Over the past week, the most common criticism leveled at The Muppets from both fans and critics alike has been some variation on “Kermit’s kind of a dick.” It’s a completely valid point. He’s made fat jokes about Miss Piggy, snapped at Animal, and, in this latest episode, engineered a manipulative plan to break up Piggy and her new beau, Josh Groban—and that’s after he’s the one who set them up in the first place. Granted, he’s doing it out of interest for Up Late With Miss Piggy, which Groban is transforming into a boring, highbrow talk show that Piggy’s not cultured enough to host.
Then again, are Kermit’s actions purely based on business? Both “Hostile Makeover” and last week’s “Pig Girls Don’t Cry” hint that there’s still a spark between he and Piggy. And why wouldn’t there be? His ousting of Groban could have as much to do with personal feelings as professional ones. Just look at the way Green Stuff relishes calling the operatic pop singer a dork, and how much glee he takes in Piggy’s firing of him, sneering “Bye!” before Groban can even leave the soundstage. Could this be jealousy rearing its ugly head? Kermit’s certainly the right color for it.
So yes, Kermit’s kind of a dick, but the more I see of The Muppets, the more I’m okay with it. After all, his smugness, secrecy, and freak-outs don’t exactly come out of nowhere. On The Muppet Show, he often became frazzled by the burdens of running a madcap variety program, and he wasn’t always kind to Miss Piggy (not that she always deserved kindness). But things usually calmed down by the time Zoot squonked his final saxophone note in the closing credits, if only because Kermit and the gang had managed to get through the show. That was always the main goal—the only goal, really—and The Muppets always pulled it off. Things exploded, characters got eaten, and the human guest star often ended up worse for wear. But the damn thing got finished, and that’s all that really mattered. Every week was a reset.
Because The Muppets focuses so much on the characters’ lives outside of Up Late With Miss Piggy and how their relationships inform the show itself and vice versa, things don’t get wrapped up that nicely. In fact, the Muppets’ most human characteristics—i.e. their flaws—become amplified in a way that doesn’t always make them look good. For decades, Miss Piggy has been jealous, selfish, and opportunistic, traits revealed to be uglier and more prevalent than we ever imagined when examined under the mockumentary microscope. Kermit, whose warmth and conviviality often masked a sly demeanor, micro-managerial streak, and significant passive-aggressiveness towards his employees, also gets his lesser qualities exposed. The show could really stand to balance all of this with their more admirable traits—so far, we’ve only gotten glimpses of Piggy’s vulnerability and Kermit’s compulsion to take care of those around him—but the enhanced pettiness of the two leads doesn’t feel out of place in this new environment.
Conversely, many of the supporting players have flaws that only make them more endearing when turned up to eleven. For instance, The Electric Mayhem’s drug use has only been ever so slightly alluded to in the past. The references here, however, become pretty explicit, shrouding the band in a charismatic world-weariness whenever their war stories from the road get brought up. As Scooter puts it, “They’re always happy—legally now.”
But it’s Fozzie Bear who benefits the most from the greater attention to his faults. His idolization of other artists has always gotten him into (usually brief) trouble, and when he gets invited to a party at Jay Leno’s house, he can’t resist taking a souvenir of the experience. His swiping of a candy dish given to Leno by George Carlin doesn’t come from a place of malice or greed, but more a childlike fascination with a showbiz world he’ll never fully break into. The bear just can’t help himself. He regrets his actions almost immediately, and his attempts to make amends cause even more damage. Worst of all, Fozzie loses his standup slot opening for Leno. If this were The Muppet Show or any previous iteration of Jim Henson’s creations, Leno would have felt bad for his fellow comedian and invited him back. But nope, Fozzie gets kicked out of Leno’s mansion, dejected and wallowing in remorse. That’s how the story ends: Bigger flaws, bigger consequences.
For better or for worse, that’s the current state of the Muppet-verse—a place where Kermit’s ambition (and/or jealousy) leads to backstabbing and the Muppet Newsman has no problem starting a rivalry with Bobo the Bear over a cookie-selling contest in their daughters’ Girl Scout troop. It’s also a place where we get confirmation of Groban and Piggy having sex (“Pig ee de gropin’ de Groban,” quips Swedish Chef) and even a glimpse of Piggy sideboob as she gets a hot-stone massage. Jarring as these things can be, no one would bat an eye if the cast was made up entirely of adult humans. And isn’t that what Jim Henson wanted, for his characters to appeal to actual adults, not just their inner children? If the show can balance the sweet with the sour just a little more evenly, maybe his wish will come true. Maybe we’ll stop talking about whether or not The Muppets is a good Muppet show, and focus on whether or not it’s a good TV show.
- The best moment came early on, when Pepe the King Prawn shot an incredulous look at Floyd over his theory that birthdays are just corporate holidays dreamed up by greeting-card companies.
- Tonight’s celebrity MVP was hands-down Laurence Fishburne, who could rival Statler and Waldorf with his bullying criticisms of Up Late With Miss Piggy.
- I would absolutely shell out cash to see Keanu Reeves play Israel Kamakawiwoʻole.
- The show continues to make good use of its secondary and even background characters, from Big Mean Carl in the role of screaming receptionist to Uncle Deadly serving as Miss Piggy’s wardrobe chief. The latter seems poised for a much bigger presence than he ever had on The Muppet Show.
- We also get glimpses of Lew Zealand, Behemoth, a hilariously slow videobomb from Beautiful Day Monster, and Beauregard, who’s once again the studio custodian. As a result, I’m not holding my breath for an appearance from George the Janitor anytime soon.
- Kermit’s office decked out like a swamp was a nice touch.
- Still not a whole lot of Gonzo, but his one-liners continue to slay, and I’m hoping we get an expanded subplot about him trying to rescue his mother from the South American rainforest. Speaking of which, anyone ever see this? I suspect that’s what Mama Gonzo looks like.
- Hardcore Muppet fans out there, has Lips the trumpet player ever had an actual line before, or was tonight the first time?
- “I was just talking toilets with Jay Leno. I never want this day to end!”
- “The best part is that even though you’re the only female host on late night, it shows that you’re brave enough to say I can’t do it without a man.” Take that, Vanity Fair.