This season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's guilty of doing horror standards, but the way it gives them a modern spin or subversion definitely helps. At face value, "THE PUPPET SHOW" was an unremarkable tale about a teenage pariah called Morgan (Richard Werner) who turns into a serial killer at the behest of his demonic ventriloquist dummy Sid, drawing the attention of Giles (Anthony Head) after an audition for the school talent show. Consequently, for most of this episode I was only mildly entertained by a story that felt very familiar—if arguably worse than the likes of the more psychological thriller Magic, because Sid was clearly a living entity. However, I was lulled into a false sense of security, because the story's twist—that Sid was actually a demon-hunter still pursuing its organ-harvesting quarry, despite being cursed into the likeness of a wooden dummy—worked exceptionally well. The last quarter-hour was much less predictable, erasing my feeling this was a re-tread of the preceding "I, Robot... You, Jane" (where another demon was trying to achieve human form).
I also liked the introduction of Armin Shimerman (Star Trek Deep Space Nine) as Sunnydale's new Principal, who already feels more rounded than his goofy predecessor, and it was a relief to know recent weirdness hasn't escaped his notice. I hate shows like Buffy where the adults are all idiots and keeps failing to notice extraordinary events happening every week. There were some puzzling moments in this episode, however, as I've come to expect from this show: like the lack of a police presence after a girl had her heart removed with a knife, or quite why Morgan was allowed to bring his disturbing dummy into classes. But for the most part I liked "The Puppet Show", but wouldn't necessarily say it was a truly good episode because it was very unremarkable before the late twist perked things up considerably.
One of the more enjoyable standalones this season is "NIGHTMARES", which was another example of Buffy doing its own take on an old idea (nightmares coming true), but it helped that the pacing was solid and its dream scenarios genuinely creepy or ghoulishly amusing. Here, Sunnydale High's students begin experiencing their worst nightmares, starting with someone opening a textbook to find the pages crawling with tarantulas, and it clearly all has something to do with a boy called Billy (Jeremy Foley) who keeps being spotted near each incident.
There wasn't much of a mystery here, which is something that's characterised season 1 as a whole. It often feels like Buffy's aiming at under-12s, simply by virtue of how painfully obvious the plots develop. But the saving grace of "Nightmares" were the nightmares themselves, which each revealed something about the characters. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) suffers total rejection by her father Hank (Dean Butler), Xander (Nicholas Brendon) appears naked in class (or as naked as Standards & Practices would allow The WB), bookworm Giles forgets how to read, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) experiences stage fright during an opera, narcissist Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) has a very bad hair day, etc. The episode was satisfying on the level of watching bad things happen to the characters (did I mention the fearsome Ugly Man, a killer clown, and Buffy being buried alive by The Master?), but less satisfying when it became time to explain Billy's predicament as a comatose baseball player from the Kiddie League. "Nightmares" played out as a fun but average X Files-y episode, although its many small pleasures were irrefutable.
written by Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali (1.9) & David Greenwalt (story by Joss Whedon) (1.10) / directed by Ellen S. Pressman (1.9) & Bruce Seth Green (1.10) / 5 & 12 May 1997 / The WB