A few years back Rob Lowe starred in a short-lived series entitled DR. VEGAS. The network originally sent out a short twenty minute or so peak at the working pilot, which I really loved. Lowe was smart and smug and breezy. I liked the idea of a flawed doctor forced to work in a Las Vegas casino. Yet when I saw the completed full-length pilot a few months later I had a very different impression. The new scenes changed the tone of the series and introduced characters and situations that only muddied the show’s premise.
I had a similar response when I finally had the opportunity to see the full-length pilot of THE MUPPETS, the rebooted Muppet series premiering this Tuesday. I first saw the short proof-of-concept presentation co-creators Bob Kushell and Bill Prady put together for ABC. It was a pretty flawless updated take on the characters and I can understand why the network released it. For those long-time fans of the Muppets, this presentation reel was a solid balance of the characters you love and the new world they would live in today.
Yet the first two completed episodes of the show feel very different. The premise of a THE OFFICE-type take on late night television (featuring Miss Piggy as the host) is still in place. But the full-length episodes are much more cynical and mopey. Yes, THE MUPPETS is a grown up version of the characters, but only if “grown-up” means “worn down by life.”
You could argue that trying to make The Muppets more adult is a fools errand, since the characters have always been written as much for adults as for their children. This new take finds the beloved characters stuck working on a show hosted by an unlikeable shrew (Miss Piggy) and run by a frog who appears to be going through some sort of Larry Sanders-like mid-life crisis.
There are some funny lines sprinkled throughout the premiere episode and it’s easy to see where Kushell & Prady would like to see the show headed. But so far the duo has managed to miss the point of why The Muppets have been so beloved throughout the decades. Despite all the changes in the world and their arguments and disappointments, there was always an underlying love and innocence that illustrated the best of what we want to be with our lives. While I understand the creative attraction of wanting to make The Muppets seem more adult and life-like, the net result is that the change strips away some of the characteristics that made the characters so beloved in the first place.
One illustration of how off-kilter the balance is in the show is that generally speaking the human guest stars come off more likeable and complex than the Muppets. And anytime that is the case, you know something has gone horribly wrong.
There is a lot of talent connected with the show and there is certainly plenty of time to tweak the focus and shift the show into a better place. But for now – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – you might just want to stay away from THE MUPPETS.