It’s no coincidence that as The Muppets has gotten sweeter, it’s also gotten slightly better. It’s not the adult humor that’s been the issue (the jokes about Scooter’s creepy relationship with his mom continue to slay week after week), but the cruelty. For the first half of its inaugural season, The Muppets ended every single episode with one of their own getting screwed over by a colleague. Aside from being repetitive from a basic storytelling standpoint, the constant dickishness just didn’t gel with the spirit of Jim Henson’s creations, even in their new real-world environment.

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Maybe it was the calming effect of Kermit’s backyard swamp, or maybe Bill Prady listened to fans’ and critics’ complaints of all the unqualified assholery, but the show has recently started to move away from deceit towards something with more empathy. And while there have still been other problems (namely story overload, generic sitcom plotting, and an emphasis on human celebrities over puppets), Prady and co. were finally able to get one episode just right by simply honoring the past and having the characters look out for one another.

“Single All The Way” doesn’t quite have the laughs or madcap energy of “Going, Going, Gonzo,” if only because it doesn’t revolve around him. But it does have the same heart, made all the warmer by the holiday season. It’s Christmastime on the Up Late With Miss Piggy set, and one of its key players is unable to perform due to a recent breakup. That would be Fozzie of course, who, after getting dumped by Becky for never being able to turn off his joke switch, can’t even get through a single “Ho-ho-ho” as Santa Claus without bursting into tears.

After Piggy gives him some practical advice on how to fight for his relationship to prove that he actually cares about it, she grows romantically depressed as well. Although she just urged Fozzie to try and salvage his love life, she realizes that she never tried the same thing with hers and Kermit’s. Because of that, she’s about to spend Christmas alone, or at least that’s what she tells herself. By the time Kermit goes looking for the host of the show after he realizes she’s missing, she’s snout-deep in a mountain of cheese, nose-diving into brie the same way Tony Montana nose-dives into cocaine. Like so many crime lords, Piggy (wrongly) believes the solution to depression is indulgence.

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As Kermit tries to cheer her up, their conversation recalls the emotional anvil of their breakup all the way back in the first episode. There’s a surprising amount of subtlety in both the writing and the puppets’ carefully scrunched up faces as they show kindness without ever fully admitting that they still have feelings for each other. Kermit assures Piggy that she has no reason to be lonely since she enters America’s collective living room every night to entertain millions of people. And even without her fans, she still has a supportive group of friends. “You were my favorite show long before you were on the air,” he tells her, choking up both himself and those of us at home. It’s positioned to be the home-run moment where the two exes go in for a kiss, when they finally forget that Denise ever existed and rekindle one of the great romances of the 20th century.

But they don’t, and the show is all the better for it. As I’ve said many times before, The Muppets doesn’t earn its adult stripes with shock value, but with measured, realistic story beats that reward the viewer in the long run. Having Kermit and Piggy inch back to what they once were rather than jump into things whole-hog (pun very much intended, as is always the case when writing about Muppets), shows that the writers are taking advantage of the long-game narrative that a sitcom—not a variety show—provides. It would have been nice to see Fozzie and Becky’s relationship get an equal amount of screen-time—it feels strange that she’s only talked about, not seen throughout the entire episode—but at least their partnership continues to grow rather than fatally slip on an ill-placed banana peel.

The secondary stories of “Single All The Way” also hold surprises that value sweetness over embarrassment. When the rest of the Muppets find out that Yolanda’s rigged this year’s Secret Santa so that everyone draws her name, you expect them to get revenge, perhaps by bombarding her with booby-trapped presents. What if she opened a box to find one of Lew Zealand’s smelly boomerang fish or a lit stick of dynamite left by Crazy Harry? But instead, the gang all realizes that she was accidentally left out of Secret Santa last year, so they give her the gifts anyway to make sure she feels included and loved this time around.

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Concerning the series’ second (er, third) most famous inter-species romance, Sam finally makes some headway with Janice. Even though he fails to get her under the sprig of mistletoe he’s hung in the office, his conversation with Chip leads to her kissing him later on at Rowlf’s, as she’s moved by the way the eagle didn’t shy away from talking to everyone’s favorite creepy, pupil-blinking fringe character. In a way, the mistletoe (and his own kindness) worked for Sam after all, when the predictable outcome would have been him slumped over at the bar, one wing covering his brow while he cries into his beer. Maybe it’s just a side effect of the holiday setting, but “Single All The Way” solves every one of its conflicts with harmony, not manipulation.

Just look at its final image. When Kermit discovers that Up Late guest start Mindy Kaling can’t sing, he’s unable to come up with a way to scrap her song that won’t hurt her feelings. Then that conversation with Piggy happens, and he’s reminded that no one should be alone on Christmas, especially tone-deaf singers performing on national television. To save the musical number, he sends a huge group of Muppets to join Kaling for a boisterous rendition of “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” Christmas carols always sound better when performed with a group, and when Scooter invites Kermit into the chorus, it’s a stunning picture of what the Muppets do best: put on a show after a day of backstage chaos. Some of that chaos starts to rear its head again, however, when Piggy affectionately locks her arm with Kermit’s. He looks pleased, but also unsure, as Denise is most likely watching. As he tells the camera afterwards, he’s glad that Up Late is about to go on a break so he can sort out his feelings. The Muppets is about to go on a break, too, and regardless of what happens with the show’s content, hopefully it continues to build upon the characters’ relationships the same way “Single All The Way” did tonight.

Stray observations

  • So apparently Swedish Chef is married. This is a new development, right?
  • Funny how Fozzie’s joke that leads to his and Becky’s breakup has to do with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld also had a girlfriend leave him for always doing comedy bits.
  • Did anyone else catch that awkward Muppets/Samuel L. Jackson commercial after the episode ended? Was it supposed to be confirmation of Kermit and Piggy eventually getting back together?
  • “Sour cream and onion Pringle? They’re shaped like the human tongue.”
  • “Sounds like a cat drowned in another cat and neither one of them can sing!”
  • “Life is a chess game. And what is the most powerful piece on the chess board? The prawn.”
  • That’s a wrap on the first half of The Muppets’ debut season. I’m genuinely curious about what this reboot in February is going to entail—Big Mean Carl going to therapy? A Bates Motel parody starring Scooter?—so I’ll be sitting tight by watching this on repeat until then. Happy Holidays, everyone!

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