Most ensemble sitcoms need time to build out their casts, even if most of the actors have been there since the beginning. On the U.S. version of The Office (which, next to 30 Rock, still seems to be the biggest influence on The Muppets), secondary roles like Kelly, Phyllis, and Oscar could be spotted in the background of the first season, but Greg Daniels and his writers wisely waited until subsequent years to use them in any kind of significant way. That kind of patience makes the narrative payoff all the sweeter, plus it allows the audience to forge more substantial emotional connections to the fiction, one character at a time. First, you might notice something funny that Stanley or Meredith or whoever does. As they occupy more screen-time, you discover that their comedic quirk is a larger part of who they are as a person. Then you realize their personality goes much deeper than them just being funny. Before you know it, you’ve watched a one-note background part become a fully formed human being. The Office had its problems, sure, but it also excelled at this kind of slow burn when it came to its supporting players, at least in the beginning.

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The Muppets faces a more challenging situation. As much as you can tell Bill Prady and Bob Kushell want to play a long game, the characters are pop-culture icons that we’ve all known and loved for decades. Their personalities don’t need to be thoroughly explained or unveiled. If they were each created from scratch for the series, it would make sense to devote the bulk of each episode to Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear, as they’re the Henson equivalent to Jim, Pam, Dwight, and Michael Scott. It would make sense to relegate Gonzo to the Creed Bratton role (weirdo who pops up every now and then to say something strange), then flesh him out later in favor of focusing on the main cast. But because it’s Gonzo—The Great Goddamn Gonzo!—it feels sacrilegious that he hasn’t gotten his own storyline yet.

Making The Muppets the Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and, to a certain extent, Scooter Show creates an even bigger set of problems for the brand-new characters, which we witness firsthand tonight with Denise. Her birthday date with Kermit makes up the core story of “Ex-Factor,” and I was already predisposed to not give a shit about it, if only because she hasn’t been seen or mentioned since “Pig Girls Don’t Cry” (this gets explained by a throwaway line about Kermit not wanting her at the studio because of Piggy). And if we’re supposed to care about hers and Kermit’s relationship, or even be rooting for it to fail so he can hop back to his ex, her presence is essential. How can we invest in Kermit’s mission to get her a present if we know nothing about her? Or, if we’re only getting to know her in small doses, then she needs to be—in the immortal words of Jules Winnfield—one charming motherfuckin’ pig. And I’m sorry, but an obsession with guest star Kristin Chenoweth (pretty much her only distinguishing trait at this point), while harmless, isn’t exactly charming.

That renders the whole birthday-present storyline—Kermit’s frantic quest, his painting class with Scooter, the date itself—more or less a wash, even if I do agree with Piggy’s elaborate revenge plot. When Kermit enlists her help to find the perfect gift, she actually comes through for him with a custom-made jewelry box and bracelet that even incorporates Denise’s love of ketchup (oh right, that’s the other thing we know about her: she likes ketchup). Unbeknownst to Denise, however, the tune that plays whenever the box opens (“You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”) was once Kermit and Piggy’s song. Piggy’s coup de grâce isn’t meant as a threat to Denise; it’s more about teaching a lesson to the frog. “Don’t ask your ex to buy a gift for your girlfriend,” she tells the camera. “That is messed up. I think he knows that now.” Truer words, Piggy. Truer words.

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That brief moment of story satisfaction succeeds because, as obvious as it sounds, it relies on everything we already know about Kermit and Piggy. We know their breakup wasn’t amicable, we know that Kermit hasn’t been 100% nice, and we know that Piggy has a vindictive streak. To be fair, a lot of that knowledge comes from almost 40 years of them appearing on television and in film together, but writers Nell Scovell and Emily Wilson don’t even attempt to reveal the same kind of specifics in Kermit and Denise’s relationship, despite their date being the perfect opportunity to do so.

At least there’s some entertaining business with The Electric Mayhem driving Chenoweth through the desert. They’re all on their way to perform at the 40th wedding anniversary-party of Floyd’s parents, who are huge fans of the Broadway star. But tensions soon mount, then explode when Dr. Teeth reveals to Floyd that he and Janice used to be an item. There’s something actually hard-hitting and upsetting about watching the band argue in the arid heat, their hair getting whipped by the wind while they scream at each other, as if they’re suddenly in a scene from Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Like Fozzie driving through L.A., the sequence proves that The Muppets is at its best and most unique when it truly takes advantage of its real-world surroundings.

Then, out of nowhere, the band somehow turns things around on Chenoweth and blames her for their turmoil. Not only do they not take her to the Pepper residence—they leave her stranded in the middle of the desert, going as far as to spitefully wave goodbye to her through the van window as they drive away. Aside from not matching up with The Electric Mayhem’s respective personalities either pre- or post-Muppets—the band has always been edgy, but have they ever been so unquestionably mean?—the ending once again leaves us with nothing but googly-eyed cruelty, shitting all over the show’s first glimpse of sweetness we caught last week. I never thought I’d say this, but I would have rather spent less time with The Electric Mayhem and more time getting to actually know Denise.

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Stray observations

  • Lots of annoying zeitgeisty Hollywood jokes tonight about plastic surgery and YOLO.
  • I actually thought Kermit’s plate for Denise was sweet and from the heart. Between “Walk The Swine” and tonight, at least we’re seeing more of his likable side.
  • I went to iampepe.com hoping to find some kind of funny promotional gimmick, but got nothing. I guess I could try sending something to the email address.
  • “Question about my seatbelt: I think it’s just a guitar strap attached to nothing.”
  • “Kristen Chenoweth want Funyun? Fun like chip, crunchy like onion.”

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