On Thanksgiving Day, Glee will join an elite squad of network TV series: the few, the proud, the ones with puppet episodes. Not episodes that revolve around inevitably creepy marionettes – like Buffy’s “The Puppet Show” or Criminal Minds’ “The Lesson” – but ones that instead feature cute, colorful felt facsimiles of one or more main characters. (It’s important to note that these facsimiles are generally not Muppets. To quote an earlier episode of one Puppet Brotherhood member: “Shh! You wanna get sued?”)
Though puppet episodes are a nascent genre, they still generally conform to a certain set of rules. They’ve got the feel of children’s television as made for a decidedly older audience. They include plenty of meta jokes about the characters’ sudden felt status. At some point, someone’s going to act like Kermit when he gets excited. And finally, there’s got to be at least one song – preferably an original, designed to sound like a grown-up Sesame Street outtake.
Glee, most likely, will hit these same notes in “Puppet Master,” its own imaginatively named puppet episode. But how will the show compare to the faux-Muppet stories that have come before? Let’s speculate – after first remembering the four most notable puppet episodes of seasons past.
4. The Simpsons, “The Fight Before Christmas” (2010)
So, why are we puppets? Because it’s a Christmas anthology episode, and also because this was one of the only things The Simpsons hadn’t already done.
The song: “The 39 Days of Christmas,” a much longer version of a classic Christmas carol. Sample lyrics: “32 Dutchmen plotting/31 doctors leeching/30 year average life span!”
The best line: A Sesame Street-esque narrator, as the segment is ending: “Tonight’s Simpsons episode is brought to you by the symbol ‘ü’ and the number ‘e.’ Not the letter ‘e,’ but the number, whose exponential function is the derivative of itself.”
The verdict: Clever enough – and, er, stacked with a guest appearance by Katy Perry – but under all that felt, where’s the heart?
3. Community, “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” (2013)
So, why are we puppets? Because the study group is feeling sheepish after revealing their deep, dark secrets to each other, and “puppet therapy” is apparently the only way for them to talk through their feelings.
The song: There’s a whole slate of catchy originals, including one co-written by Adam Levine. NBC synergy!
The best line: It’s not really puppet-related, but Shirley does say it while wearing one on her hand: “There you all go. Giving me that look. Treating me like Judas. Judging me like Judy.”
The verdict: This is the episode that gave Community fans hope that the sitcom might recover from the loss of visionary showrunner Dan Harmon. Though now that Harmon’s back, it’s tough not to wonder what “Felt Surrogacy” would have been like if he’d overseen it.
2. 30 Rock, “Apollo, Apollo” (2009)
So, why are we puppets? Because that’s how we all look in the eyes of innocent, naive Kenneth the Page. Here, puppetification is more of a quick sight gag than a full-blown storyline – but it’s so deftly done that it deserves the No. 2 spot. Fun fact: These are actual Muppets, operated by real Sesame Street puppeteers.
The song: There’s no full-length number, but Jack-as-puppet does sing his lines (“I think you’re very special, Kenneth…”).
The best line: The rest of the episode, which is largely puppet-free, has plenty of great gags – but the joke here is all about the visuals. Especially when we cut from Puppet Liz’s frustrated walk to Actual Liz’s identical shuffle.
The verdict: Short, sweet, and pretty much perfect. 30 Rock easily could have spent more time with Kenneth’s visions, but instead, it left us wanting more.
1. Angel, “Smile Time” (2004)
So, why are we puppets? Only Angel is, thanks to a demonic children’s program that drains the life force out of its young viewers. (The show’s creator, Gregor Framkin, “made a deal with some devils” to boost falling ratings.)
The song: There are a few, though the most memorable is a cheery tune called “Self-Esteem.”
The best line: It’s tough to choose, though the gang trying to make sense of Angel’s transformation is pretty great:
Wesley: “[It’s] clearly some sort of hex, or a powerful warding magic.”
Lorne: “Maybe it’s some type of puppet cancer.”
Angel: “I do not have puppet cancer!”
The verdict: Angel did its puppet episode way before they were cool – and turned in something funny, unique, and surprisingly heartfelt. Accent on the felt. Forget best puppet episodes; this is one of the best hours of television that aired in the ’00s, period.