Even from their earliest days of vaudevillian capers, the loveable felt cloth dolls we call the Muppets have been self-aware. They know quite as much as we do that they are on; that they’re performing for an audience, that their world is a literal stage, and that, strictly speaking, none of them, and nothing of what they do, is real. (Cue Laurence Fishburne excogitating on what, exactly, is real.) Take, say, The Muppet Movie, in which Dr. Teeth saves the day by referencing a copy of the film’s script. Or how about Rita Moreno’s episode of The Muppet Show, in which “terrific, funny things” happen whenever Fozzie answers a ringing telephone? (“Is there no end to this running gag?!” Kermit cries to his viewers.)
Self-awareness is the Muppets’ bread and butter, or at least it’s the knife they use to spread butter on their bread. It is an integral part of what makes the Muppets, well, the Muppets, whether we’re talking about The Muppet Movie or any of its big-screen kin—The Great Muppet Caper, or the greatest Christmas movie ever made, The Muppet Christmas Carol, or recent outings like The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted—to all televised Muppet ventures, a’la Muppet Babies, which is at least self-referential if not self-aware.
So it makes sense that ABC’s The Muppets should have a solid sense of self-awareness, too, though as the show transitioned midseason from showrunner Bob Kushell to Kristin Newman, the story may have grown unconsciously conscious of itself. After the series’ opening ten episodes, The Muppets, and also the Muppets, were stuck in a rut: that whole “faux documentary” approach worked for both the story and the characters as well as it didn’t, and as we left Miss Piggy in “Single All the Way,” we saw the gears turning on her defunct romantic feelings for Kermit. “Will they or won’t they?” the writers appeared to be taunting their viewers, and if the show hadn’t re-rebooted following winter break, maybe today we’d all be answering that provocation in the negative.
But something happened when The Muppets came back with “Swine Song” this past February: it started to look inward again. The show’s arrival on television was met with criticism and no small share of derision, some aimed at its shaky writing, which flip flopped from “great” to “abysmal” one week to the next, and some instead pointed toward its Muppetiness. Where The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie (and hell, all things pertaining to the Muppets in general) are remembered fondly for their positivity, ABC’s The Muppets was defined instead by jaded, cynical bullshit unbecoming of Kermit and his cohorts. Where once these characters embraced their own oddity and goofiness, they now felt ashamed of it. It was obvious from the outset that The Muppets was not a show easily given to straight-up nonsense like “The Rhyming Song”; a joke like that would be viewed by the show with chagrin, whereas on The Muppet Show, chagrin would be entirely the point.
Enter Pizza (the great Utkarsh Ambudkar), pronounced “Pache,” and thus the pivoting point in The Muppets’ lifespan where the show slowly started to turn around and get back to what it once was. Pizza, again, pronounced “Pache,” is a branding guru hired by network president Lucy Royce (June Diane Raphael) in “Swine Song” to put some pep in Up Late with Miss Piggy’s step. This, at a glance, doesn’t make a ton of sense either in-universe or out; maybe the Muppets were all in relatively crummy moods for about eight episodes or so, but as of “Going, Going, Gonzo,” everybody underwent an impressive attitude adjustment. Kermit stopped acting like a complete dick and started acting like, you know, Kermit; Piggy’s rampant ego-driven blowups slowly diminished into more manageable magnitudes; Rizzo, Gonzo, and Pepe gelled as a trio of actual friends rather than a trio of sitcom friends, who define “friendship” as “making your close acquaintances miserable.”
But hey, whatever: have some “Pizza.” Pache is a brand-focused type, a guy who thinks staying on-brand and on-trend is the same thing as telling a story, and that new slickness matters more than substance. He’s an immediate thorn in the Muppets’ side, and that’s before we learn that he’s the reason Key and Peele wound up getting canceled, but if Pache is Bad News™ for the Muppets, he’s good news for The Muppets. Funny how a theme as shallow as “branding” can wind up saying so much about a series struggling to find its identity.
Back in January, a few weeks before The Muppets returned to air to finish out its cardinal season, Newman sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about her plans for the show as its newest executive producer. She explains, though not in so many words, that Pache gives the cast a common enemy to unite against. This is completely true, and also a big part of why the second half of the season is such an improvement over the first. But Pache’s constant jawing about branding gives The Muppets that necessary quality of self-awareness, though whether that is Newman’s intention or not is another story entirely. Either way, his very presence makes a comment on the divide between what we look for in our Muppets yarns versus what ABC thinks we look for in our Muppets yarns: just as the changes Pache threatens to make to Up Late with Miss Piggy would ill-serve the show, so too has ABC’s tinkering done zero favors for The Muppets.
Pache’s interference on Up Late with Miss Piggy forces The Muppets to consider what kind of show it wants to be in light of the kind of show it actually is. Is The Muppets a faux-ironic sitcom in the same vein as, say, Two Broke Girls or The Big Bang Theory, where all of the character relationships are shaped by ugly underlying bitterness? Or is The Muppets a damn Muppets joint, and all the optimistic revelry that the name entails? Talk about staying on-brand; The Muppets pre-midseason break looked, sounded, and felt only intermittently like the stuff of Jim Henson’s genius imagination, and instead more closely resembled early-stage The Office. “These,” fans seemed to agree, “are not the Muppets we know and love.”
Weirdly, that sentiment validates Pache’s brand concern outside of the show itself: turns out The Muppets needed a facelift after all, and that Pache is the villain the gang needed all along. You don’t have to re-brand the Muppets to make them worth watching, and you don’t need to give them a new attitude to keep them relevant. The Muppets always matter. Sure, it’s nice to see a callback to their glory days, as in the “Veterinarian’s Hospital” bit from “Generally Inhospitable,” but to give the Muppets cultural currency, all you have to do is let the Muppets be the Muppets. Let them be compassionate, kind, unrepentantly silly, and yes, even a little melancholy; don’t let them act like self-involved movie stars with self-involved movie star problems.
The one-two punch of “Generally Inhospitable” and “Because… Love” leaves the audience and The Muppets in a space where ABC gets to feel like they’ve put a new twist on an old brand, and where viewers get to actually see a real Muppets show. But the climactic successes of The Muppets’ premiere season has little to do with its shiny, modern veneer, and much more to do with the triumph of the Muppet spirit. You can be sure that the faux-doc style will remain intact should the series return for another go-round, but that’s okay: the Muppets can be funny and meaningful even when they’re packaged in a tired and worn-out format, just as long as they are allowed to be themselves, and that’s what The Muppets most recent string of episodes have been all about. Turns out that The Muppets didn’t need a rebranding. They needed a debranding.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.