The Muppets 1.03: “Bear Left Then Bear Write”

Kermit and Fozzie drink at Rowlf's bar.

Kermit and Fozzie drink at Rowlf’s bar.

The Muppets‘ third episode, “Bear Left Then Bear Write,” is the first one of the new series that left me feeling a bit conflicted. Overall, it was a collection of some wonderful moments, many of which made me laugh out loud, but it also featured at least one significant disappointment.

 

As much as I enjoyed the first two installments, there was one major Muppet who was curiously missing, and that is Rowlf. As I covered in a post here only yesterday, Rowlf was once the superstar of the Muppets, before Kermit ascended to the central position, and although from The Muppet Show onwards, he wasn’t on the same level as Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, or Gonzo, he was still considered one of the top-tier players until Jim Henson’s death. After that point, Rowlf has often been relegated to a background role, sometimes making a cameo appearance but not actually speaking, which was apparently a symbolic gesture out of respect for Jim. He had a scattered line or two in ensuing years but never much.

 

That changed in 2011 when he was finally granted a substantial role again in the film, The Muppets, a trend that I was hoping would continue, but then in Muppets Most Wanted, he didn’t speak again. When I learned last week, though, that he would finally be appearing on the new show as the owner of a tavern that the Up Late crew frequents, it seemed like a perfect way to work him back into the fold in a meaningful position that also paid tribute to his appearance in The Muppet Movie as a piano man, erm, dog at a bar.

 

And yet in this first appearance, we see him for practically a split second, and that is all. Granted, he gets a solid, very funny gag about having had surgery recently. He’s wearing one of those dog-cone things around his neck and says, “I kept biting the stitches off, so I put this thing on”. And the next time the camera cuts to him, the cone is off and he’s back to gnawing at the stitches. Some of my favorite Rowlf jokes have always addressed the dichotomy between his being a dog and his status as a sentient Muppet, such as when he communicates with the guard dogs in The Great Muppet Caper by saying “Woof woof,” or when in The Muppet Movie, he tells Kermit that at the end of each day, he takes himself for a walk, and this bit is beautifully in keeping with that.

 

Gonzo speaks to Kermit at the production meeting.

Gonzo speaks to Kermit at the production meeting.

But that’s all the Rowlf we get, and the fact that the highly anticipated return of a beloved character amounts to so little in an episode that features numerous only mildly amusing scenes centered on the creepy, pupil-blinking IT guy, Chip, whose running joke is that nobody knows who he is, feels like a gross injustice. Hopefully, this will be rectified in future episodes. Speaking of which, many people may not realize that Chip has actually been in the Muppetverse since The Jim Henson Hour in 1989 and appeared on Muppets Tonight in the ’90s and likely shows up so much on The Muppets because he was actually designed as a caricature of Bill Prady, who worked on Henson Hour and is the co-creator of this series. So far, I feel like The Muppets‘ writers and creators have demonstrated some fantastic instincts, particularly in their showcasing of lesser-known Muppets such as Uncle Deadly. But favoring a pretty unlikable Muppet such as Chip as an Easter egg that likely only one person–Bill Prady–fully appreciates over such a celebrated Muppet as Rowlf feels far too self-indulgent.

 

I also have one other bone to pick with the episode and that is that it features Gonzo starting an internet relationship with a Muppet named Debbie who (a) clearly isn’t Camilla and, perhaps more worryingly, (b) isn’t even a chicken. In all of the hubbub surrounding Kermit and Miss Piggy’s break-up, the show seems to have snuck in the folding of another long-lasting Muppet relationship. But in this case, there’s oddly no mention of what happened. Part of me worries that, in trying to adhere to their more “real-world” mockumentary format, the show is drawing away from some of the more outlandish Muppet staples. For example, we haven’t yet seen a single chicken, nor have we seen a single karate kick from Miss Piggy, even here where she gets in her second feud with a celebrity.

 

Now, overall, The Muppets has been doing a very good job at conjuring up the backstage hubbub of a Muppet-run show (Piggy’s tantrum at the start of last week’s episode was spot-on, for example), but in some areas, it does also seem to be restraining itself from fully giving into unadulterated Muppet madness, and while I didn’t necessarily consider this a problem before, it’s starting to stick out a bit to me here in a way that could become a more prominent issue down the line if it isn’t addressed. Now, on the one hand, I’m actually glad the new series isn’t simply retreading old Muppet jokes and is instead finding new ways to approach these characters. I praised both of the first two episodes for this and continue to feel the same way here. However, on the other hand, Gonzo’s love of chickens and Piggy’s karate are key traits, and without them, the characters are starting to feel slightly less themselves.

 

Christina Applegate and Piggy break up.

Christina Applegate and Piggy break up.

With all of that said, however, I don’t want to sound like I’m too down on the episode or the show, because overall, I have to reiterate that I am loving it. I consider it an absolute blessing to have new, full-length Muppet material to watch every week and particularly such excellent Muppet material that continues Muppets Most Wanted‘s trend of delivering these characters and their humor in a manner more faithful to Jim Henson’s vision than most projects since his death. And whether the show only lasts a relative handful of weeks (perish the thought!) or if it grows into a huge success that lasts for years (this, please!), I will cherish every single episode for the veritable miracle that it is, particularly after so many years after Jim’s passing where the most we could hope for was a single, 90-minute movie or usually middling TV special. And again, not just because it’s any Muppet material but because, best of all, it’s actually good, often even consistently excellent Muppet material.

 

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, this episode had some wonderful elements. Maybe Piggy’s feud with Christina Applegate this week might have been even funnier with some karate chops thrown in, but the episode’s alternate approach of a simmering-under-the-surface hugs-and-kisses passive-aggressive Hollywood showdown was plenty funny on its own, and I do actually like the idea that, in order to maintain her current celebrity and talk show position Piggy is forced to play (seemingly) nicer than she would have in the past.

 

For those who haven’t watched, at the top of the episode, Piggy is interviewing her “dear friend,” Christina Applegate, who decides to surprise her with an embarrassing–and honestly sidesplittingly hilarious–clip of Piggy tripping and landing face-first into a birthday cake and then falling over, dragging the tablecloth, cake, place settings, etc. down with her at Christina’s party last year, following it up with a slow-motion replay of the disastrous event. Kermit watches on in horror, while Gonzo mischeivously laughs. He knew Kermit would never approve of airing the footage so had gone over his head, which delightfully starts to hit the Gonzo wackiness sweet spot I found a bit lacking in the first two episodes.

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