Logistical question: How old are the Muppets supposed to be? Like in whatever timeline I’m sure has been compiled by fans even more enthusiastic about Muppets than me? Because in the continuity of the recent movies, they’ve been successful entertainers since the original Muppet Show was on the air, and in the continuity of the older movies, some of them were around long before that. Could it be that ABC’s The Muppets is a show about a group of entertainers in their 60s and 70s? Is that why it’s felt so much less young and vibrant than any of the Muppets’ previous exploits?
Or is it just that, ultimately, this brand of sitcom is a cloying, contrived, cardboard box of a structure that only works with truly inspired writing and acting to fill it? Is it just that in order to make any given sitcom episode work, you have to suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the idea that no two people will ever just clearly communicate their wants or needs? Is it just that ABC would be better off cutting their losses, scrapping The Muppets, and straight-up rebooting The Muppet Show instead?
I can’t actually answer any of those questions right now, since I’m too excited that WE FINALLY GOT AN EPISODE WITH DENISE. DENISE!!! Oh, hey, girl! We were all wondering when you’d show up! And you know what? You kind of made the show better.
In fact, everything in “Ex Factor” is a couple of notches better than in previous episodes. That’s not to say everything is great — it’s not, and I still think ABC should consider scrapping the whole thing and just straight-up rebooting The Muppet Show instead. But even if it didn’t totally knock it out of the park, the show still got in a few more runs than it had in previous episodes. (Was that baseball metaphor accurate? Look, I’m not a sports recapper.)
A few of the things “Ex Factor” gets right:
1. It remembers to include actual jokes. Many of the previous episodes had apparently forgotten to fill in all the “TK JOKE TO COME”s sprinkled throughout the script, which is why the episodes ended up feeling like they had weird little empty moments where jokes were meant to be. That’s not a problem that’s been 100 percent resolved, and it still occasionally felt like there needed to be an extra round or two of punch-up, but there were also a handful of actual jokes, and a couple of them were honestly good. For example, Chip’s “Then what am I supposed to do with my eyes?!” made me laugh, and then self-consciously look back at my laptop screen. And Kermit beginning to launch into a 52-verse “Happy Birthday” was perhaps the funniest way around the “Happy Birthday” copyright issues of all time.
2. It shows actual character motivation, development, and conflict. Kermit needs to get a present for the impending birthday of his new girlfriend, Denise, but because he’s terrible at gift giving, he has to ask Miss Piggy for help. It’s not a great plot, and the logic that the self-centered Miss Piggy would be good at buying presents for anyone but herself is more than a bit of a stretch, but those are some clear relationships being used and explored to create conflict, which is more than I can say about previous episodes. Piggy’s motivation to help Kermit — that she wants them to stay friends — is much better than Kermit’s motivation to ask Piggy. Why can’t he just ask Denise what she wants like a goddamn-adult-possibly-60-year-old frogman? But they both have motivations nonetheless.
We also get to know Denise a little bit, and she seems to have a clearly defined character. She’s sweet, earnest, enthusiastic, and affectionate — all the things Miss Piggy is not. But Denise and Kermit don’t have a special song, and they don’t have 40 years of history. It’s obvious why both Denise and Piggy would get jealous of each other, but I’m glad the conflict wasn’t between them. Kermit is the protagonist, after all, even if it’s taken six episodes for The Muppets to properly remember it.
3. It has a celebrity guest and resists the urge to put them anywhere close to the center of the episode’s conflict. Kristin Chenoweth (who Denise is, correctly, a HUGE fan of) makes an appearance as a guest on Up Late, but that’s where she parts ways with Kermit, Piggy, and the rest of the first-tier characters. Unless a celebrity guest is going to be an ongoing character, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to put them in direct conflict with Kermit or Miss Piggy, since that conflict won’t have much bearing on either of them in the long term. Chenoweth is used to spur some conflict among Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but otherwise she isn’t asked to do any of the episode’s heavy lifting — which is a good thing.
4. It puts Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem back on the road where they belong. Floyd asks Kristin Chenoweth to perform at his parents’ anniversary, not warning her that she’ll have to drive with them out into the desert in order to attend the shindig. While in the tour bus (it still exists!), she asks about Floyd and Janice’s relationship, which leads to an all-band squabble about who’s dating whom and whose band it really is.
That said, this plot, like every plot that’s happened so far on The Muppets, is paced weirdly and ends abruptly, without much buildup or resolution. Which brings me to …
One thing “Ex Factor” should have done better:
The plots were weirdly paced and ended abruptly, without much buildup or resolution. For instance, Kermit spends much of his story line in a Color Me Mine with Scooter. While all the details about Scooter’s love of Color Me Mine were really fun (if weirdly product-placement-y … is Color Me Mine in trouble?), it was a weird amount of time to spend on something that should have been a quick one-shot joke to set up Kermit asking Miss Piggy for help. It felt like it took away from Kermit making any decisions beyond asking Miss Piggy for help that actively led up to the lackluster ending of Denise getting a present that she likes. Yyyyyep. That’s the resolution. Kristin Chenoweth getting left in the desert is an okay gag, but isn’t very solid resolution-wise, either.
But for those of you keeping score at home, that’s four in the plus column for “Ex Factor” and only one — even though it’s a really big one — in the minus.
I hope that the first five episodes of The Muppets were just the warm-up to the show that “Ex Factor” seems well-positioned to deliver. All shows take a few episodes, or even a season, to find their footing. Fingers crossed we now can look forward to The Muppets finding theirs.