “I, Robot . . . You, Jane,” the episode “The Puppet Show” was the second least-viewed of Buffy‘s first season in the US. I wasn’t watching the series in 1997, so I’m not counted in those viewer numbers. The show’s main competition in this time slot—at least in May ’97—would have been the ABC news show 20/20, which finished up in the top-30 television series for that year. In the fall, Buffy would go head-to-head with Monday Night Football, also on ABC. Pretty stiff competition.

I’m going to preface this dissection of the episode with a disclaimer. I’m not a fan of ventriloquism in general. In particular, stories about demonic ventriloquist dummies or haunted dolls usually leave me cold, even those on The Twilight Zone.

This means that I was predisposed to not liking this episode. Call it a personal bias. However, I did like this one more than the one about the demon robot Moloch, and there’s a twist I didn’t see coming the first time I watched the episode. A twist that made the episode better, in my opinion, although by this point in the series I should have expected my expectations to be subverted.

We are backstage at the Sunnydale High School auditorium as the teaser kicks off. There’s some interesting camera movement as we shift from person to person. A ballerina is doing her stretching exercises.

There is a voiceover. It’s safe to assume that this is the voice of whoever/whatever’s POV we’re in. “I will be whole,” the voice says. “I will be new.”

There are other students backstage. A female student practicing her tuba. Someone else rehearsing a magic act. Then, the camera closes in on Morgan and his ventriloquist’s dummy, Sid. Morgan seems to be suffering from a headache. He rubs his temples and looks around.

Speaking of headaches, Cordelia Chase is onstage, at this very moment, singing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.”

Full disclosure: I didn’t even like this song when Whitney sang it. And Whitney could really sing. Cordelia can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and she seems to be singing in a key that doesn’t exist on this plane of reality. I can’t say if the same is true of actress Charisma Carpenter. Perhaps she can sing. However, it doesn’t seem to be something she built her career upon.

Everyone’s favorite Librarian/Watcher Rupert Giles is in the audience witnessing this tragic performance. He appears to be in physical pain as Cordy continues to massacre the song. He finally interrupts her.

“Thank you, Cordelia,” he says. “That’s going to be lovely.”

“But I didn’t do the part with the sparklers,” Cordy says.

“We’ll, um, save that for the dress rehearsal.” Giles urges Cordelia off the stage by summoning Lisa, the tuba player.

Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris approach the harried librarian as he is rubbing his eyes. They seem to delight in Giles’s discomfort. You know, the way good friends do.

“The school talent show,” Buffy points out, in case the viewer hasn’t assembled all of the puzzle pieces yet. “However did you finagle such a primo assignment?”

“Our new Führer, Mr. Snyder.”

He means the new principal, of course. Snyder replaced Principal Flutie, who was eaten by a pack of hyena-possessed students just three episodes ago. Fun fact: the role of Principal Snyder is played by Armin Shimerman, who was also playing Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at the same time. Since I didn’t watch a single episode of either series until both were off the air, I didn’t know this until years later. He would also go on to play a member of the Nox on Stargate: SG-1. It seems Shimerman pops up frequently on nerd-centric television series.

“Giles,” Buffy says, “unto every generation is born one who must run the annual talentless show. You cannot escape your destiny.”

“If you had any shred of decency,” Giles says, “you would have participated, or at least—um—helped.”

“Nah. I think I’ll take on your traditional role . . . and watch!”

“And mock,” Xander adds.

“And laugh,” says Willow.

And then they all laugh, enjoying that schadenfreudiness that comes from taking delight in the misfortune of others. Our three young Scoobies are prepared to leave the harried librarian to his misfortune. Of course, Principal Snyder is waiting for them up the aisle.

“So,” the principal says, “We think school events are stupid, and we think authority figures are to be made fun of.”

“No. No, we don’t,” Buffy says. “Unless you do.”

“And we think,” Synder continues, “our afternoon classes are optional. All three of you left campus yesterday.”

This bit, and the character introduction of Principal Snyder, goes on for a few moments more. The crux of this scene is that Snyder is forcing Buffy, Xander and Willow to actively participate in the school talent show.

Finally, Principal Synder says, “My predecessor Mr. Flutie may have gone in for all that touchy-feely relating nonsense, but he was eaten. You’re in my world now. And Sunnydale has touched and felt for the last time.”

When I watched this episode again for this project, I made a note that the way Buffy, Xander and Willow were roped into the talent show seemed very contrived. I understand it was necessary for the story to work, and it seems unlikely that any of the Scoobies, including Giles, would readily participate in the show unless they were somehow forced to. I’ll give minor contrivances a pass for the sake of story.

Besides, it was instant karma for the mean way the kids were treating Giles.

Lisa the tuba player finishes her solo, and it’s time for the next act. It’s Morgan, with his dummy Sid. At first, this act seems as bad as the others. It improves when Sid the dummy begins berating Morgan and criticizing his skills as a ventriloquist.

Buffy makes the comment that ventriloquist dummies give her the “wig,” which I assume is shorthand for the Buffyism “the wiggins,” perhaps a distant cousin to the heebie-jeebies. I can relate. They give me the wig as well.

The scene which immediately follows is in an ill-lit, shadowy locker room. Which seems to describe every locker room we’ve seen so far in the series. The ballerina we saw stretching earlier is changing into her regular clothes. She hears a strange noise and walks to the end of a row of lockers, peeks around and discovers nothing is there.

We’re suddenly in the POV of the episode’s Big Bad, who apparently sees the world in black-and-white and from a perspective that is low to the floor. Is this Sid the dummy? It seems like that’s what is being suggested.

The girl heads towards the showers. The villain comes up behind her. She turns and screams.

Then we fade to black as a voice says, “I will be flesh!”

The teaser ends, the opening credits roll, along with that rocking theme music, and we charge headlong into Act I.

Meanwhile, the talent show tryouts continue. Our student magician attempts to pull a rabbit out of a hat (which immediately made me think about Rocky & Bullwinkle, because I am me). Somehow, the magic man’s rabbit has escaped. Hardy-har.

As the camera pans during the rabbit hunt, we find Buffy, Willow and Xander practicing a dramatic scene, because—as Willow tells the viewers—”A dramatic scene is the easiest way to get through the talent show, because it doesn’t require an actual talent.”

Having an actor utter the line of dialogue that suggests actors don’t have talent is all so very meta. It’s also consistent with the tone we’ve experienced so far in BTVS.

Morgan and Sid the dummy reenter the story when Sid whistles wolfishly at Buffy and Willow. The always-nurturing Willow goes over to Morgan. She says, “Morgan, you’re really getting good! Where did you come up with that voice?”

“It’s kind of an imitation of my dad,” Morgan says.

Buffy says, “Sounds real.”

“It is real,” Sid the dummy says. “I’m the one with the talent here. The kid’s dead weight.” To Willow, Sid says, “How about you and I do some rehearsin’ on our own, honey?”

“Hey!” Xander interjects.

“You know what they say,” Sid continues. “Once you go wood, nothing’s as good.”

“Okay, Morgan,” Buffy says. “We get the joke. Horny dummy. Ha-ha, very funny. But, you might wanna consider getting some new schtick. Unless you want your prop ending up as a Duraflame log.”

We get a reaction take, as Morgan and Sid look at each other.

Giles and Principal Snyder enter at the back of the auditorium. Snyder’s introduction is continuing. He doesn’t seem to like kids at all. He tells Giles, “This place has quite a reputation. Suicide, missing persons, spontaneous cheerleader combustion. You can’t put up with that. You’ve got to keep an eye on the bad element.”

Synder explicitly indicates that he considers Buffy, Willow and Xander to be part of the bad element. We get it. Snyder is going to be an antagonist for Buffy and her friends, as he tries to keep control of those meddling kids.

We return to the girls locker room. A girl screams as the ballerina’s body is discovered.

Jump-cut, and the paramedics are preparing the body for transport. Giles comes out of the locker room and tells the Scoobies that it was the dancer, Emily, and it probably wasn’t a vampire. Her heart was removed. We get an insert of the paramedics putting a knife in an evidence bag.

Buffy says, “But demons have claws. And teeth.”

“They got no use for a big ol’ knife,” Xander concurs.

“Which,” Giles concludes, “more than likely makes our murderer—”

“Human,” Buffy says. She has trouble accepting this, however. They are on a Hellmouth, which is totally rife with mystical activity. This murder screams “demon” to Buffy.

“I’d like to think you’re right,” Giles says. “A demon is a creature of evil, pure and very simple. A person driven to kill is . . . um, it’s more complex.”

Later on, especially on Angel, this pure-and-simple description of all demons as evil seems to be too simplistic. I mean, what about Lorne?

Giles suggests that they do some investigating of their own, starting with the other talent show contestants, one of whom may have been the last to see Emily alive.

The Scoobies interview the tuba player, magician and juggler. Morgan’s name comes up a bunch. Xander interviews Cordelia, who is chiefly concerned because she could have been the one killed instead of Emily. Buffy herself interviews Morgan, who is indeed acting strangely. He seems to be suffering from debilitating headaches, and he talks to Sid as if the dummy were a real person. In fact, he allows Sid to do most of the talking for him during Buffy’s investigation.

After the Scoobies reconvene, they agree that multiple fingers are pointing directly at Morgan. Buffy, for one, acknowledges that Morgan is on the weird side, but she’s not willing to abandon the idea that the killer is a demon.

“I’m looking into that,” Giles says. “But, my investigation is somewhat hampered by our life in the theater.”

“Priority check, Giles,” Buffy says, making a weighing gesture with her hands. “Talent show . . . Murder.”

Here, we arrive at our 15-Minute mark, which means that Part 1 of this dissection and commentary of “The Puppet Show” has reached its conclusion. We’re still two or three scenes away from concluding Act I.

Join me here on the Hellmouth next time, where we’ll try to find out a bit more about what’s going on with Morgan and Sid. Ventriloquist acts still give me the wig.


3 thoughts on “\m/15-Minute Hellmouth\m/: Buffy the Vampire Slayer DeepWatch: Season 1, Episode 9: “The Puppet Show” (airdate: Monday, May 5, 1997): Part 1 of 3

  1. I, too, have never heard Charisma sing, though anyone that beautiful should have an Achilles heel somewhere. It’s only fair to the rest of us! Cordelia, of course, has delivered several horrific renditions both here and on Angel, so that’s firmly established as a character trait.

    On actors not needing talent, Charisma in an interview talked about her son denigrating her job as an actress: “But all you do is read the words someone else wrote for you. You don’t write them. You don’t sew the costumes, you don’t build the sets, heck, Mom, you’ve got the easy part.” [Paraphrased, but very close]. On the other end of the scale, I saw this quote from an actor yesterday; if I’d known you were going to post this, I’d have written down the source: “An actor’s job is to make lousy writing look good.”

    Looking forward to the rest of this. About swallowed my tongue when I saw George Hamilton as a ventriloquist’s dummy, complete with spray-tan and pompadour!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree about Charisma. She’s still a beautiful woman, and I always thought she was a good actress. Who cares if she can sing? Heck, it takes talent to sing as badly as Cordelia is supposed to.

      The George Hamilton comment had me rolling. The dummy may look less fake than George always did to me. But you’ve made me want to watch Your Cheatin’ Heart and Evel Knievel again.

      Liked by 1 person

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