With a handful of decent episodes now to its name and a vaguely defined reboot approaching, its time for the people behind The Muppets to ask themselves an important question: Why Muppets? In other words, why not some other property, or even a completely new sitcom altogether?

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I’m far from the first person to make this criticism (many of you have been saying the same thing in the comments section since day one), but tonight’s episode was the first time I truly felt that way. And a lot of that has to do with the core of “Hard To Handler” being so solid. Because the concept is kept simple (Scooter going on a date with Up Late guest Chelsea Handler and Kermit and Denise going on a double date with Fozzie and Becky), because there’s not a high currency on everyone dicking each other over, because there’s an adult kind of sweetness to it, there’s time to think about the plot itself. There’s time to ponder whether or not, story-wise, this is a good, if standard, half-hour of network television or if it’s the Muppet version of such a thing.

For the most part, it’s the former. Sure, there’s something endearing about watching Kermit worry that Becky, who’s about to become domestic partners with Fozzie, might be cheating at bar trivia. But does it feel specific to those characters? I guess it builds upon what we know about their relationship—the bear possibly getting himself into trouble and the frog looking out for him—but from a raw plot standpoint, it’s not treated differently from any similar storyline we’ve seen on any other family-friendly sitcom. Nothing about the two of them being Muppets elevates the mediocre scripting.

Even when Kermit ends up being wrong—Becky was checking her phone for en eBay auction, not a trivia answer—the only payoff we get is him realizing that his constant concern for Fozzie’s happiness, while well-intentioned, can also be overprotective. They both recognize that Kermit can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. That’s sweet and all, and perhaps strengthens their bond as friends, but it’s also the exact same outcome of “Bear Left Then Bear Write,” easily one of the worst episodes of the series so far. At only eight episodes in, The Muppets isn’t just imitating other sitcoms—it’s imitating itself.

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That’s a shame, too, because there’s such a wild and expansive universe to choose from for stories. What’s the point of putting so many iconically eccentric characters in the real world if you’re only going to focus on the same three of four of them? Outside of one Electric Mayhem subplot, the show tends to orbit around the meh adventures of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and Scooter. Why not write a batshit-crazy narrative for Gonzo, Pepe, Bobo, or even Sweetums, then see how it gets altered by when it has to adhere to the rules of the real world? That’s the Muppet version of something, not just putting the Muppets in something because you can.

At least the Scooter storyline gets closer to that sweet spot of human reality mixed with Henson weirdness. Many viewers have been turned off by the show’s ballooning number of person-on-puppet sex references, but when Handler takes things too fast (by Scooter’s standards, anyway) by kissing the humanoid on his orange nose/snout-thing, there’s something distinct about it. You’re suddenly watching something you won’t see on any other sitcom, even if the “we should go slower” resolution is well-trodden territory

Also, Scooter’s relationship with a strong, sexually confident human brings out some colorful (if kind of creepy) neuroses we otherwise wouldn’t get to see from him. He’s always been somewhat of a worrywart, but seeing him have several Freudian freak-outs about his love life is oddly intriguing, and once again, something, as viewers, we won’t find anywhere else. Come to think of it, most of the narratives about interspecies romance—Josh Groban crappifying Miss Piggy’s talkshow, Fozzie dealing with disapproval from Becky’s family—have been some of the stronger points of the series. Maybe it’s the novelty of puppet/human relationships or maybe I’m just a sicko, but there’s no denying that it’s at least different from everything else on ABC.

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Aside from that though, The Muppets is starting to feel numbingly human, and not always in a good way. On one hand, humans tend to be more complex than puppets. On the other, they sometimes write shitty television. And while The Muppets is far from being outright shitty, it’s proven to be a series that can only do one or two things right at a time. “Pig Out” was unquestionably funny and made good use of its guest star, but couldn’t stick the landing in a way that was satisfying. “Pig’s In A Blackout” had heart and some madcap backstage antics, but also got bogged down by the Kermit/Jason Bateman scenes. And “Too Hot To Handler” honors the characters, but suffers from ho-hum sitcom plotting.

It would be wise for the writers to keep all of this in mind (and to look at The Muppet Movie’s original tagline) when they go back to the drawing board for the upcoming reboot. Because regardless of what The Muppets ends up being as a show, it needs to feel more than human. It needs to feel special.

Stray observations

  • Sweetums could briefly be seen riding a bicycle outside the studio, and I wish there had been more of it, as it’s something I don’t think has been depicted before.
  • Scooter’s idiosyncrasies become more and more Norman Bates-like each week. Maybe the reboot will be him dressing up as his dead mother and murdering people.
  • The repeated gag of Kermit talking to other characters when it seemed like he was talking to the camera was amusing, and I can’t help but think it’s the writers’ own self-deprecating admission that the mockumentary style isn’t working so well for the show.
  • “Just so you know, I don’t live with my mom. That’d be weird. I live in a room in my mom’s house.”

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