In many ways, “Pig’s In A Blackout” is the Muppetiest of The Muppets’ episodes so far, mostly towards the end. After a visit to a spa retreat does little to quell Kermit’s ever-mounting stress with overseeing Up Late With Miss Piggy, he finds solace in two places that come straight from The Muppet Movie. The first is at Rowlf’s piano, where—just as he once did when Kermit was having relationship problems—Jim Henson’s most down-to-earth creation gives some valuable dog-to-frog advice. The key to relaxation is that one, simple thing that gives you comfort, he tells Kermit while tickling the ivories. For Rowlf, that means running around his apartment and chewing on a shoe as soon as he gets home—something that lets his wild side out so he can keep cool throughout the rest of the day.

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For Kermit, his happy place ends up being—what else?—a swamp, or at least an approximation of one. And that’s tonight’s second nod to the first (and best) Muppet feature. After hiring some contractors to replace his pool with some fronds, lily pads, and a comfy old log, he ends the episode as that film so iconically began: lounging on a fallen tree, plucking a banjo, and singing “The Rainbow Connection.” Even when an irate neighbor interrupts (“Learn a new song!”), it does nothing to disturb the Muppet leader’s rediscovered peace.

On the more hectic side of the throwback spectrum, Up Late reaches Muppet Show levels of backstage chaos when Kermit leaves Scooter in charge. To start off the day, he futzes with the air condition and ends up blasting Beaker with freon and soaking Piggy’s wardrobe—a plunder which brings out a more frightening side of Uncle Deadly that usually doesn’t get seen outside of the Muppet Theater. Then the power goes out, and Scooter’s left worrying if Up Late will even air that night. It does, of course, because as Gonzo reminds him, the show must always go on, an old adage that’s particularly true of the Muppets. They decide to light the episode with candles, bring on the instrument-less Penatonix as musical guest, and all is right with the world.

So why then, despite the homages to behind-the-scenes anarchy and the episode sticking its landing, does “Pig’s In A Blackout” still feel so flat? I blame the spa. It’s here that Kermit crosses paths with Jason Bateman, who’s also there at the insistence of a significant other. The two showbiz lifers have another trait in common, too: They’re unable to leave their work at the workplace, even when Bateman’s current gig is directing his daughter’s elementary-school production of Wicked. But what starts off friendly enough quickly turns ugly as Bateman keeps bugging Kermit about production favors, then sells him out to the yoga instructor when they’re both making too much noise, thus ruining their chances of a serene weekend.

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It’s not Bateman’s fault that their exchanges are such a slog—he excels at playing the kind of asshole Kermit wouldn’t realize is an asshole until it’s way too late—but the scenes’ overall lack of importance to the story. True, it’s Bateman’s needling that makes Kermit’s vacation so torturous, which prompts him to seek out Rowlf’s wisdom and truly reconnect with himself. But imagine “Pig’s In A Blackout” without the human guest star at all. Imagine if Kermit had simply gone to a spa retreat that actually was peaceful, but still wasn’t able to find contentment. Imagine if he not only had to figure out why he can’t relax in the most calming of locales, but also why he can’t keep himself from taking on work that consistently stresses him out. That’s not Kermit dealing with Jason Bateman; that’s Kermit dealing with Kermit—a far more powerful comment on his anxiety that would make those final moments in the swamp all the more effective. And for anyone who says that kind of nebulous soul-searching is far too heady of territory for The Muppets to explore, I urge you to watch this. And maybe this.

All of these flaws point to The Muppets not yet knowing exactly what it wants to be, a problem shared by pretty much any sitcom in its first season, let alone one that’s dealing with an iconic, decades-old franchise. Is the show a true mockumentary? How much time should it really be devoting to its guest stars? It’s telling that Ed Helms, the most effective celebrity appearance, had a role that put him on the same level as the puppet stars rather than require him to steamroll them, as is the case with Bateman. Most importantly, is The Muppets more concerned with blazing a new trail or honoring what came before it? Or—and I suspect this is the ultimate goal—how does it develop a perfect balance between the two?

These questions—and I’m sure many more—are clearly on the creators’ minds, as indicated by the recent departure of Bob Kushell and the announced reboot slated to happen after the tenth episode. At this point, I’m wondering if it makes more sense to just fully embrace the vintage variety show format or go whole-hog with the adult sitcom angle instead of repeatedly trying to meld the old and the new. Or maybe Bill Prady and new showrunner Kristin Newman will take things somewhere else altogether—a big-budget version of Pigs In Space, perhaps? Whatever the new direction is, hopefully they can still find a strong identity for The Muppets in its first season, because as “Pig’s In A Blackout” proves, it ain’t easy bein’ green, especially in the world of network television.

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Stray observations

  • I appreciated Kermit’s genuine concern for Piggy when she was trapped in the elevator.
  • Sam’s bringing up his attraction to Janice again seemingly out of nowhere leads me to believe this episode was written to take place earlier in the show’s timeline, perhaps right after “Pig Out” or “Walk The Swine.”
  • That being said, I still very much approve of that subplot. It’s so out there that it completely works.
  • Characters I would love to see more of: Gonzo, Rowlf, Chip, Big Mean Carl.
  • “I need a girlfriend,” says Gonzo. I wonder if we’ll ever get the full story about why Camilla—sorry, I can’t resist—flew the coop.
  • “I’ve been to Hawaii. So now there’s two places we’ve both been: Hawaii…and here.”
  • “What’s the oldest saying in Hollywood?” “Um…this is where we should put Hollywood?”
  • “It took me years to accept the fact that I’m part Corgi. I guess that’s why I can’t dance.”

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