The Muppets 1.01: “Pig Girls Don’t Cry”

Miss Piggy stars in her "Up Late".

Miss Piggy stars in her “Up Late”.

This new Muppets show, however, restores her to the star that she is, and allows the other Muppets to live the Hollywood lifestyle as well, perhaps not at the level one would expect from The Muppet Movie‘s “Standard Rich and Famous Contract,” but as active participants in the entertainment industry, while all of them being just as insane as ever, which again is a perfect fit for Hollywood. The show lovingly fills practically every frame with as many Muppets as possible, many of whom will be recognizable to all viewers and others who are more obscure and specifically targeted to the true Muppet fanatic, and it creates a beautifully immersive, real-seeming world that feels stuffed to the brim with Jim Henson’s creations, like the Muppet equivalent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Which allows this backstage, mockumentary style to feel more legitimate and more zany, simultaneously.


And the pilot is also stunningly paced, with rapid-fire dialogue and gags that come so fast and furious that it allows for almost every Muppet we see to get at least one memorable moment–and most of them have more than that–despite the relatively brief running time. The script is tight and economical, using the jokes and the gags to subtly deliver the exposition, without wasting a moment or missing a beat. Speaking of which and returning to Piggy, the fact that this time around, she doesn’t just believe herself to be the star of their little vaudeville show a la The Muppet Show, but actually is a superstar provides the perfect arena for her diva-like behavior to flourish (they all actually are her underlings now, not just in her head), while also beautifully dovetailing into the show’s largest shake-up, the already infamous Kermit and Piggy break-up.


The episode opens with Kermit talking about the difficulties of being an executive producer for your ex’s TV show, and with that, BAM!, The Muppets tosses us into Up Late with Miss Piggy‘s frenetic schedule, complete with production meetings, backstage politics, and more. It doesn’t explain anything more but just shows us. If you somehow missed all of the pre-show controversy, you might be very surprised indeed, but with that one opening shot and then the cut to the morning meeting, with everyone in their various Up Late roles, the show establishes its concept, and hits the ground running, trusting us to just go with it, and we do. The pilot is full of character development and revelations, and it all comes out really elegantly through the comedy bits. They do have the “confessional” talking-to-the-camera moments as in The Office and Parks and Rec, but they actually use a great deal of restraint with this device, which is more there to comment on the tropes the show is parodying than to replace the plotting unfolding more naturally, which it does.


Rizzo and Yolanda, on a date.

Rizzo and Yolanda, on a date.

And, over the course of the episode, we meet Kermit’s new pig girlfriend, Denise (“What can I say?” I’m attracted to pigs,” Kermit explains), who actually seems like a really nice lady so far–funny, caring, understanding, and able to hold her own with the others, unlike previous Miss Piggy competition such as the sweet but relatively bland Annie Sue from the old show. Even more importantly, we eventually learn what actually happened with Kermit and Piggy, in a flashback that proves to be surprisingly dramatic, heartbreaking, and real. Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen have probably never been better or more strikingly, again, real as Kermit and Piggy than in this stark, emotionally charged scene.


Some critics complained that Kermit and Piggy being at odds with each other makes the show seem cynical, and yet this moment belies that assertion. It reiterates how Jim Henson was able to take these pieces of felt and fake fur and make them real people–albeit crazy people–who we cared about deeply. In this scene, all of Kermit and Piggy’s earlier cracks at each other’s expense throughout the preceding episode are put into context, and we can see the pain underneath Piggy’s brusque exterior and Kermit’s currently harried state. And this tenderness also provides hope, because the love is still very much there (and not just in the Kermit-is-dating-a-pig-because-he-misses-Piggy sense, because, in making Denise a supportive partner with an interesting personality, she’s already proven herself as more than just a replacement).


At the same time, however, again, the emotional tumult between Kermit and Piggy is also mined for absolutely fantastic comedy. Many people might not remember, but in the early days of The Muppet Show, Kermit and Piggy weren’t actually an item, either. She was in starry-eyed love with him, and he desperately tried to avoid her, despite her protestations that they were together, which often led to sniping on both sides, so in some ways, this is a callback to that dynamic, albeit with a much longer history informing their behavior. The show also recalls the best of the classic Muppets in the physicality of it all. There’s an amazing sequence in which the week’s guest–the amazing Elizabeth Banks–gets in a full-on brawl with Scooter that in a few moments is more true to the spirit of the original Muppets than some entire post-Jim Muppet projects, both in how willing the show is to throw the Muppets around, as well as the sheer ferocity Banks brings to the sequence.


Piggy auditions for "The Hunger Games" with Elizabeth Banks.

Piggy auditions for “The Hunger Games” with Elizabeth Banks.

And then there’s Fozzie’s romantic subplot with Another Period‘s Riki Lindhome. I saw some people complaining about the concept of a Muppet and a human together, but they clearly don’t remember Piggy throwing herself at Christopher Reeve or the time she played the aggressor in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” attempting to undress Rudolf Nureyev in a steam room on The Muppet Show. And some people have complained about the innuendo between Kermit and Denise, and by extension Kermit and Piggy, but there was a time in 1986 when Kermit alluded to their sex life in an interview with Joan Rivers. None of this so-called “new adultness” is actually new to the Muppets. It’s just been a long time since they’ve been allowed to address it so directly, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful.


Because once again, the Muppets have found that perfect family entertainment balance of humor-that-can-verge-on-edgy lobbed at the parents underneath a sweet, puppety exterior for the kids. I defy anyone to tell me that any child will understand what Kermit means when he says that he and Denise met at a “cross-promotional synergy meeting and…ended up…cross-promoting.” And that’s as ribald as it gets. Most of it is much tamer in that respect while being no less sophisticated and clever (I particularly love Gonzo’s Dancing with the Czars sketch pitch). Its gags manage to inspire nostalgia for these characters we love so much while always feeling completely fresh, with humor as intelligent as it is character-driven. This is a remarkable pilot and what I hope will be the beginning of a triumphant new chapter for the Muppet empire.

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