This week on The Muppets, the two primary plots play out in reverse: one starts weak and finishes strong, while the other starts strong and finishes horrendously. Spending time with The Electric Mayhem as they road trip with Kristin Chenoweth sounds like a terrific diversion, and for the most part it is, but this is ABC’s The Muppets, which means that their adventure must end on the sourest note possible. Spending time with Kermit as he enlists Miss Piggy to help him secure a last-minute birthday gift for Denise, meanwhile, sounds like compressed hell, but what do you know? It ends on a well-deserved high note for Piggy.
“The Ex-Factor” is a tonal jumble. The episode exhibits both the classically self-deprecating humor and unfailing warmth of Muppets yore, while playing in the mean-spirited sandbox Bill Prady and Bob Kushell have crafted for these beloved characters today. In what world are Dr. Teeth, Floyd, Janice, and Zoot the kind of people puppets who would leave anybody stranded in a desert—much less a cherished American icon like Chenoweth? Watching the band break down over relationship drama and trifling matters of ego is actually interesting, particularly with Chenoweth set uncomfortably in the midst of the infighting; the Muppets tend to mesh nicely with the real world whenever they’re thrust into real-world circumstances, after all. Watching Floyd and Dr. Teeth at loggerheads with one another is like watching Anvil! The Story of Anvil, but with Muppets instead of Canadian metalheads.
It’s the resolution here that stings. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the gang projecting their frustrations onto Chenoweth, but “The Ex-Factor” takes their misguided grievances in a roundly non-Muppety direction. Your ease of mileage may vary here; it’s a moment that’s nastier than even the most acerbic beats of The Muppets to date. Who wrote that ending? At what point did they decide that abandoning someone in the middle of nowhere not only suited the storyline, but the spirit of the Muppets as a brand? It’s easy to question just how much the show’s writers actually “get” Jim Henson or his felt creations, but coming on the heels of the more tonally astute “Walk the Swine,” there’s no easy answer, either.
Which brings us back around to Kermit and Piggy, who finally have a small moment of reconciliation, followed by vengeance. Kermit has turned into a real asshole on The Muppets, and not just in terms of meanness: he’s a whiny lunkhead, too, and both of these elements more often than not threaten to make him completely unlikeable. It’s one thing to mistranslate lady speak and not buy your new girlfriend a birthday gift. Anyone can make that mistake. But solving the problem by burdening everyone else with finding a solution makes you a grade-A dick. We almost wish Scooter was less persnickety about Kermit’s artistic ability in their painting class. Giving Denise that abomination of a salad plate would have been a fine comeuppance.
But if anyone deserves the chance to teach Kermit a lesson, it’s Piggy, and boy does she seize the opportunity for humiliating the frog. Relishing Piggy’s reprisal to Kermit’s bold insensitivity is incredibly satisfying; no person should ever ask their ex to help them find a present for their new squeeze, ever, for any reason, even if they’ve managed to remain friends (which, it goes without saying, Kermit and Piggy mostly have not). At the same time it’s undeniably weird to get a kick out of seeing Kermit made to look like a fool. This is the guy we’re supposed to root for, the underdog we want to see come out on top in the end. The Muppets has turned him into the prototypical boss The Office took so much glee in skewering throughout its run.
“The Ex-Factor” surprises us, though, with a moment of sudden, unexpected compassion that reaffirms their bond. Turns out that Kermit and Piggy are friends, because only a real friend would come through for their ex as big as Piggy comes through for Kermit; her gift for Denise is thoroughly awesome, though outfitted with a sneaky jab at her former beau that lets her have the last word. It’s a great way of both reinforcing what makes The Muppets a Muppet show and letting Piggy be Piggy. The series would do well with more material like that, instead of leaning into its own faux-edgy enmity.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.