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The Muppets’ emotional core gets stronger while its comedy gets weaker

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Three episodes after its winter break, ABC’s recalibration of The Muppets has developed an interesting problem: It has a strong emotional core, but struggles with the comedy. This isn’t always a bad thing, as melancholia and introspection tend to be unique in the Muppetverse. That’s not to say the characters never experience these things—just watch “Saying Goodbye” from The Muppets Take Manhattan or, if you really want to put yourself through the emotional ringer, Jim Henson’s memorial service—but it’s not every day Miss Piggy has to deal with getting body-shamed over a harmless wardrobe malfunction.

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Maybe it’s this renewed emphasis on adversity and triumph in the first season’s back half that’s causing some of the humor to pale in comparison. Or, maybe the writers just haven’t figured out how to make the retooling of Up Late With Miss Piggy as funny as the Muppets and—even more unbelievably—their studio audience find it to be. Whatever the case, “Got Silk?” suffers from the imbalance, getting all of the dramatic beats right while nailing so few of the comedic ones.

Fortunately, it’s the more serious arc that takes up the majority of the episode, and like last week, it revolves around Miss Piggy, who’s beginning to realize that, famous as she is, she has very few close friends. Her struggle to genuinely connect with others is something the show has explored before, but not with such quiet pain, with the hardest-hitting moment arriving when she accompanies Janice to an aerial contortion class. Piggy does her best to strike up a conversation with a fellow student, but can’t keep herself from being aggressive and over-talkative in her nervousness, made all the worse by how terrible she is with aerial silks. After she comes down from the ceiling, she sees Janice laughing and conversing with the woman who just did her best to get away from Piggy. Her eyes drop and her snout scrunches up, not out of envy, but downcast acceptance that she’ll never be as sociable as the easygoing guitarist of The Electric Mayhem.

The touching resolution of the Piggy storyline ends up coming from a character who, so far, has been used almost exclusively for comic relief: Uncle Deadly. While the stylist exhibits his usual darkly opulent humor throughout the episode, he’s also honest with his boss when he has to be—no small feat when you’re dealing with Miss Piggy.

“Am I that hard to like?” she asks.

“Well, Piggy,” Deadly tells her. “You aren’t easy. But any friend you have wouldn’t want you to be. They’d want you to be you.”

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He’s absolutely right, and it’s in this moment that you realize Kristin Newman and Bill Prady have discreetly been building a textured relationship between the two characters. Their symbiosis doesn’t just rely on fashion or thinly veiled insults either, although those elements are certainly part of it. But Deadly’s also a confidant, an advisor, and yes, a friend to Miss Piggy in a way that no one else is, save for perhaps Kermit, although their conversations are complicated for obvious reasons. All of these various roles come to a head when, after a cue-card mishap during an on-air duet of “The Way I Am” with Ingrid Michaelson, Piggy needs help remembering the lyrics. Deadly comes to her rescue off-camera, miming each word and helping her get through the song.

In 2016, “The Way I Am” has become overplayed, the go-to mixtape inclusion for so many couples making cute with one another. At the same time, it really is a sweet song, and in the case of Piggy and Deadly, perfectly sums up their relationship. As the lyrics sheet reads, not only does Deadly accept all of Piggy’s flaws—he embraces them, knowing that’s just who Piggy is and part of what makes her so magnetic to the rest of the world, despite their constant complaints about her.

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If “The Way I Am” is an instance of The Muppets using a human guest-star in exactly the right way, RuPaul’s cameo is the opposite, a testament to how easy it is for a celebrity to be wasted by the series. On paper, he’s perfect—a colorful, open-minded personality who can easily blend in with the Muppets’ eccentricities. But he becomes just another tool for the writers to tell us how funny the new and improved Up Late is rather than show us. When Gonzo, Rizzo, and Pepe recruit him to host a fashion challenge, they hammer home how superior it is to the sponsored Pinkberry sketch that Pizza prefers for them to run in its place.

Honestly though, Pizza’s idea, while shamelessly catering to network demands, sounds a lot weirder and more interesting than Sweetums strutting onstage wearing a garbage bag. What’s the joke here, beyond the Muppets getting some more revenge on Pizza after he (more or less successfully) tries to buy Gonzo, Rizzo, and Pepe’s integrity with fancy three-piece suits? RuPaul enthusiastically hosts the runway show, the contestants do their thing, and the crowd goes apeshit. The Drag Race host never even gets to make a dirty pun. Elsewhere, there are more segments that center around social media, and Pizza—so refreshingly smarmy and downplayed when we first met him—becomes a scene-hogging cartoon. Across the board, it feels like “Got Silk?” is overcompensating with its humor, when all it needs to do is take a note from its dramatic content and be simple and specific.

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Stray observations

  • So is the cold open the most dialogue (and boomerang fish) we’ve gotten so far from Lew Zealand?
  • If the lonely box of Kermit’s belongings on his desk is any indication, it looks like Denise might be out of the picture for good.
  • If the writers really wanted to drive home the Reservoir Dogs joke, they should have put Gonzo, Rizzo, and Pepe in black-and-white suits with no hats or accents.
  • Regardless of the episode’s flaws, we get to see Deadly playing Cher in a staged reading of Clueless, complete with blonde wig and yellow plaid skirt-suit. What other movies would you like to see him interpret?
  • No Camilla? Here’s hoping that next week follows up on her return.
  • “Sweetums? I can’t be friends with him. He lives way out in Garden Grove.”
  • “Look at me, I’m Al Capone. Ay! Oh! Chicago. I don’t know much about the guy.”
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