This Stan Against Evil review contains spoilers.
Stan Against Evil Season 3 Episode 5
“No matter who you are, to us you are a shining star…”
Puppets are hard. People want to think that it’s easy to just throw puppets into a production and they’ll automatically tug at some nostalgic heartstrings within the audience, but the truth is that they take a lot of work to be done right. This isn’t just in regards to the quality of the puppets and their puppetry, but also their tone and how they’re integrated into a real world.
The Happytime Murders came and went this past year, and in spite of the film featuring some technical mastery, it got lost in a mishandled universe. Now Stan Against Evil makes an ambitious move with “Nubbin But Trouble,” but they’re absolutely a show that understands how and why puppets work.
Stan Against Evil dips its toe in the evil doll/killer dummy sub-genre of horror in “Nubbin But Trouble,” but decides to make the proceedings considerably sillier with the twist that there’s a killer felt puppet on the loose. It’s Puppet Master meets Meet the Feebles and the series handles this ridiculous topic with a surprising amount of care. Stan Against Evil typically wants to make its laugh more than genuinely frighten them, but “Nubbin But Trouble” tows an interesting line. It’s absolutely hilarious to watch a puppet that’s designed to be cute leap into a character’s face and assault them with bites, but the extremely bloody aftermath does add a more disturbing quality to the episode that works in its favor.
The focal point of this episode is Marty Nubbins from the Nubbins Family Power Hour, which is ostensibly Stan Against Evil’s copyright-free take on the Muppets and Sesame Street. Right from the episode’s effective POV-laden cold open, the audience knows that an evil Nubbins puppet is the murderer, but Evie and Leon are still left to piece this crime together (although they’re sure that it’s not a tiny shark that rode a dog as an accomplice).
Denise takes home the Marty Nubbins puppet and it doesn’t take very long for weirdness to ensue and for Denise to feel some very severe buyer’s remorse. There have been plenty of episodes at this point in the show’s run where Denise’s unnaturally sweet nature brings something supernatural back into the Miller household. It’s a formula that works and this is one of the stronger examples of it, but with Leon constantly feeling like a fifth wheel on the show, perhaps this storyline could have been better suited for him? The episode establishes that Leon loves the Nubbins just as much as Denise does, so why not have him bring home a murderous puppet as well and the two need to unite to take down these tiny terrors? As it stands, Leon’s passion towards the Nubbins is brought up, but then basically abandoned.
The sheer joy that Denise gets from playing with her puppet and the complete exasperation that it brings out of Stan is reason alone to do an episode of this nature. Stan is just so very not interested in anything that remotely resembles a puppet, so any time that he has to play off of Marty Nubbins leads to brilliant stuff from McGinley. Evie and Stan actually have something in common here since she’s as equally unaware and uninterested in these felt joy machines. Evie’s awkward behavior as Denise and Leon geek out over the Nubbins is fantastic, and Janet Varney conveys so much without saying a word.
Stan finds himself hard at work to start his own brewery. It initially feels like Stan’s beer-based endeavors will keep him occupied and removed from all of the killer puppet madness, but then Stan’s supply turns him blind and the episode really finds its footing. Stan not only turns blind, but he turns into a nut-predicting-thread-count-noticing superbeing. “I’m evolving,” Stan tells Denise and Stan Against Evil leans into the “becoming blind heightens your other senses” angle as hard as possible. Not only does this lead to John C. McGinley’s best performance of the season, but it also allows the out of control zen-like fight sequence between Stan and Marty Nubbins to take place. This bloody, felt-ripping battle is arguably the best fight sequence that the series has ever put together and this insane mash-up of visuals is a strong reminder of why this show is important.
Much like the episode’s creepy opening, there’s also a scene where Marty holds Kevin hostage and it’s genuinely unsettling. It’s also extremely ridiculous and prominently features the voice of Bobcat Goldthwait in an insane way, but because it understands horror conventions so well it actually feels tense. It may be a little convenient that Marty doesn’t actually kill Kevin, but his hearing impaired antics that follows are much more satisfying than any homicide.
“Nubbin But Trouble’s” final act considerably ups the stakes as Marty Nubbins goes in for reinforcements and brings the rest of the Nubbins family to life to wage warfare against Stan and company. It also gets in the obligatory Eccles reference for good measure, too. The living versions of all of these puppets look incredible and the episode tries as hard as possible to do these creatures justice. The siege that the Nubbins launch at the end of the episode plays with shadow, lighting, and slow motion in inspired ways that create real terror out of these silly puppets. They even fit in a ludicrous reference to The Warriors to truly show that these puppets are out of control. Just as the episode finds so much joy in watching these puppets kill, it seems to film the death and destruction of these monstrosities with just as much glee. It makes for an incredibly entertaining conclusion.
As a last resort the Nubbins attempt to conjure some ultimate evil from the depths of Hell to do their dirty work for them, but thankfully Evie’s able to wipe them all out before they finish their eerily positive chant. Right from the first mention of Stan’s brewery it feels rather obvious that an exploded keg is going to be the solution to the episode’s problem, but “Nubbin But Trouble” at least does its due diligence here. It’s hard to complain too much when charred puppet parts rain down over Willard’s Mill.
“Nubbin But Trouble” is clearly an episode that’s all about its visuals, but there’s still a very funny script in play here by Mike Mendez. The constant jokes that come out of the episode’s establishing shots continue to delight and amount to some easy laughs on what would normally just be blasé scene descriptions. The gag that Kevin needs to yell because his hearing is ruined and Stan’s hearing is sensitive because he’s gone blind is also very clever and provides a great undercurrent of comedy during the final showdown. There are also some weirdly comic details throughout the installment, like the store owner’s needlessly fancy shoes or the visual of Leon completely wrapped up in bandages from his Nubbins wounds.
“Nubbin But Trouble” is one of the most fun episodes of Stan Against Evil to come along. The entire installment carries such a silly energy and it’s always enjoyable to see Denise freak out and for Stan to have a reason to be even more full of himself. The episode is smart to not keep its killer a mystery or employ some level of misdirect, but it instead just gets the puppets out there early and shows them off. As much as Stan Against Evil should try to mix up its storytelling and strive for fresh ground, a return to the Nubbins would be a sequel that I’d actually welcome.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.