September 22, 2015, 8:00 p.m. (EST), ABC
There is no fair way to begin this except with a confession: I love The Muppets. Basically as long as I have been alive, I have been a Muppet fan. As a young child, I adored Muppet Babies. As I grew, I fell for Muppets Tonight and the entire back catalogue: the classic Muppet Show, and all of the Muppet movies (except Muppets in Space, which even ten-year-old Jordan knew was a garbage fire). So I do not come to The Muppets without rose-tinted glasses. To me, The Muppets represent the best of Hollywood old and new. They are vaudevillians in a classic sense, strivers and rug cutters in a way that is constantly reminiscent of the “Dignity, always dignity” montage in Singin’ in the Rain. But they are also, constantly, products of their time, whether it’s Pigs in Space or the panoply of self-aware celebrities who show up in Muppet-productions to wink at the camera about their careers (but never about the fact that they are acting beside fictional characters).
To say I am the target audience for a Muppets sitcom is an understatement. I devour The Muppets in every iteration, and I find ways to accept even the things I don’t love (I am not crazy about Muppets Most Wanted, for example, but it does have jokes like ‘Christoph Waltz doing a waltz” that I truly enjoy). So when I say “Pig Girls Don’t Cry” has promise amidst all its problems, part of that may be self-delusion. But part of it, also, may be a personal tendency to try to see the best in comedy pilots, which have a touch road to hoe and rarely put a show’s best foot forward.
The buzz word for this incarnation of the characters has been “adult,” which strikes me as more than a little stupid. The original pilot for The Muppet Show was, after all, subtitled “Sex and Violence,” because Jim Henson wanted to make clear at the outset that The Muppets were not just for kids. They were not Sesame Street in prime time. The Muppet Show was family friendly, but not aimed directly at the youngest in the audience. The Muppets are at their best when they are aimed at everyone, when they can counterbalance slapstick and dumb puns with insightful meta-humor and cultural commentary. The Muppets have always been for adults. At least for the ones who know what they’re looking for.
In “Pig Girls Don’t Cry,” what that “adult” means is frequently something more tawdry than we usually see from The Muppets. It isn’t that the characters have never made sex jokes before (there is an oblique “pocket rocket” gag in The Muppet Movie, for example), but that those jokes were of a different sort than we see here, when Kermit’s new girlfriend Diane says “I’ll do anything you tell me” and he tells her to get him a brownie sundae. If anything, my issue with some of the humor in “Pig Girls Don’t Cry” isn’t that it is adult, but that it is “adult” in only the most childish sense. The Muppets go for bad puns and dumb turns of phrase like few other brands in pop culture, but what they rarely are is cheap. Some moments in this pilot felt that way, and it betrays the central ethos of these characters in the process.
The episode understands Kermit’s role as the put upon ringleader of far from the greatest show on Earth, but what it is missing is the sense of awe and wonder that usually accompanies The Muppets. The entire conceit of The Muppet Show is that it takes place in a rundown theater that is barely keeping its doors open, with a rag tag bunch of misfits and dreamers putting on a show because they love it, because they can. The Muppets are optimists, at their core. They are dreamers searching for their rainbow connection. They are in Hollywood because they love Hollywood, in show business because they want to make people happy and make dreams come true. None of that is apparent in “Pig Girls Don’t Cry,” and if it doesn’t show up in later episodes, it may well prove to be this show’s fatal flaw. I cannot imagine any of the characters as they are displayed here singing, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending…” and if that is gone, one of the chief reasons The Muppets have been an enduring part of popular culture for the last 40 years will disappear alongside it.
“Pig Girls Don’t Cry isn’t all bad though. There are plenty of moments here, many of which I have recorded below, where the voices of these characters break through, and where, for a moment, this show feels like a true return for The Muppets, who have spent too long out in the wilderness (2011’s The Muppets aside, as I enjoyed that one). There are jokes about how barely competent everyone involved in Up Late with Miss Piggy is, there are dumb puns that get by just on the verve of their delivery and the conviction the characters have in them, and there are clever glances at pop culture, from Piggy’s screen test for The Hunger Games to the runner about Tom Bergeron. This is not a great debut for The Muppets, but neither is it a show without the promise that it might improve. There are glimpses here of a great sitcom. And in a pilot, that’s all I need to have a little faith a show might improve.
This show could still easily go either way. It could learn what works and what doesn’t and adjust the characters so that they more closely resemble themselves. Or it could lean into the cynical streak that ran through tonight and become a limp showbiz satire with caricatures of its iconic characters at its center. This could become a high watermark in Muppets history, or it could go down in flames as one of the worst incarnations of the characters. In all likelihood, it will fall somewhere in between. In either case, I’ll be here, week in and week out, watching and hoping these characters will recapture their former glory. I’m pulling for them to go back there someday. I’m hoping that someday they’ll find that rainbow connection. And if they do, I want to be right there with them.
- “Time to get things started.”
- “Let’s start with the band. When Piggy starts interviewing the guest, that is your cue to stop playing.” “Ahhhhh. Did not know that.”
- “I am Fozzie Bear, and it is my job to warm up the audience with jokes.” “Oh god, we’re gonna die of hypothermia!” “I hope it comes quick!”
- “Piggy. Piggy. I will cover your garbage with garbage, but if you want me to cancel Elizabeth Banks, you better have a pretty good reason.” “I have an excellent reason. I hate her stupid face.” As someone who has never been a huge fan of Elizabeth Banks, I very much enjoyed this moment.
- “My life is a bacon wrapped hell on Earth.” “You can’t say ‘hell.’”
- “Scooter, you walk into a stage of dancing stars, and you bring back Tom Bergeron?” “I’m not on the elevator yet.”
- “So, you have any notes?” “I hate everything about it.” “You hear that? Only one note!”
- “Ok, you’re just saying the words ‘hunger’ and ‘games.’ Did you even read the script?” “What’s to read. Hunger Games, right? It’s all in the title.”
- “You know the original name for the band was Imagine Dragons?” “…that is their name.” “I know! They kept it.”
The Muppets go for bad puns and dumb turns of phrase like few other brands in pop culture, but what they rarely are is cheap. Some moments in this pilot felt that way, and it betrays the central ethos of these characters in the process.