Review: Did ‘The Muppets’ add ‘a little more joy’ with revamped show?

Last month, I spoke with new Muppets showrunner Kristin Newman about her plans to bring the characters back to their roots. Those ideas all sounded promising, but how well were they executed? Well, tonight's episode was the first she was involved with from beginning to end (though she did some rewriting on the last episode to air back in December), and I have some thoughts on whether it lived up to expectations coming up just as soon as I sell oven mitts on Etsy…

Self-awareness has always been a key part of the Muppets formula. The Muppet Show was a backstage showbiz comedy, The Muppet Movie featured the characters making and watching a movie about how they first met (and the script for the movie itself becomes a plot device), Kermit and the others in The Great Muppet Caper commented about what part of the movie they were in, and the Jason Segel film was both a referendum on what place the characters had in modern pop culture and a commentary on a lifelong Muppet fanboy getting to make a Muppet movie.

So the aggressively meta nature of “Swine Song” felt not only appropriate, but – given the tepid-at-best reaction to the early Muppets episodes – essential. It was an episode about all the changes Newman is making to the show we're watching, framed as one where Kermit has to fight to prevent the show-within-the-show from being modernized in the same counter-productive way that the “Not your grandmother's Muppets” approach tried and failed. I would hope there's no one at ABC quite as evil or tunnel-visioned as Utkarsh Ambudkar's branding guru Pizza (pronounced “PAH-chay,” because of course it is), but a lot of the decisions about the tone and marketing of this series came from a similarly misguided impulse to make the Muppets “relevant” by any means necessary.

Of course, it's one thing to say you're bringing the Muppets back to their essential silly but sweet nature – as Kermit puts it at one point, to “Update the show our way” – and another thing to actually pull it off. “Swine Song,” fortunately, did the trick. It wasn't perfect, but the tone felt right, and the characters seemed more like themselves. (Plus, Lew Zealand came back to throw fish in the writers room!)

Newman and I talked about finding the right balance for Piggy, so that she's an aggressive narcissist but not a monster. This take seemed in the ballpark, with her trip to the South Pole giving her just enough perspective – to go along with pet penguin Gloria Estefan, which led to an amusing running gag with Uncle Deadly – to temper some of the obnoxiousness that was making the early episodes of this series difficult to get through. She doesn't remember everyone's name and still thinks of herself first and foremost, but she's not impossible to work with, and she can be made to see the value of teamwork at times.

Making the other Muppets more involved with the on-camera version of Piggy's talk show was smart. They're not going to suddenly revert to doing a '70s variety show, but the Muppets were introduced as sketch characters, and they still work well in that capacity, though I found Bobo doing a slam poetry-style reading of a NeNe Leakes Real Housewives of Atlanta talking head funnier than Pepe the Uber driver. And while John Prine's “In Spite of Ourselves” – from an album released in 1999 – wasn't exactly Kermit and Piggy dueting on “one of the old songs,” the throwback style of the tune and the sentiments expressed within it certainly evoked the characters' good old days.

Couple that with good use of guest stars Key and Peele (plus June Diane Raphael as the network president, using smiles and muffins to distract from the bad news she's delivering), and this was a very promising start for the new regime.

What did everybody else think? Did this seem more like the Muppet show you were looking for?