“It’s time to play the music…it’s time to light the light…it’s time to meet the Muppets…”
Ah yes, to generations that grew up in Fresno, or anywhere else in the world, the Muppets were a substantial part of their childhood. I can say for a fact that they were for this examiner personally; whether it was watching them on PBS every morning before school, or when I saw syndicated episodes of Muppet Babies, or when I finally got to see reruns of the original The Muppet Show and then the original movies (plus the ones that came out in the nineties), the Muppet*Vision 3-D attraction at Disney theme parks, even when they had a brief return to prime time with Muppets Tonight, there has always been something undeniably charming about Jim Henson’s vision and his imagination that has never left me. Looking at the franchise again as a learned adult, I am impressed at how well the concept of these lovable felt puppet critters (of which there are literally no limits in their variety) can pull off such absurdist slapstick humor one minute, then go into surprisingly emotional and heartwarming moments in the next. Henson was truly a genius in his art and his legacy has proudly lived on in the over two decades following his tragic death, and as a fan myself, I am very pleased to see Kermit and friends make such a high profile comeback through a series of popular YouTube videos, guests spots, and most of all their blockbuster feature film The Muppets from 2011, which was released not only to box office success but to critical acclaim. A 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, was not quite as good as its predecessor (as the the film itself outright warns you upfront), but was still a good film and a good follow-up, though it was not as commercially successful as the first film.
But now, with the Muppet franchise back in the center of the public spotlight once again (I say in the center of it because, honestly, they never truly disappeared in the first place), parent company Disney has decided that the time has come to bring Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and the rest of the gang back to television, and in prime time now less! But rather than just recreating The Muppet Show of our youth, this new vision is striving to be something a little more…modern.
The Muppets (not to be confused with the film of the same name) is a new ABC sitcoms starring everyone’s favorites puppets, co-created by Bill Prady and Bob Kushell to serve as a show-within-a-show. The series is set in Los Angeles and rather than presenting the Muppets as stage performers in a theater setting, we instead see them in their everyday personal and professional lives during production of Up Late with Miss Piggy; a fictional late-night talk show, starring Miss Piggy and airing on the ABC network after Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The show borrows a lot of conventions found in other mockumentary-style television series that have become so popular today, such as Modern Family, Parks and Recreation and The Office, by employing the same single-camera setup filming style with the implication of a documentary crew filming everyone, as well as the gimmick of personal interviews and cutaways to something conveniently either relevant of totally contradictory to what was being said beforehand.
The pilot episode, titled “Pig Girls Don’t Cry,” is a fairly simple plot: the Muppets must tackle some of the show’s problems and struggle to find guest stars that Miss Piggy approves of for her show. Kermit, the executive producer of the show and now Piggy’s ex, had managed to book Elizabeth Banks, but Miss Piggy will not allow her on the show for personal reasons, much to Kermit’s frustration. Meanwhile, Fozzie is about to have his first meeting with his girlfriend Becky’s parents to try to get them to approve of him even though he is a bear.
There was a lot of excitement and a lot of potential her for this new series. Right from the start of the advertising, I could tell that this was going to intentionally be a very different approach to the franchise and a clearly aiming at an older audience, as in those of us who may have been little children back in the seventies when The Muppet Show was going through it’s original run. Watching the pilot, I could see a lot of familiar elements at play here such as the slapstick, the the parody-style humor, and the personalities of the characters, and yes, the celebrity cameos of course.
But I think the big detractor this show is going to have for a lot of people is the tone of the series itself. Going for this mockumentary-style, behind-the-scenes format can work for the franchise, but based on this first episode, it seems to me that the creators that the Muppets are playing as aid to the format, rather than the format playing aid to them. There seems to be a sense of discomfort with this new show, like the characters just aren’t at home here as they were back when they were still doing their classic vaudeville-style routines from the old days…And no, I am not merely saying these things to be a nostalgic fan.
To get into a positive for a bit, one thing I did enjoy was seeing what roles each Muppet played on the show if Miss Piggy is the only one starring on this late night show (with one exception). Kermit is the executive producer, naturally, and, in the wake of his break ups with Piggy, which was highly build up in the media leading up to the show’s premiere, his has a brand new pig girlfriend in the form Denise the network marketer. Fozzie is still struggling as a comedian and is currently working as Piggy’s on-air side kick whom she doesn’t regard. Gonzo is the head writer for the show with characters like Rizzo and Pepe on his staff. The Swedish Chef is in charge of craft services, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew is in charge of special effects (with Beaker still the ever-suffering assistant, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are the house band. Scooter continues his production assistant-esc role as the show’s talent booking agent, and Sam the Eagle is presented as ABC’s head of broadcast standards and practices. And yes, Statler and Waldorf are in the live audience heckling the Muppets as usual, although I’m not sure if they’re even having as much fun doing that this this time around.
The format of the show does allow the series to bring on a wide variety of celebrity guests stars, in the cast of this first episode we have Elizabeth Banks, Tracy Anderson, Tom Bergeron and the Imagine Dragons. Seeing them interact wit the Muppets in the midst of all of their usual shenanigans still feels classic in a new modern way, such as a running gag of the Muppets always speaking behind Burgeron’s back when they think he’s not listening nearby, but he always seems cool with it nevertheless. The scenes with Banks and Miss Piggy are both amusing and kind of mysterious as we try to figure out why she seems to hate Banks so much for apparently no justifiable reason. For the record, her reasons, while not truly Bank’s fault, succeeds in coming across as shockingly bittersweet an personal when they are finally revealed.
There are some funny jokes in here, that is a charm that the Muppets have never lacked. One key example is a scene where Scooter takes Elizabeth Banks on a tour of the studio to try and distract her so Miss Piggy does not find out that she is on the set until the show starts. This leads to a extended long shot as Scooter drives a golf cart through the studio and Banks gets so impatient that she throws Scooter off of it…only for his to come back into frame and start fighting with her seconds later. Jokes like these feel a lot more like the Muppets that most of us remember.
However, there are also several jokes that are noticeably more adult, and as hit on the nose by IGN, a lot of them have to do with surprisingly sexual themes. Starting with the least prominent example, there s a running gag of Rizzo the Rat blatantly trying to seduce a female rat working on the set and not even being subtle bout what he wants. Then there is the subplot about Fozzie is a relationship not with another bear but with a human woman (played by Riki Lindhome). This was a shocker as I cannot recall off the top of my head another time (besides maybe Gary and Walter’s parents from the 2011 movie) of human-Muppet romances being explored before now, but this could have been a lot more entertaining if the show had not put quite as much emphasis on whatever sexual aspect exists to their relationship; even the woman’s father calls Fozzie out on this.
And then there is the big one, the big detraction from lore that they got us all talking about weeks before the show’s premiere: Kermit and Miss Piggy breaking up and Kermit now having an entirely new pig girlfriend. As shocking as this is to see as someone who has known these characters his whole life, it does give the series somewhere to go. no, again, the larger issue here is how surprisingly sexual Kermit’s relationship with this new pig Denise seems to be. He is saying things in his interview segments about how hot she is and the he can’t help that he’s attracted to pigs. These jokes are funny, but once again, they cannot help but clash with my personal association with the Muppets. Heck, even smaller things like having Kermit the Frog using fowl language a couple of times stunned me, even if it was consciously done to give fodder to Sam’s role as the network censor.
What I will absolutely give credit to with this series are the performances, namely by the puppeteers. All of these performers, material not withstanding, do a great job (as many of them have for decades now) of bringing these characters to fully realized life and allowing us to totally buy into this fantasy of them interacting in a real Hollywood atmosphere, carrying on the legacy of such great Muppet performers as Jim Henson himself, Frank Oz and Kevin Clash. The cast of Muppeteers include Bill Barretta as Pepe the King Prawn, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, the Swedish Chef, and Bobo the Bear; Dave Goelz as Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, Waldorf, and Chip; Eric Jacobson as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam Eagle; Peter Linz as Walter; Julianne Buescher as Denise; David Rudman as Scooter and Janice; Matt Vogel as Floyd Pepper, Uncle Deadly, and Sweetums; and Steve Whitmire as Kermit the Frog, Rizzo the Rat, Beaker, Statler, and Lips.
Overall, The Muppets is a show with terrific potential for growth; it has a lot of the brand’s signature parody and self-referencing humor in tact, the Hollywood setting is something these characters are familiar with, and I really do want to see how things may or may not change going forward. But from this pilot alone there seems to be a backward sense of priority to place the characters in service of this modern television format instead of having the format service them, the result being that the character from our youths suddenly seem noticeable more handcuffed and less comfortable in their art than we know and love them. The goal to pursue more adult-oriented humor akin to The Office takes away from signature Muppet flare and maybe would have made more sense as a single episode parody performed by the characters than as the basis for an entire series. Still, this is only the beginning and there is always room to improve, so lets first see where things go from here. If nothing else, it’s still great to see Kermit and pals on the airwaves again after so long! I’m giving this premiere a average three stars.