It’s fitting for this show to be on Disney+. Given the enormity of The Walt Disney Company, it’s easy to forget that the Disney studio was once considered an outsider in the movie biz. The “real” movie studios were based in Hollywood proper and working with the big stars, while Walt was doing his own thing with his own team further north or out in Anaheim.
The Muppets have remained this way – always a peculiarity just outside the mainstream, with their own stars, their own production needs, and their own corporate culture. For about as long as there have been Muppets, any entertainer who works with The Muppets will likely have to enter their world a little bit. It can be a culture shock, in part because of all the people on the floor, but also because Jim Henson created a work environment for his team that would seem oddly trusting and familial to someone used to the machinations of the entertainment industry at large.
Enter Nora, who works in the music business and is new to collaborating with The Electric Mayhem. She’s told them that she’s the CEO of the label, that she’s booked The Hollywood Bowl, and that she’s got producers calling her all day long hoping to work with the legendary Electric Mayhem. They’re all lies, but she’s convinced that’s how the business works – you fake it ‘til you make it. Unfortunately for her, Janice is literally allergic to lies now, to the point that Nora’s dishonesty puts her in the hospital.
Nora comes clean to the band, and is relieved that they all accept her for who she is. It’s all tied into a little bit of meta commentary about the Muppets’ relationship to the modern media landscape – it isn’t lost on me that the final scene makes a point of being on location instead of in front of a green screen. In an industry that values CGI fakery more and more each day, calling attention to this was a bold move.
This episode is packed with Easter eggs, hilarious gags, and top-notch performances, and so it’s no surprise that Muppet fans have reacted to it so positively. I for one love this show and am super happy with everything about it!
Whoa, Janice, cut it out! I like this episode, and that’s all there is to say about it!
That’s it, I’m ending the article before this can go any further.
by J.D. Hansel
There. Glad that’s over.
Wait, shoot, is this thing still on?
Fine, fine, I’ll come clean. I don’t really like this series, and I think this episode stinks. Are you happy now, Janice?
Wow, this article feels amazing!
Swell. In the interest of showing my “true colors”, here’s my honest take on the episode.
It begins with Animal continuing to obsess over Nora, now showering her with unprompted “gifts of affection”. I suppose Animal’s old habits of chasing after women like Harpo Marx and shouting “WOMAN” would read as harassment, so the creators of this show instead have him endlessly pester the object of his affections and bombard her with unwanted affection as the people around them normalize his behavior and ignore her feelings. You know, sort of like how harassment often works?
We quickly join the band at the Shack, where Moog brushes aside the cliffhanger from the last episode to establish how little weight will be given to stakes and consequences in this frickin’ show. Meanwhile, Zoot is sleeping on the couch and his shoe begins levitating. This will not be unpacked for a while, but it does help clarify that the Muppets are magical in this frickin’ show and wildly fantastical and impossible things are just going to happen all the time without rhyme or reason.
Speaking of which, Janice is allergic to lies now. Since Nora’s been lying to the band a lot about her status at the label and artists calling her to work with The Electric Mayhem, Janice gets so sick that she passes out around 11 minutes in, only to wake up when Nora comes clean at 17 minutes. It’s a strangely structured episode to say the least, and having the consequences of the lying so close to the resolution of the consequences in a 25-minute episode, without another main character carrying a B-plot, makes this episode feel super drawn-out.
I hate the “liar revealed” trope under the best circumstances, but here, it’s eating up a lot of time to move the characters and story forward very little. It also raises the question of how the band could ever function when one of its members is allergic to dishonesty… a thing that is absolutely everywhere, and certainly filled the air in the Muppet Theater.
It also makes this one of a noticeably high percentage of episodes of this frickin’ show in which Moog explains to Nora what she needs to do to be able to produce this album, and Nora learns the valuable life lesson that he is correct, which is… interesting.
Then there’s the third act, when we have to listen to Nora bare her soul to the Mayhem. This is met, quite abruptly, with possibly the most uncomfortable Janice moment to date. As she begins to sing “True Colors”, I begin to try to catch the skin that’s crawling right off my body. They play the awkwardness of the moment for laughs, of course, but it doesn’t help much. The scene is nevertheless insufferably sappy and cringy.
That’s a problem that runs throughout this show, and without spoiling much, I will say that the following episode similarly ends with Muppets awkwardly singing a sweet song at someone to make amends. All this yuckiness has made me rip my hair out and plant it into the skin that crawled off my body, thus building a new J.D. that’s as empty inside as I feel right now after watching this show.
It’s amazing to me that, given all the flack The Muppets (2015) received for being a cliché sitcom that shoved Muppets into hackneyed storylines, this show is celebrated for being just that, only more blandly so. I’d sell my left belly button for a new season of the 2015 show, or even a new episode. Perhaps there really is no accounting for taste, and I know this episode is generally seen as one of the weaker episodes of the series, but I don’t get how anyone came out of this one without feeling a deep sense of blah. It’s not particularly funny, not particularly original, not what I want from the Muppets, and generally not a good use of my time. To varying degrees, that’s sort of how I feel about the whole darn series.
At least, I think that’s how I really feel. I can’t tell. During the first episode, I convinced myself I was into it, even though I’d found plenty of irritants and red flags. I wanted to be on the same page as the rest of the fan community, and I was feeling the good vibes from everyone else, so I ran with it and tried to push down my negative feelings.
Another complication: I watched the second half of this episode with other people around, so I was especially on guard when I felt others might judge a show representing my special interest. My brother was in town and watched part of the episode with me, and, as it happens, he found it funny, so it’s not like I was swayed by any negative opinions. I was, however, more inclined to be critical. I have since tried to let that go, but the more I watch the episode by myself and sit with my feelings, the more I think my irritation with the show comes from a genuine place. Mostly. Maybe.
Dang it, I don’t know! My opinions are so complicated, and I can never tell if I’m being fully honest with myself or not. Part of me wants to make the people behind this series believe I support it wholeheartedly, which I tell myself comes from a place of compassion, but is it actually because I’m socially anxious and don’t want these impressive people to judge me? Very possibly! Morality is social, and my anxiety is social, so they get entangled. No amount of introspection has enabled me to untangle them. As it happens, the brain is a complex thing that’s networked together in intricate ways! So I cannot tell you precisely how honest or dishonest this article is. I do not know.
Honesty is like that sometimes. It isn’t a binary. Heck, this piece probably would have had a more positive impact on the world if it had only been compliments and good tidings, raising the question of whether this particular expression of honesty is a moral plus in the world or a moral minus. Honesty, I believe, is necessarily messy.
One of the best parts of being a Muppet fan is appreciating those moments when Jim Henson’s characters are used as a way to explore the complexity of humanity’s relationship to truth, among other philosophical conundrums that are quietly part of our everyday decision-making. I love how Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth, and, of course, The Cube sit with the mess of the human experience and don’t try to oversimplify it.
Unpacking the complexity of honesty could have been a great episode of a series that appears to have loose time constraints and an astonishingly flexible premise. Instead, they talked down to the audience with a cliché little morality play characterized by shameless oversimplification. That’s not fair to us, and you know what? It’s not honest.
Most Valuable Muppet: Lips is one of my new favorites, and this episode really shows that his new bit isn’t just speaking nonsense, but moving seamlessly between nonsense and real sentences. He’s disorienting and keeps me on my toes.
Most Valuable Human: MOOOOOG! He’s the kind of super fan who always wants to make sure the people who make the artwork he loves are doing well, and he’s admirably supportive of this newcomer from the industry who’s helping them succeed. It’s a lovely portrayal of fandom.
Best Joke: This episode hardly feels like it has jokes, and the rest of the series tends to present the same problem. What it has are setups for interesting line deliveries. We’re very lucky that the performers deliver. Zoot excitedly saying, “You got Jimmy Jam and the Flimflammers?” is nothing special out of context or even on paper, but by gosh does Dave make it funny in the moment.
First Appearance of…: Zedd, a real life music producer with whom I am unfamiliar, is a surprisingly large part of this series.
Notable Cameo Appearance: This is stretching the definition of a cameo, but when the subtitles say the voice over the hospital speakers is “paging Dr. Ostowitz”, I’d wager that’s not what was actually said, or at least not how us nerds were supposed to hear it.
Musical Highlight: It certainly isn’t “True Colors”, which isn’t a very Electric Mayhem song to begin with. I’ll allow that Zoot can play it beautifully on the saxophone, and I don’t dislike the song by any means, but it doesn’t work here. I guess that leaves me with “Bang on the Drum All Day”, which plays in the background at the pool party. I’m still waiting for The Muppets to make the most of that song someday. I feel like they could get a lot of it if they tried.
One More Thing: This episode’s classic Muppet reference for the casual fan is when Lips does a tiny bit of “Mah Na Mah Na”, but the reference that will delight more devoted fans – and especially us #CaperBoys – is the appearance of the Fabulous Baseball Diamond. All that effort to keep it in the gallery was for naught!
Okay, One More Thing: So much more went into this episode than what I could write about here. There’s so much time, so much work, and so much love poured into this production that I’ll never be able to speak to in a review like this, or even in a less grouchy one than this. I hope the people behind this show know that, even if some of us fans aren’t vibing with this one, we’re still glad they care so much about the characters. For as much as I’d like to be as supportive of a fan as Moog is to his favorite band, I’m often not that way, but I certainly don’t want the folks behind this series drummed out of the business. Whether you interpret those last few words as a pun is between you and your god, and I suppose the same goes for your preferences for Muppet content. This one’s not for me, but enjoy it if you want to.
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by J.D. Hansel