I wrote back in my review for Waiting in the Wings that Angel was rarely the kind of show to entirely break with tradition. While Buffy frequently offered episodes that played around with formula, both elaborately (the musical, a silent episode) as well as via less showy but nonetheless alternative ways (characters hearing everybody's thoughts, a dream episode), Angel was more of an generic series in terms of spectacle, allowing a traditional narrative to unspool over long-term arcs. Smile Time is one of those rare Buffy-ish episodes, in which initial absurdity quickly becomes something truly warm, winding up one of the most wildly experimental hours that the show ever attempted. They made him a puppet.
Before I comment on narrative and humor and the themes of the episode, it goes without saying that puppet-Angel is the cutest thing ever. The fluffy hands, his nutty excitability over Smile Time starting up, the way he leaps beneath his desk, the way he exaggeratedly stomps around like something straight out of Sesame Street. His nose comes off, for God's sakes! I also love that Fred explicitly acknowledges how adorable he looks, since that would totally be your natural reaction. Before, you know, the horror sets in.
Ben Edlund's script is a masterpiece of dueling tones converging successfully, primarily because the world of Smile Time is so light-hearted and moral yet occupied by monsters even more sadistic than usual. The puppets themselves are also spectacular, characters you could imagine being adored by legions of kids, but also incredibly convincing once they become vicious and crazy. Furthering that, you get completely suckered in by them. While the whole idea of demonic kiddie-TV puppets sounds ridiculous on paper, you quickly forget the stupid and buy into the scheming -- their toothy aggression and the grotesque horror of Frankin being operated like an actual puppet while pleading for death both being genuinely rattling.
There's also a ton of romantic resonance to the rest of the episode, even removed from the Smile Time comedy. It's actually pretty similar to Buffy's Hush, in which characters spend forever dancing around the subject of romance, letting silly neuroses spoil what should be something easy and comfortable. Angel experiences it here with Nina, terrified that his curse means any relationship would be futile, while Fred and Wesley finally get together.
The latter are an interesting thing, since I never had any real investment in the Fred/Wesley saga before the last couple of episodes. I don't know if it was just the generic 'blah'-ness of that initial love triangle with Gunn that turned me off, but only recently have I completely bought into these two. They have ridiculous chemistry, particularly in their brief courtship here and Fred's glances of complete longing. The way their first kiss is scored by that adorable self-esteem song is insanely sweet, and it's welcome to finally see Wes get some kind of happiness in his life. Uh-huh. Really great. Yeah.
Gunn's subplot is also interesting (who'd-a-thunk-it?), very much a story about the sudden gift of some kind of self-worth, and the uncomfortable tragedy that occurs when that respect begins to slip. Gunn made a deal with the devil back in Home, and you can understand why he'd want more of that power. In retrospect, it's entirely horrible to know where this is all headed...
Smile Time is indeed as good as its reputation implies, a smorgasbord of wild ideas that consistently work in spite of how tonally awkward it could have been. It's funny, heart-warming and entirely nuts, and a strong example of how Angel was upping its game at this point, truly coming into its own just as the WB pulled the plug. A+
Guest stars Mercedes McNab (Harmony Kendall); Jonathan M. Woodward (Knox); Jenny Mollen (Nina Ash); Marc Vann (Dr. Sparrow)
Teleplay Ben Edlund Story Joss Whedon, Ben Edlund Director Ben Edlund