If you live in the US, you may not have seen a show quite like Puppets Who Kill before, largely because it would be illegal to broadcast on a US network or basic cable. The humor in this Canadian series is always twisted, often scatological, and occasionally razor sharp. If you want to see a stuffed bear going down on a crazed nurse in a room full of anthrax, the first season of Puppets Who Kill is really your only option. And if you don't, well, you're missing out.|
The premise of Puppets Who Kill sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. "Idealistic social worker manages home for puppets with homicidal tendencies. Hilarity ensues!" But as far as sitcoms go, this nasty little gem, though not quite brilliant, is certainly worth a look.
The first thing that could have gone wrong, and easily the most important, is the puppetry. I have some really odd interests, and puppets happen to be one of them. You can believe that I take it disturbingly seriously when I say that the cast has been designed and constructed with care and skill. They are, at least for this bizarre geek, the show's main draw.
There's Rocko, a former children's television star and current murderous smoking dog. His grizzled fur, his adorable little handkerchief, the way he smokes so convincingly -- these are all great little touches. He ranges from pitiable to genuinely threatening, and puts out a cigarette on another puppet's face in the show's first fifteen minutes.
Buttons the bear is generally the lead puppet. He's an amoral, womanizing bastard, but he doesn't generally kill people, which combines with his puppeteer's charismatic performance to make him easily the most likeable character on the show. You end up rooting for him in spite of yourself -- even when, in an early episode, he uses his natural teddy bear cuteness to ruthlessly manipulate the emotions of the puppets' social worker, Dan.
Cuddles the comfort doll is easily the show's most unnerving character. He's an adorable baby doll designed to comfort hospital patients, but his cold, detached mannerisms and neuroses couldn't have made him too good at the job. He goes on a killing spree in the first episode. He also goes from creepy, obsessive compulsive eunuch to deviant sex fiend in one episode -- and yes, it is disturbing to see a baby doll outfitted in fetish gear, getting whipped by a bored dominatrix -- and leads a brutal prison takeover in another.
But probably the best puppet and most interesting character is Bill, a ventriloquist's dummy and total psychopath. Technically, he's impressive and excellently designed. He doesn't have that stupid sliding chin, his legs are rarely glimpsed (but convincing when they are), and there's a lot of intelligence in his eyes. He's almost frightening and always creepy -- the one character who can be depended upon to always, always be up to something evil. One episode finds him collecting testicles, another the brains of Canadian TV stars, and in another, he struggles with the urge to kill a former ventriloquist who barely survived having both arms torn off. The wry chuckle with which he greets every event is actually sort of charming, casting him perversely as the show's voice of reason.
The show's budget seems to have been spent almost entirely on the puppets. The sets are okay, but the lighting and bland guest stars reveal the frayed edges of this production. The writing usually makes up for it. It can be a little childish -- early episodes are occasionally plagued by sophomoric bathroom jokes and artless deployment of crude language -- but the mix of shock value and wit usually pays off in at least a good chuckle.
Every time you think the show might be getting into a rut, it really pulls out the stops and does something brilliant. One of the last episodes of the season features a fundraiser for victims of impalement by pipes and pool cues, which leads to some really hilarious and bizarre camera work. There's nothing quite like seeing a pool cue projecting from a beautiful woman's abdomen while Buttons the bear tries to get her into bed. This same episode has Cuddles encountering a stripper who uses Marxist theory to bilk him of his money. This scene has some of the series' most memorable dialogue. For instance: "Show them that you're not a pawn of the global economy and... shove a twenty down my panties." A sharp ear for dialogue is Puppets Who Kill's greatest non-puppet asset.
The last episode falls terribly flat, though. Apparently the film noir satire won some sort of award, but it's difficult to imagine why. It's incoherent, unfunny, and sort of drags on forever. Maybe Canada isn't as inundated with film noir mockeries as the US is.
We probably aren't going to be looking back at these thirteen episodes as milestones of 21st century comedy -- Arrested Development and King of the Hill will easily have that honor in the bag -- but there's never quite enough really good comedy in the States at any given time. If you're not getting your full fix, Puppets Who Kill is a strongly recommended import.
-- Mike Meginnis