Everyone’s favourite felt-based Americans are back. Can they overcome the mixed results of post-Henson projects to win the day in prime time 2015?
Let’s bitch it out…
The cold open sets us up for Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy’s big announcement: they’ve broken up. The episode is framed by Kermit explaining to us that working with his ex is hard. I think this scene would have landed with more punch if ABC hadn’t hyped the break-up all summer, but I’m not sure there was a way around it: this is America’s favourite interspecies couple, after all. People wanted to know how they would be framed in the new series and now we have our answer. The focus is clearly on Kermit and his emotional landscape.
The title credits are cute, and the use of a stationary Kermit trying to eat at the kraft table while the other characters buzz around him (and steal his food) works well, reminding us of the chaos and energy we most associate with these characters. It also reminds us that Kermit is the everyman character, and I think this is important given that many critics blamed the failure of the last Muppet TV venture, Muppets Tonight, on the lack of Kermit as an anchor. So we’re reminded of our guide through the wacky world of the Muppets right from the beginning.
From the first scene after the credits, we’re dropped into a very 30 Rock meets The Office set-up for the show: a production meeting in preparation for tonight’s episode of Up Late with Miss Piggy. This framing device updates the old school variety show format of The Muppet Show and Muppets Tonight, while still allowing for a rotating cast of guest stars and musical guests. This is a device they’ve always used to great effect in spoofs and parodies, which I hope later episodes make better use of. In the meeting, Kermit gives the group some notes from last night’s show (telling the band, “when Miss Piggy starts interviewing the guest, that is your cue to stop playing”) and underscores his role as the only sane one in the room.
The best part of this scene is the decision to put Sam the American Eagle in the role of monitoring broadcast standards. It fits perfectly with his uptight right-wing puritan characterization, and it lets him over-enunciate words like “gesticulate” to hilarious effect.
Cut to the show, with Fozzie Bear using his “comedy” skills to warm up the crowd for Miss Piggy. Don’t worry; he’s still bad. Fozzie runs the B-plot of this episode, which involves meeting his new girlfriend’s parents. It’s a tight plotline with some great jokes, mostly rooted in the fact that his girlfriend is a human and her parents are racist against bears. This reminds me of some of the best Greg the Bunny bits (and I really miss that show).
When we cut to Miss Piggy backstage, we’re given the conflict of the episode: Kermit has booked Elizabeth Banks for the show and Miss Piggy hates her and wants her gone. As the show goes to air, Kermit says he won’t cancel, and we get glimpses of the unpolished elements of Piggy’s show (Sweetums fumbles the prompt cards, Miss Piggy isn’t sure who the guest is). Kermit is holding it all together, but only barely: we see his stress level rise as he replaces Elizabeth Banks with Tom Bergeron and listens to bad pitches from the writers. The emotional toll of working with Piggy is underscored here, but it’s worth remembering that this is always Kermit’s role. He keeps the oars in the water.
We meet Kermit’s new girlfriend Denise — she’s also a pig, natch — and she encourages Kermit to stand up to Miss Piggy. He does, shocking the writing and production staff terribly, but in doing so we slowly discover that he has been horribly insensitive to Piggy’s emotional world. This, then, is the pivot of the show: we’ve only known Kermit’s pain, and now we see it’s hard for both of them. This humanizes Miss Piggy in a necessary way and softens some of the cynicism of the show.
The arc of the episode ends with Kermit and Miss Piggy making up, sort of, Elizabeth Banks zinging Miss Piggy, a sad sack Tom Bergeron, and Animal falling through Imagine Dragons’ drum kit. Which sounds like a pretty Muppet-y wrap-up to me.
The show isn’t perfect. The pacing feels a little slow at times and the frantic energy that peaks in some moments really needs to be sustained for longer to feel like a truly chaotic Muppet experience. The show also spends too much time building relationships that we already know about and not enough time on parody and word play. But the elements are all there, and I have confidence it’s going to find its feet in time.
- Kermit works as our central focus because he’s the most normal. In this show, he’s a little on the cynical side after his breakup with Miss Piggy. Some critics don’t like what this is doing to the tone of the show, but I’m not ready to condemn it yet. Kermit has never been a child: he always experiences frustration, anger, and dismay at the job of keeping the Muppets on task. Here he gets a little more emotional life, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
- There are too many fat jokes on the back of Miss Piggy. She’s just not that much bigger than the other Muppets, and while her love of food has always been a plot-point, this angle too often feels mean spirited. And the jokes are not great.
- Statller and Waldorf heckle briefly during Fozzie’s set, but the show could make a lot more use of them. After all, they’re everyone’s favourite.
- Gonzo’s pitch for the parody show “Dancing with the Tsars,” starring Catherine the Great (Rizzo) and Ivan the Terrible (Pepe), made me snort-laugh club soda through my nose. More of these parodies please, writers. They’re what the Muppet brand is built on.
- Miss Piggy’s screen test for The Hunger Games is a movie I would watch.
- Elizabeth Banks fighting Scooter is one of the greatest scenes in television history. I don’t care who you are. That’s magic.
- The use of Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk is very well-done and helps keep the pacing frenetic and Muppetastic.
- Miss Piggy (to her make-up artist): “Oh great. I look like a half-naked Hawaiian dug me up at a luau. Thanks a lot.”
- Kermit (to himself): “My life is a bacon-wrapped hell on earth.” Sam the American Eagle (walking by): “Can’t say hell.”
- Fozzie: “When your online dating profile says ‘passionate bear looking for love,’ you get a lot of wrong responses. Well, not wrong. Just wrong for me.”
- Kermit (at the production meeting): “And then we go to the desk for ‘What’s in Miss Piggy’s Purse?’ And listen everybody, if it’s a small critter again, let’s try to remember the air holes this time.”
- Scooter: “Kermit and I have known each other for so long that he just has to give me a look, and that’s my cue… to go and ask him what the look meant.”
- Janice: “Did you know the band’s original name was Imagine Dragons?” Floyd: “But that is the band’s name.” Janice: “Yeah. They kept it.”
Your turn: is this a terribly cynical reboot, or just a new show trying to find its feet? What Muppet characters were you most excited to see again, and did it live up to your expectations? And how are you coping with the Kermit/Piggy split? Sound off in the comments!
The Muppets airs Tuesday at 8 pm EST on ABC (or, in Canada, Mondays at 8 pm on City). Next time: Josh Groban and Reza Aslan guest star.