A Lesson in Humility From My Archives: The Potential of ‘The Muppets’

From time to time, I like to go to older material that never got published and see what I had to say on some out of date topics as well as see how I’ve developed as a writer. 

Normally, I leave it be, but this time, I found an article that’s a good lesson for anyone trying to understand the role of a critic. Mainly, that it’s okay to be wrong, and more often than not, you absolutely will be. 

Take this article, where I seemed convinced that ABC’s new single-camera Office-esque Muppets sitcom would be able to fix its issues and  become a great little sitcom. It didn’t.

First off, let’s have a little bit of clearing the air. The Muppets have not suddenly “gone adult.”

The Muppets at their best were always a little bit for everyone. Go back and watch The Muppet Show. It’s definitely a children’s show. It’s frenetic and silly, but there was always a broader scope that the show appealed to.

Much like the Amblin shows (Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoid!) which owe a great deal to the Muppets, The Muppet Show indulged in the Hollywood world in which it was set. In references, yes, but often far more explicitly with the Hollywood stars who came onto the show.

And much like the Nickelodeon shows (Rocko’s Modern Life, The Angry Beavers, Spongebob Squarepants) that owe a great deal to the Muppets, The Muppet Show was not afraid of sketching in jokes for the adults. Jim Henson’s design sensibility, especially for The Muppets, was unashamedly and unabashedly weird, and in fact went a long way towards normalizing weirdness in children’s entertainment (Ren and Stimpy says thank you). And moreover, the Muppets were fully sketched out characters. They had hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities and were unafraid to discuss them.

In a way, The Muppets have always been characters capable of bridging the gap between children’s entertainment and adult entertainment. Henson never wanted to be solely known as a children’s entertainer, Henson wanted to merge both parts of his personality as a creative, and that’s what the Muppets were.

This is a long way of saying that ABC’s The Muppets is not some grand revolution for the show’s tone. In a way, the only revolution on hand for The Muppets is making textual what was very often subtextual. For better and for worse.

In The Muppets, the titular felt members of the television industry are doing what they do best: Put on a show! This time, they’re the cast and crew of “Up Late with Miss Piggy,” a late night talk show hosted by (who else) Miss Piggy. You can tell it’s a fictional show, because a network has a woman hosting a late night show.

While the backstage of a show is certainly not new ground for the Muppets, what is new ground is the makeup of the show. The Muppets take cue from the new milennium talking head single camera. The ostensible caveat like The Office or (given the network, a far more likely influence) Modern Family is that a documentary crew follows them around as they put this show on.

The essential idea of this show brought to us by Bill Prady (Muppets, Big Bang Theory) is that we’re seeing the Muppets as they really are. We’re seeing their personalities and their relationships as the way they play in “the real world.”

This will likely be the most controversial aspect of the show for a lot of viewers. It means that we see Kermit as an exasperated producer, doing his best, but often passive aggressive and cynical. It means that we see Miss Piggy without much of what was done to soften her up, leaving her difficult to like. It’s taking characters we’ve loved and showing us the underbelly of what they were.

And I can’t say it always works for me. A sitcom based on beloved characters is going to need to have some very recognizable elements of the beloved characters. But in the effort to make these Muppets more human, they’ve made them less recognizable.

In fact, the largest problem of the Muppets is that there’s, as of this point, nothing recognizably Muppet about them. Kermit and Miss Piggy and, for that matter, most of the cast of the show could be exchanged with human actors with original names and there would be little difference. The show resembles less the unique frantic energy of the Muppets and closer resembles a low-rent “30 Rock.”

Except unlike “30 Rock,” the show fails to keep the joke a second pace. The Muppet Show at its best had the energy of constantly falling apart. The joke pace of The Muppets is slow in keeping with the quieter realtionship based focus, and it means that when a joke doesn’t land, it leaves a dead zone for just a little too long.

But…

This doesn’t mean the show isn’t enjoyable. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna keep watching. A lot of this early show jitters feel like just that. The show is feeling out what it has to do and when it finally figures those things out, I feel like it’s gonna be a solid half hour.

But there’s still jokes that work. The sheer novelty of seeing the Muppets in these situations gets some laughs. A line about the Electric Mayhem, the resident ‘60s rock band, always being happy “legally now” and the sight gag of them devouring girl scout cookies thereafter is a great laugh. As is Big Mean Carl as a big mean receptionist. The Muppets may not be quite as zany, but they’re still funny.

And in a way, like latter day Simpsons, the show mines our long held affections for these characters for jokes and stakes as well. Even if the show hasn’t quite earned it, we do care about the difficult relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit. And our knowledge of Fozzy as a hacky comedian gives his admiration of Jay Leno a surprising bit of edge.

I can’t say The Muppets is a great show. It’s not as different as people are talking about. And it’s still messy in its construction. But much like the Muppets themselves, you get a strong sense that they’re eventually gonna pull it all together. Partially because you want them to. But partially because they’re so damn close.

Advertisements