Supernatural: "Professor Pennywhistle's Magical Menagerie"
B+

Supernatural: "Professor Pennywhistle's Magical Menagerie"

B+

Supernatural

"Professor Pennywhistle's Magical Menagerie"

Season 7, Episode 14

 It is my sad duty to announce to regular visitors to this corner of The A.V. Club that Zack Handlen will no longer be reviewing Supernatural. Zack was expected to be back here this week, but after several reports of strange noises coming from the empty room behind the waste disposal area. he went to investigate and... vanished... mysteriously. (Cut to office janitor, played by Mark Pellegrino, turning to the camera and smiling ominously.) There are some who believe that Zack fed himself into one of the shredders after he saw the title of this week's episode, which sounds like one of Troy McClure's unrealized dream projects, but the title didn't seem so bad once you knew that it referred to a Chuck E Cheese-style restaurant and family fun center. 

The story began with a series of strange deaths of bad fathers. One guy was speared by a rampaging unicorn. Another made his TV debut laid out on a medical examiner's table, which gave him the chance to claim the prize as the least pleasant-looking overweight corpse I've seen since Se7en. He was covered with sores and his throat had been ripped open; the medical examiner was ready to tentatively ascribe the cause of death to misuse of a live octopus (“Obviously, this was some kind of freak fetish attack.”), but the Winchester boys were quick to recognize that the culprit must have been some sort of octopus-vampire combination platter. We got to see the unicorn clear as day, but there was no attempt made to even hint at what the tentacled bloodsucker, or bloodsucking octopus, might have looked like. This was probably a concession that there are some things that are better left to the imagination, if only because it would be a shame to throw any of the special effects budget away on an idea that's only going to get goofier the more visual it becomes, though it wouldn't surprise me if there are a few vampire octopi in the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

The writers--the script was credited to Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin--had to think outside the box a little to do justice to the central conceit, which had to do with the fears of children taking on physical form. It was rich but familiar territory for this show. It turned out that Dean used to dump Sam at places like Plucky's when Sam was a child and Dean was itching to go off in search of adventure and strange tail, so the setting brought up bad memories for Sam, and Dean had something new to apologize for by the end of the episode. (He gets better and better at these apologies, maybe because he's had so much practice at them; the one he delivered tonight didn't seem the least bit begrudging. But I still think he should just have form letters printed out.) The situation also gave the brothers a chance to bond with kids who, like themselves twenty or so years ago, were thoroughly not enjoying their childhoods, with a lot of help from their parents. 

The episode also referenced Sam's fear of clowns, which goes back to the show's second season. As if to concede right from the start that this story line amounted to tilling a well-plowed field, the “previously on Supernatural” clips shown at the start went all the way back to the second season, as if to say, yep, Sam's always been on record as having this thing about clowns, and also, Jared Padalecki sure has had his share of weird hair days since 2005. There was also a strong whiff of the classic fourth season episode “Wishful Thinking", the one that gave Jensen Ackles the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak the line, “On Thursdays, we're teddy bear doctors.” He must have thought that, as soon as those words were out of his mouth, his life would have hit its peal and everything else that happened would feel like a disappointment by comparison. I know that's how it's been for me. 

Supernatural has been on for a while now: longer, in fact, than Eric Kripke has said they he intended for it to run when he first conceived it. So even though it figures that a show with a pretty tight focus and obsessives for its heroes would start sifting through the same material and the same techniques for handling it, there us the danger that the show will turn into a parody of itself, to the point of remaking its own best episodes, first as tragedy, then, as farce, as Hegel once said of the Sex And The City movies. (Wait, maybe it was the other way around.) 

There were moments in this episode where it seemed to be on the verge of that. What saved it tonight was that it was a pretty funny parody, with some very clever ideas. The childhood fears that were coming to life originated in drawings on place mats that Plucky's proudly displayed on its walls. The kids were encouraged to do the drawings in the first place because some pop-psychology guru had sold the company on the idea that it would be therapeutic. They were putting their fears down on paper because grown-ups thought it would be good for them to get them out of their heads, so the idea that the fears were then coming off the paper and wasting their parents was pretty funny. So was the fact that, the day after someone was ripped apart by a shark in the ball pit, the place was still packed with energetic kids who'd been deposited there by their apathetic parents. “Turns out even grim flippin' death,” observed one dismayed employee,” can slow down the birthday fun."

Stray observations:

  • Last week, I got new glasses to wear while watching TV, not because there's anything wrong with my eyes, but just because I sometimes fear that I watch so much TV that my eyes might try to pop out of my skull and make a break for it if I don't have a wall up. I mention this only because it made me that much more aware that this was one colorful episode. I mean literally: there were overhead shots of the ball pit, with the red and blue and yellow and green balls filling the screen; there were the Plucky's employees, in their yellow bow ties and striped vests of many colors; there were the clowns, with their white faces and green hair; and when the unicorn ran away from the camera, it appeared to fart a rainbow, which is something I hadn't seen since my Uncle Chester died. Musing on the pleasures enjoyed by some of the Plucky's people after hours, one character said, “You ever 'shroom in a ball pit?” By the time the episode was over, I almost felt as if I had.
  • “You're saying an octopus did this?” a Winchester asked the medical examiner. “Not just any octopus,” the guy replied. Later, once the brothers were beginning to get a vague sense of what was going on, Sam said, “Now, the question is, how did a unicorn come off this sketch and kill Billy's dad?” You just don't hear dialogue like this on the shows with some combination of CSI, NCIS, or Law & Order in their titles. Maybe if every show on TV did have dialogue like this, I wouldn't enjoy it so much when I get to hear it on Supernatural. An alternate possibility, at least as likely, is that if every show on TV had this kind of dialogue, I'd never leave my living room.
  • I went back and forth on the grade. An awful lot of it hit an A-minus level of enjoyment for me. But I once said that Pee-wee's Big Adventure had too many clowns in it to break past the B-plus ceiling for me, and whether I was right or wrong about that, it just wouldn't be right for me to hold Supernatural to a lesser standard than Pee-wee Herman and Tim Burton.