Wednesday, June 15, 2011

All Hail Smile Time

Amy Acker as Fred, admiring Angel's new look (image courtesy of Screencap Paradise)

Hearing someone state that "Smile Time" from Season 5 of Angel is a favorite episode is kind of like watching someone curtsy in front of the Queen. After a while it has the potential to become an empty, obligatory ritual of obeisance that is almost totally devoid of meaning. Having said that, I was happily surprised that "Smile Time" is another one of those episodes that can arguably get better after each viewing.

Pointing out all of those "oh, that's so cute" moments would be an overwhelming task. If I limited myself to just a few favorites I'd feel like I was disrespecting the rest of the show. (However, I do have to point out that Spike's "wee little puppet man" is probably my most-viewed scene of the entire series.) Instead I'll just focus on some of my pet themes and a few other minor aspects.

(If you're interested in some of my early thoughts on "Smile Time", see here and here.)

Childhood Innocence. I"ll start off by going straight towards the two-ton elephant in the room. It's unfortunate that the opening scene in the episode prevents me from showing "Smile Time" to people who've never seen Angel before. Otherwise, "Smile Time" could act as its very own goodwill ambassador for the series, sort of how "Hush" assumed that role for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can understand how the creators wanted to balance out the cutesy lightheartedness of the rest of the show with the darker undercurrents of the loss of childhood innocence. However, no matter how open-minded I try to be, I just can't accept a segment where, in the words of Nikki Stafford in her book Once Bitten: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Angel, (page 325 in Google Books), "...if you listen to the opening without actually watching it, it sounds completely perverse, like the puppets are pedophiles. A child is watching TV, and you hear a voice talking to him saying, 'Get over here and touch it.". The voice then makes loud, sexual groaning noises. Yikes!"

Actually, even if you are watching the action it looks a lot like a puppet pedophile at work. In my worst moments I suspect that Mutant Enemy was once more sanctimoniously trying to shake white bread, middle-class, Middle America viewers out of their complacency. About all I can say is that I lived through the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the 1960's drug counterculture movement, the 1967 Detroit race riots, an era when motorcycle gangs roamed the streets and countryside like we were in a Mad Max movie, an era of multiple airplane hijackings, the Tate-LaBianca murders (courtesy of Charles Manson & Co.), the Weatherman/Weather Underground bombings, the Michigan co-ed murders, Watergate, and the Oakland County child murders, all by the time I was fourteen years old. I don't have much more complacency left to shake.

Fred. If pressed to list all of my favorite moments in the episode, I'd honestly have to include every single scene Amy Acker appeared in. I can't help but mention this scene (and particularly the look on Amy's face) where Fred was trying to hit on an impossibly clueless Wesley, and this scene (as shown in the image above) where Fred gushed to Puppet Angel "'re CUTE!" . Similar to Amber Benson's portrayal of Tara just before her character's death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amy Acker was positively luminous as Fred during her character's waning days.

Fred and Wesley. I've said in a previous post (which I couldn't find in the few seconds I spent looking for it) that Fred and Wesley were much more interesting as a couple when Fred was chasing a clueless Wesley rather than vice versa. I've also been going on at length lately how it was patently obvious that Fred and Wesley's romance had to be forced in at the last minute so that her death would be that much more tragic.

Stringing an audience along on the matter of "will they or won't they" seems to be as much of an art as it is a science. This is worth another blog post in its own right, but Mutant Enemy seemed to achieve mixed results. I thought they handled Buffy and Angel's burgeoning romance quite nicely, but it seemed like I had to wait forever for Buffy and Spike to get together, to the point where the otherwise fine Season 5 of Buffy was almost a complete waste for me. I seem to be in a distinct minority, but I always thought Mutant Enemy handled the Fred/Wesley relationship in somewhat of a slipshod manner throughout most of Angel's run until Season 5. By that time it was just too late to make that much of a difference for me.

It's no secret that Fred was not a favorite character of mine, though I've been tolerating her more lately, to the point where I'm actually finding some things that I like about her. It's therefore a bit of a disappointment that I'm not liking their famous kiss at the end of "Smile Time" that much more than the first time I saw it. The best I can come up with is, if they're happy, than I'm happy.

Charles Gunn and the Senior Partners. It's pretty obvious that Gunn had fallen pretty far when he opted to get a more permanent brain upgrade behind Team Angel's backs rather than admit that he was losing all of his legal knowledge. (With all of that knowledge in his brain, Gunn finally felt like he was operating on the same intellectual level as everyone else.) In his defense, Charles had no idea that his agreement to cut through the red tape which would allow the mad doctor to bring his "curio" through customs would lead directly to Fred's death. On a Sunday School morality level, Gunn should have known that cutting a deal with Evil would result in terrible consequences. However, he and Team Angel had been cutting deals with some pretty questionable characters all along, and had always been able to deal with the consequences. Why would this case be different?

What I really wonder about is, how involved were the Senior Partners in all of these events? It would be easy to assume that the Partners initially gave Charles a temporary brain boost, knowing full well that he'd come crawling back for more when he started losing his knowledge. However, Hamilton, Eve's successor liaison, mentioned on a few occasions that the Senior Partners weren't necessarily behind everything bad that happened. I could have sworn that either Hamilton or someone else clearly stated that the mad doctor and Knox had brought in Illyria's sarcophagus behind the Senior Partners' backs, but I'm unable to find it in the dialogue anywhere. (The best I can do is link to this piece where Hamilton claimed, in regards to the Senior Partners' feelings about Illyria, "They don't want her here. They don't want her all.")

I've been working under the assumption that the Senior Partners didn't necessarily micromanage all of the details in their attempts to bring about Angel's ruin. However, they did manage to work certain events to their advantage, and perhaps even fostered an atmosphere that allowed bad things to happen to Team Angel without the Partners' direct involvement. I just wish there was more in-your-face evidence to prove this point.

Spike. Although Spike had a memorable role in this episode, it's even more telling that he didn't join Wesley, Gunn, Fred and Puppet Angel when they went on the warpath with the evil puppets. It seemed crucial that the Old Gang fight one last battle on their own (sans both Lorne and Spike) before Fred passed away. It also seemed important that Spike be integrated into the group on Mutant Enemy's terms rather than allowing him to sidle in on his own. I noticed the same process with his attempts to join the Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where it appeared that every time Spike seemed to organically merge into the group, Mutant Enemy would come around and pull him away again. The producers had their story line in mind in how Spike would become a true ally of Angel, and he just had to wait his turn.

Nina Ash. To paraphrase something Lorne said in Season 2 of Angel, the most remarkable thing about Nina's burgeoning relationship with Angel was how un-remarkable it really was. I won't go into too much detail, but I've discussed before that it was sweet to see how the whole boy-meets-girl thing unfolded between the two of them. I don't know if I'm really up to discussing why Angel's relationship with Nina worked out so much better than his relationships with other women, but in my heart I think that the whole low-key aspect was, for lack of a better phrase, the key to their success. Angel's affairs with Darla and Buffy (and, to a lesser extent with Cordelia), were epic dramas of their own, whereas the beginning of his relationship with Nina was more down-to-earth.

The real turning point occurred when Puppet Angel came up with the courage to show himself to Nina, which allowed her to see him in the worst possible light. Instead of laughing at Angel, Nina gave words of encouragement, since she could identify with him in yet one more way as one freak to another. It helped Nina to be able to see Angel at his most vulnerable, since what he did (showing himself to Nina) took about as much bravery as facing some of the worst monsters in the world. For his part, Angel was probably secretly glad to be involved with someone who was a little more peaceful than the other uppity uber-femmes he'd been involved with. Sometimes a guy just needs someone who will mix his favorite drinks and murmur sympathetic noises.

Idle Thoughts. Almost every episode of Season 5 of Angel seemed to drearily bring home the point that you need to bend your morals to the breaking point in order to achieve success. I'm almost cynical enough to believe that myself. The fact that this idea was personified in the guise of Wolfram & Hart was one of the most absolutely brilliant aspects of the series.

I've always been surprised that Fred and Wesley still seemed to enjoy the Smile Time children's TV show on its own terms even though they knew evil forces were involved. Talk about separating art from the artist!

The fact that Wesley came in #2 on the list behind Knox didn't really say much for Fred's taste in men.

I'm not quite sure why I always laugh whenever I hear Lorne say "Oh, that's Gregor Framkin. Yeah, real rags to riches. Started out in a garage with a couple of used couches and a glue gun. He turned it into a puppet gold mine." It must be have been something in actor Andy Hallett's delivery. While I'm at it I might as well mention how much I adore his "Bad person!" and "Is there a Geppetto in the house?" lines.

I read an abbreviated version of Flowers of Algernon when I was in high school. The story was referenced in this scene with Charles Gunn and the evil doctor. Although I really liked the book, I didn't care for the movie version, "Charly", with Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom, mostly because it featured a lot of 1960's experimental film-type schlock that aged quite badly over the years.

I always enjoyed hearing bad guys acknowledge that ticking off Angel was a bad mistake.

I can't help but mention that the premise that the puppets were going to wipe out the life essences of all of the children in Los Angeles in one fell swoop is a lot like how all of the children's heads were going to explode when they watched a TV show while they were wearing specific Halloween masks in Halloween III.

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