Tuesday, February 2, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Muppets' - Kermit and Miss Piggy Revamp the Show to Avoid a Branding Expert in 'Swine Song'

ABC's The Muppets - Episode 1.11 "Swine Song"

The whole crew just returned from hiatus, and everyone is rested, recharged and ready to get back to work. But when a new branding guru (Utkarsh Ambudkar) comes in to revamp Up Late, the gang rallies together and realizes that they don't need gimmicks and hijinks; they just need each other and a couple of familiar tunes to get them back on track.

The Muppets has had a very problematic first season. When it first debuted, the characters no longer really felt like themselves. Miss Piggy was an insane and narcissistic diva while Kermit was bitter about the world. The changes being made to the characters took away from what made them so special in the first place. Those first few episodes were missing a ton of the heart that has made the Muppets such lasting characters in an ever-changing medium. Moreover, the episodes themselves were just too crowded with stories and really broad comedic setups. The show wasn't being innovative with its narrative. The stories were very familiar. The only reason they got laughs was because it was the Muppets in these very familiar plot lines. The need to cram as much as possible into each episode kept the show from completely coming together. All of these issues got better as the season went along. The Christmas episode actually was quite funny. That came from its simplicity and remembrance of what works with these characters. And now, the show is back for its final six episodes - hopefully with a new spin on its format.

"Swine Song" marks a change for the show. Co-creator Bob Kushell is no longer running things. Kristen Newman has taken over the reins of the show. With that, comes a change on what is actually happening on camera. Now, the show is actually aware of the fact that Miss Piggy has a late night talk show and is using that to add a new spin on the types of sketch bits that the Muppets used to be famous for. At the start of the season, it didn't seem like the show was aware of what a late night talk show looks like in 2016. It's a medium dominated by producing wacky and outrageous videos meant to go viral. That's the type of world we as a society live in right now. We aren't always interested in meaningful discussions. It's not about the host having a thoughtful conversation with his guest every week. Some people are still able to get away with that to great effect. It's just not something that the Muppets could do. They seemed perfect to embody the viral clips that makes something like Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show so successful. So this episode actually buys into that.

This change is forced upon the show because Kermit and Miss Piggy are fighting to keep a new branding expert, Pache (Utkarsh Ambudkar), from completely derailing their personalities and style. It takes a minute for all of the Muppets to remember that they are all talented performers who America would like to see as well. Miss Piggy is still the host of the show. But now, she'll be sharing the spotlight with the rest of her Muppet friends. It means she doesn't have to go the "full Miley" in order to win over the youth demographic. Instead, they just have to offer up various segments where the other muppets can take over for a little bit in order to generate laughs and heart. All of this is also being done with a modern touch. So, the show puts forth a sketch of Pepe being an Uber driver (and he gets very lucky after two attractive girls hop into his van) and Bobo doing a dramatic reading of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. It's silly stuff like that that works so well. But the heart is also back in the humor as well. That's abundantly clear when Piggy and Kermit need to vamp after their guests drop out at the last second and decide to perform one of their old songs. It reminds the audience just how special and wonderful their dynamic can be. There was a lack of respect between the two this season. Moving forward, they need that if the show is going to work at all.

Miss Piggy goes through a whole transformation. Over the hiatus, she spent her time in Argentina which really gave her some perspective. She's still Miss Piggy. She brings a penguin back with her, names it Gloria Estefan and then passes it over to Deadly to take care of. That's really not all that amusing of a subplot. It honestly feels like a story that would have popped up in an early episode of the show. It doesn't really connect all that strongly with anything else - even though Deadly has a couple of good lines in it as well. But it still suggests good things to come for Miss Piggy. She believes she's now able to speak Spanish just because she spent this week away in Argentina. But she also sees just how good her life is and how she shouldn't be so demanding of the people who work with her - especially Kermit. He wants to have a conversation with her about boundaries. It's much easier than he was expecting. And frankly, it was a much necessary change too. Kermit and Miss Piggy work much better as characters when they can just have a rational conversation without things being blown up to over-the-top proportions.

However, this episode still has plenty of awkwardness to it as well. It's a transitional episode of the show. It is showcasing what the new style and tone of the piece should be. It's setting up tension for the Muppets with the introduction of the network head and her branding expert. That tension only really scratches the surface in this episode. It forces this much necessary change though. So that's a good thing. But the show also kinda wastes a visit from Key and Peele. They show up just to talk about how horrible and destructive this branding expert can really be. Then, they are whisked away because they want to sell their new product on Shark Tank. Moreover though, the show also puts the breaks on Kermit and Denise as a couple. That relationship never really had much importance or meaning during the first part of the season. In fact, it was pretty dreadful because it insisted that Kermit just had a pig fetish. But it was still important enough that time needed to be spent actually breaking them. It's pretty trivial in this episode. But it was also necessary. She wasn't adding anything necessary or funny to the show. So, it's not at all a problem to have her go away as easily as she does in this episode.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Swine Song" was written by Gregg Mettler & Emily Wilson and directed by Randall Einhorn.
  • The first major change Pashe (though he spells it as Pizza) wants to do to the show is replace Fozzie Bear as Miss Piggy's sidekick with a YouTube kid who makes funny noises with his mouth. A skill that Fozzie can't compete with as he tries to demonstrate.
  • The joke about Yolanda finding herself on her vacation but then losing it again on the plane ride back was great. However, the joke about Pepe and Rizzo having an awkward time away did not.
  • Kermit is wearing a poncho at Rowlf's bar after the show. He could only have gotten that from Miss Piggy. So their relationship is starting to thaw again. So, it's really not that surprising that Denise wants time away for both of them to think.
  • Scooter has started taking a comedy class. He knows how to make an entrance. He interrupts Kermit and Miss Piggy with the news that the network head is there. But he still hasn't mastered exits yet - as Deadly promptly points out.
  • The entire Muppets gang in the writer's room performing the old song was such a great moment. That was the biggest sign that things are about to change for the better. And it's all thanks to Fozzie and Animal.