Ever since The Muppets premiered on ABC, people have been hemming and hawing over whether or not it captures the Muppet spirit. Depending on who you ask, it’s either too adult, too much like The Office, or simply not funny enough—which, hey, different strokes for different folks. Whatever complaints you might have, concerns about The Muppets’ Muppetness or lack thereof has dogged the show from day one. Some of those concerns are valid. Some are ridiculous. (Muppet humor has always trended toward adults, dating all the way back to The Muppet Show.)
“Going, Going, Gonzo,” the series’ ninth installment, should put all such gripes to rest. This is it: The episode that fully embraces all the qualities of the Muppets we hold dear. For one thing, it’s funny, unless you’re the sort who doesn’t find Joseph Gordon-Levitt hustling Rizzo and Pepe in a game of poker hilarious. For another, it brims over with genuine empathy for its characters. Most of all, it wipes away the faux-edgy taint applied to those characters, letting them be who they’re supposed to be without affecting awful traits in them for the sake of keeping in step with contemporary humor. Kermit isn’t a jaded, manipulative asshole. Piggy might be a bit of a diva and a narcissist, but she isn’t a monster.
And Gonzo isn’t just a head writer on a late night show who gets screwed out of hot dates by that dastardly Liam Hemsworth. He’s Gonzo the Great, dammit! He’s the Evel Knievel, or perhaps the Super Dave Osborne, of the Muppets roster, a fearless and nigh indestructible alien elephant beaver whatever; watching him take a background role in The Muppets has been kind of a downer, particularly after the 2011 film, also titled The Muppets, pulled him out of daredevil retirement and set him back to his explosive, death-defying ways within the span of five minutes. Maybe Gonzo’s a minor character compared to Kermit or Piggy, but it’s great to see a Gonzo-centric episode that lets him stretch out his legs in creative, emotional ways.
“Going, Going, Gonzo” begins with a backstage calamity that sends Gonzo swinging from the rope system before bouncing off a klieg light and crash-landing on the craft services table. For anyone else, that would mean a visit to the hospital. For Gonzo, it means revitilization. This is what he’s been missing: The dangerous thrill of a good old fashioned stunt. So he sets about making a comeback as Gonzo the Great, an ambition first stymied by Piggy, who is rightly pissed about having her show ruined, and then facilitated by Kermit, who persuades Piggy to give Gonzo the green light. (“Persuades” is a strong word. It’s more like “forge her signature while she’s in a glamor coma.”)
And so Gonzo prepares himself for his human cannonball trick before getting cold feet. This is a first for Gonzo, who traditionally has stared his own mortality in the eye and laughed; he’s nervous, maybe even frightened, at the idea of launching himself between two rooftops, something that he wouldn’t have thought twice about a few decades and change ago. But everybody ribs him about his age and especially his body, which in the intervening years has grown in width and overall doughiness. Bunsen Honeydew’s cannon demo, which involves a Gonzo dummy made out of fruit (though, as Honeydew jokes, it should probably be made out of Twinkies and Ding Dongs), multiplies Gonzo’s growing anxieties before Kermit, in full-on sage mode, sits down with him and those anxieties finally come to the surface.
Everything about this works wonderfully. The Muppetshave aged as characters, so change is inevitable. (Even Scooter is sort of dating Chelsea Handler, and sort of getting his ears pierced these days.) But “Going, Going, Gonzo” actually addresses the ways that they’ve changed instead of skirting around them. Why wouldn’t Gonzo feel a little trepidation about firing himself out of a cannon? He isn’t young anymore, after all. Maybe, just maybe, he isn’t up to the task, and maybe he’s doing it for the wrong reasons, anyway. (Plus, hawking for Piggy’s own brand of bottled water is its own embarrassment.) You get the sense that Dave Goelz, the only remaining original Muppet performer left to provide his characters’ vocals, is channeling his experiences in showbiz into Gonzo’s barroom exchange with Kermit; it’s a warm moment layered with sentiment, and for the purposes of “Going, Going, Gonzo,” it’s a perfect capper.
All of which makes Gonzo’s ultimate decision to go ahead with the cannonball act an equally perfect surprise. Talk about uplift: If the success of Gonzo’s stunt, set to the tune of “Learn to Fly” (played live in the studio by David Groehl and the Electric Mayhem), doesn’t have you on your feet, and if Kermit dubbing Gonzo as “the Greatest” doesn’t put a big lump in your throat, then you’re watching The Muppets for all the wrong reasons. This is why the Muppets matter—they inspire us, elate us, and show us the best part of ourselves through their beneficence. We’re heading toward The Muppets’ winter finale and an eventual springtime reboot, which means that this may be the show’s peak. But if that’s the case, then so be it, because “Going, Going, Gonzo” is as altitudinous as peaks get.