There’s a moment in “Walk the Swine” when something I love about the Muppets (the ragtag collection of felt entertainers, not the ABC sitcom I’m recapping here) came back into sharp focus. Fozzie’s girlfriend, Becky (Riki Lindhome is back, so things can’t be that bad), is trying to embarrass him in front of his co-workers after he told stand-up jokes about her. She brings up the fact that Fozzie gets incredibly emotional upon hearing the song “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper, and leads the other Muppets in singing it to try and provoke him. It occurred to me that it’s the first time there’s been any sweet, sincere Muppet singing in all five episodes so far, and I realized how much it had been missed. Muppets were meant to sing together.
Maybe it’s just that I’ve finally sufficiently lowered my expectations; maybe it’s that I finally understood and appreciated the many-layered pun in episode three’s title, “Bear Left to Bear Write,” or maybe it was just this one moment giving me hope that carried through to the rest of the episode, but I think I liked The Muppets a little more this episode. I think.
It’s hard to tell because it’s still not good. The story lines are still thin. The jokes are still fine-to-poor-to-nonexistent. The characters and their relationships remain stubbornly ill-defined. DENISE. IS. STILL. MISSING. But it was, at the very least, a small shuffle in the right direction.
We learn early on in the episode that Miss Piggy’s greatest nemesis is not Christina Applegate, or Kermit, or any of the other celebrity guests we’ve seen her spar with, but Reese Witherspoon, who just happens to be a guest on Up Late. The grudge runs so deep that Miss Piggy sends a basket of poisoned muffins to Reese’s dressing room, which leads me to wonder if she was the Muffin Man copycat George Bluth Sr. insisted existed on Arrested Development, even though what happened next was distinctly Lindsay Fünke. During her interview, Reese discusses her work with Habitat for Humanity, which Miss Piggy decides to take as a personal challenge. She says she’s doing Habitat for Humanity as well, and will be on site the next day to build a bigger, better house than Reese ever could.
Piggy arrives on the construction site to take on Reese Witherspoon in a … building challenge? The rules of this contest are never quite defined, though one that is obvious is that Reese is never allowed to look bad. It’s one of the perennial problems of having celebrity guest stars — giving them actual conflicts might make them look more flawed and human than their formidable teams would probably like to have you believe. Case in point: an almost-conflictless conflict between Reese Witherspoon and Miss Piggy over a charity project.
What this story lacks in defined character wants, it makes up for in what could almost qualify as a comic block — that is to say, a moment at which the characters’ forward momentum toward defined goals ends up preventing said goals from being reached. As their animosity escalates, they end up in a shoving match, accidentally bringing down the house they’ve been working to build. Miss Piggy promises Reese — and Kermit, who is normal-producer mad and not angry-Muppet mad — an apology. Instead of genuinely apologizing on air, she takes the opportunity to sing about how sorry she is, and then rap about it, which is funny to, I don’t know, 0 percent of all people? In any instance where the joke is, “And then this person who you wouldn’t expect to rap RAPS!” I want to ask if they know what year this is. Has Hamilton taught us nothing?
Meanwhile, Becky is learning what everyone who has ever dated a comedian has ever learned — namely, don’t date a comedian. Fozzie is just slaying a room with jokes about their relationship, which, besides being a dick move, is completely out of character. Fozzie killing it with a crowd? What is this, some kind of weird parallel universe where the Muppets have a sitcom that completely ignores all of their established characters? (New theory: The Berenstain Bear alternative-timeline theory is completely real, and the only other difference between the Berenstain world and this one is that now Fozzie is a good comedian. Maybe that theory altered all anthropomorphic bears in this reality.)
Becky is understandably upset over this, which leads to the “True Colors” sing-along. Fozzie agrees not to do any more jokes about her if she’ll stop making jokes about him, but when she goes to see his next set, free from jokes about their relationship, the audience isn’t into it (maybe it was Berenstain all along??). So Becky sacrifices dignity and encourages Fozzie to joke about the sweat problem that she probably should get checked out. It’s worth mentioning that this exact story was done on SpongeBob SquarePants a while back, but then, all stories have been told before, and Muppet-story retellings are prestigious. I’m looking at you, Muppet Treasure Island.
In all of this, there’s a vague C-story about Rizzo getting money out of Scooter, but it trails off quickly. This isn’t a show that seems to grasp that resolutions are the most important part of stories.
If you’re wondering where Kermit is in all of this, don’t worry, so was I. The answer was probably off with Denise, who is still missing. Someone should probably send a search party.
The whole might be greater than the sum of its parts here, though. I didn’t hate “Walk the Swine” like I’ve hated previous episodes, and every improvement is still an improvement. And I genuinely laughed at Miss Piggy’s pouty face!
But The Muppets remains a long way off from solid footing. It’ll have to decide either to lean into being the best version of a tightly plotted mockumentary sitcom it can be, or to decide it’s going full-on Muppet Show. What we’ve got right now is still half-baked. This truly is the darkest timeline.