The Muppets 1.06: “The Ex-Factor”

Piggy and Kristin Chenoweth do a duet.

Piggy and Kristin Chenoweth do a duet.

After a few fun but uneven installments, The Muppets was finally back to glorious form in last night’s episode, “The Ex-Factor,” which might very well be my favorite of the series so far. It may not be as all-out hilarious as many of its predecessors but it features a lovely story that cleverly subverts several expectations from previous entries and, perhaps most importantly, helps restore balance to Piggy, who had even just last week been in danger of transforming into a too-cartoonishly-selfish character without Kermit as her anchor to the real world.

 

In a number of ways, this one features some of the show’s best character writing for Piggy and Kermit up to this point, or at least since the premiere. It isn’t that either of them have been out of character since then but the show has arguably favored some of their less praiseworthy qualities in ensuing episodes. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many of the post-Jim Muppet productions, the characters’ sweet aspects had overtaken them entirely to the point that they’d lost their edge, Kermit in particular becoming a more blandly jovial character, stripped of the underlying bite he had when Jim was performing him. The Muppets has consistently reminded us of various Kermit characteristics many viewers had otherwise forgotten: his sometimes short temper, his ability to be a stick in the mud, his sarcasm. And I applaud it for that.

 

Unfortunately, however, while they writers have done a great job in accentuating Kermit’s for-lack-of-a-better-word darker and arguably funnier qualities, they haven’t always provided quite enough essential counterbalance with his kind, rosy-eyed optimism. Meanwhile, Piggy’s narcissism has been allowed to run rampant without enough of the accompanying humanity which makes her such a great character. To a large degree, I think the issue might be that the Muppets’ softer sides are so well-known today that the writers might not have even realized that it was necessary to highlight them, assuming that viewers would take them as a given, but again, while I don’t think that the show is nearly as cynical as some critics have accused it of being, I do think that, in trying to maintain the its edginess and assert the characters’ continued comedic vitality, they have sometimes forgotten to bring the heart as strongly as the funny.

 

Denise and Kermit at her birthday lunch.

Denise and Kermit at her birthday lunch.

This episode, however, finally restores that heart more prominently while refusing to surrender the overall humor (it’s slightly more toned down than in previous episodes but there are still more laugh-out-loud moments than most other sitcoms on today) or the edge. In short, it’s the story of what happens when Kermit, desperate to come up with a birthday present for his new girlfriend, Denise (making her first appearance since the pilot), finally turns to the last person in the world anyone–including himself–ever would have expected him to…Piggy! I know, right? But what’s great about it is that he clearly doesn’t come to this decision lightly–it’s only after all other potential ideas and resources have failed, including an attempt to visit a pottery-painting place with an overly critical Scooter, who hates every design Kermit produces–that he finally swallows his pride. Furthermore, he’s extremely grateful for her help, clearly understands the gravity of this request, at least to a degree, and doesn’t manipulate Piggy, as he did in some previous episodes. He comes to her as a desperate frog, pleading for her assistance.

 

Even more impressively, however, not only does Piggy ultimately agree to help him but she doesn’t use it as an opportunity to take out any anger or aggression against either Denise or Kermit. Sure, at the start, she gets a few little digs in about Denise, although most revolve more around Kermit’s decision to date a pig so much younger than him rather than any specific traits of hers. Early on in the episode, when guest star Kristin Chenoweth compliments Piggy on how well she handled herself with Denise, she responds, “Yeah, well, I am pretty great with kids.” And later on, when Piggy asks Kermit for some information about Denise to help her come up with a present and he lists her fondness for Chinese food, she hilariously responds in perfect deadpan, “She likes to eat out of boxes…”

 

But, in the end, when it counts, she comes through with an absolutely lovely, extremely thoughtful present that shows that not only had she listened to Kermit after all but that she had taken great care in choosing something that would further ingratiate Denise to him: a jewelry box (because Kermit had mentioned she was disorganized and so Piggy concluded it was something she would need but wouldn’t have gotten for herself) carved out of Southern Live Oak (the state tree of Denise’s home, Georgia!), and within it, a charm bracelet with a small silver ketchup bottle (Denise’s favorite condiment).

 

Piggy sets the frog straight.

Piggy sets the frog straight.

That isn’t to say that she doesn’t get any revenge against her former paramour at all, but it’s actually in the subtlest form imaginable, for the jewelry box also plays music–“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” to be exact–which just so happens to have been Kermit and Piggy’s song! And when Denise then goes on to sing along to it, Kermit’s nerves become more frazzled than ever before, because in what should be a special moment with his new girlfriend, all he can think of is Piggy. Cut to Piggy outside, saying to the camera, “I’d do anything for Kermit. After all he, is my friend.” And then quite rightly adding, “But don’t ask your ex to buy a gift for your girlfriend. That is messed up.”

 

And what’s so brilliant about this is that it works on multiple levels. Yes, Piggy punishes Kermit a bit but it’s in a way that makes a clear and actually quite mature statement defining the boundaries of their new relationship while not sabotaging either Denise or Kermit, other than on a level that she may not have even consciously realized herself, reminding Kermit of a time in their lives when the two of them were happy together.

 

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