Let me just say right up front: I love ventriloquists, but the old-school dummies are terrifying. It’s that uncanny valley thing. That said, Sid? Not terrifying. He just looks kinda silly.
All right, I admit it. I just don’t like this episode very much. It’s literally never referenced again, ever, unlike “Teacher’s Pet,” it serves no real purpose as far as introducing new characters to us–Principal Snyder doesn’t even have to be in this episode, I think they just felt like it was weird to have Sunnydale High in this limbo of “do they or don’t they have a new principal yet?” so they shoehorned him in. Literally all of his scenes could either be cut or done without him and the show would still make sense. And even if they did want to make sure we knew Sunnydale wasn’t administrationless, they could have just name dropped Principal Snyder as the reason Giles is stuck doing the talent show and waited until it actually fit the narrative to bring him in.
Don’t get me wrong though, Principal Snyder has some of my favorite lines in this episode. I particularly love the bit about the three things he won’t stand for–students loitering after school, gruesome murders where people’s hearts get torn out, and smoking–and the moment when he tells Giles he hates kids. But as fun as his character is, particularly in this very first iteration before he becomes frustrating and annoying (as I recall him being in seasons two and three), this episode still just feels unnecessary.
Part of that annoying, “why am I watching this?” feeling comes from the fact that the plot for this episode is kind of all over the place. There’s a lot of unnecessary misdirection about who or what the villain is–is it Morgan? Is it Sid? Is it someone else?–and the writing never really settles on anyone, so the surprise reveal of it being Marc the Magician just feels like, “Oh, okay, I guess that makes sense?” instead of having it be an actual reveal. If the writers had settled into a more solid “It’s Morgan because he’s crazy/Sid because he’s a possessed dummy/someone else” vein (i. e.: if they had chosen one of these), I think it would have played a lot better overall, but instead it just feels like a series of scenes that had to be strung together somehow.
There’s also a couple giant leaps in logic. Like, I don’t know about you, but I find out the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy is alive, my suspicion falls on him no matter what he says about being a former demon hunter. And also, who buys the reasoning that since the demon has what it wants it’s not going to show up to the talent show? That’s literally the best way to throw off suspicion, to show up and perform. So I have no idea why Giles and Co. decide the missing student is the guilty one, when it would have been a better idea to, oh, you know, look at the different acts and make something up about anyone using knives or blades is not allowed to perform due to the incident with Emily? See who gets angriest?
This whole episode was just dumb, straight on down the line. I admit, we get a few fun beats, like with Principal Snyder, or Giles freaking Cordelia out about her hair, but the rest of the episode is just not worth it. Sid’s not even a particularly creepy dummy. The uncanny valley element isn’t there because he’s designed to be likable later, so his features get softened a lot, and he’s also not made of wood (at least he doesn’t look like wood to me) so a lot of the creepy, carved look that makes actual ventriloquist dummies scary-looking and uncanny is just not present in Sid’s (probably vinyl) face. And no one believes that Giles would willingly strap himself to a guillotine, do they? I just don’t buy that at all. Giles is not an idiot, which we’ve totally established up to this point–he figures out the zookeeper is trying to be trans-possessed, researches all kinds of stuff, is a trained Watcher . . . he’s not dumb, is what I’m saying, and only someone really stupid would get on that table while a brain-seeking demon was still on the loose.
For me, the annoying suck of this episode just isn’t countered heavily enough by anything else. Not even the Scooby-Gang attempting to act out a scene from Oedipus Rex during the end credits redeems this for me, although Buffy’s Jocasta headdress is killer.
I think, too, that the reason this episode seems so weak is because (as The Passion of the Nerd points out–and thanks to him as well for helping me put my finger on a lot of what I don’t like about this episode) there are so many elements here that are show hallmarks. Cordelia, Giles, Xander, Willow, Principal Snyder, they all have character moments in this episode that are called back (though not directly referenced) in other episodes. Buffy, while at this point definitely the most well defined of the group, also has some classic banter and slang, and her relationship with Giles and ability to figure things out on her own if she needs to are highlighted here when she correctly guesses that Giles is in danger and that it was Sid who came into her room.
Is the episode a total loss? Maybe not. For me, it’s not one that I feel the need to come back to over and over again, although I don’t feel a need to come back to most first season episodes, the exception being maybe “Angel,” or “Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest,” if I want some really classic early Buffy. However, there are fun elements here, and it’s one of the first episodes to establish the show’s wacky sense of humor. I can’t write it off completely, even though I really don’t like it at all. It’s not one that I’m reluctant to watch, necessarily, but it’s also not one that I’m super excited about. If I was doing an “important episodes only” rewatch, I’d definitely skip it, though, since the only continuing story element in this episode is Principal Snyder.
I guess my point is don’t skip it if this is your first time, or your first time in a long time, but be aware that this episode is dumb.