The Muppets are back! And they're bett — okay maybe not better than ever, but they're certainly diff — um, okay, maybe not that different either. But they do have a cute little penguin now!
So, I'm still waiting for The Muppets to find its footing as the show I so wanted it to be. (I may have been building things up for myself since the new showrunner was announced in November.) The format, which may be the show's weakest aspect, hasn't changed. Jokes still land somewhat rarely, though I watched so much 30 Rock over the past week my joke-expectation ratio might be a little skewed. I still felt that old sighing pang of knowing that a new Muppets TV show exists, despite it feeling absolutely nothing like the Muppets.
At least at the beginning of the episodes, Kermit sounds genuinely excited to "get things started."
I am tempted to say that something feels different, but I can't place what may have changed or if it's just a comforting lie I'm trying to tell myself. It doesn't seem like "Swine Song" has found The Muppets properly rebooted in any way. The episode is literally about the show-within-a-show implementing new changes, but even that seems to miss the mark. Are the writers trying to lampshade their own behind-the-scenes changes? If so, why didn't they do so while exemplifying the change they seem to know they need?
After a short winter vacation in their world as well as in ours, the Up Late crew returns to work ready to make some changes. First of all, Kermit has decided to set some strict professional boundaries around his relationship with Miss Piggy: No more late nights at the office, and presumably, no more romantic duets. A fresh-from-Argentina Piggy agrees to his terms suspiciously quickly. To be fair, she's a little distracted by her new pet, a penguin named Gloria Estefan who might just be the most disgustingly cute Muppet to date. (Seriously, he looks like that little penguin from that old Alvin and the Chipmunks movie where they race around the world in hot-air balloons.)
The high post-vacation spirits (and high post-vacation Pepe and Rizzo, who just got back from Amsterdam) are brought crashing back to reality with the arrival of the dreaded network president (June Diane Raphael, who I'd happily watch fan paint dry). The network president has assigned the show a "branding guru", named Pizza (pronounced "Patchay") to help make the show more relevant.
Let's stop right here to clear something up. The problem with The Muppets has never been a lack of relevancy. Muppets are timelessly relevant. The problem is that the format, lack of jokes, and attempt to be too relevant to some perceived audience that prefers outdated Miley Cyrus jokes to substantive originality have left the show absolutely bone dry. It's no one person or department's fault, I'm sure — on a show like The Muppets, there are presumably so many cooks in the kitchen that there's no room to evaluate what might really be the problem.
Pizza's presence and suggestions — presumably real suggestions The Muppets has received from its ABC higher ups, including: More YouTube stars! More social-media engagement! — leave Miss Piggy feeling irrelevant. She shows up to a meeting dressed as Miley Cyrus, as if to drive home the point that the show's poor grasp on pop culture isn't even good enough for jokes about its own irrelevancy. And then, she wears a "We Can't Stop"–era teddy-bear leotard.
The bright point in "Swine Song" is the presence of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, as it is absolutely every time they appear in anything. It turns out Key and Peele worked with Pizza before, and his suggestions drove their brilliant show to cancellation. Kermit grapples with ways to make the show relevant without following suggestions like "replace Fozzie with PewDiePie," and gets the answer from his own staff. In one of the nicest moments on the series so far, Animal, Bobo, Gonzo, et. al. improvise a version of the Muppets theme while sitting around in the writers' room, listening to Fozzie click his pen.
This leads Kermit to realize something The Muppets may know but hasn't yet quite put into practice: The Muppets are the most valuable part of The Muppets.
That night on Up Late, the show surrounds Miss Piggy with supporting Muppets doing guest segments. After Pizza convinces Key and Peele to cancel their appearance on the show, Kermit steps in to perform a banjo duet with Piggy — John Prine's "In Spite of Ourselves" — which clearly crosses the boundaries he and Denise have tried to set. Denise breaks up with Kermit, and I sort of hope she doesn't come back until the show finds its sea legs. She's been a distraction from the relationships the show should be building between its main characters.
Despite the wrench "Swine Song" throws into Kermit's relationship, he is delighted with how the show went. His optimism for the future of The Mup — I mean, Up Late — is infectious, but I don't feel like the episode reveals any marked improvement from where we left the show back in 2015.
That said, I did save the best for last. Uncle Deadly babysitting little baby penguin Gloria Estefan was never not going to be my favorite part of the episode, and Uncle Deadly accidentally getting little baby penguin Gloria Estefan into martinis was pointless fun. I hope we get a lot more of these drinking buddies in the episodes to come. Or hell, why not a whole spin-off show?
Also, a tip of the cap to two other bits: Animal trying to talk to Siri by shouting into a muffin, and Bobo's dramatic reading from The Real Housewives of Atlanta. I remain impressed with the show's self-restraint when it comes to using tertiary characters.
Welcome back, The Muppets. Despite everything, I can't not root for you.