You come to The Muppets wanting nostalgia, good cheer, and magic. After all, Jim Henson’s marvelous menagerie of puppets taught us our ABCs and 123s, taught us grace (“It ain’t easy being green …”) and idealism (“Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection …”), taught us that a world of wonder can be made from a handful of felt. (They also taught us to be addicted to television – those damn plushies were walking, talking dime bags of virtual weed! — or so Neil Postman once grumped in Amusing Ourselves To Death.) Our affection for and connection with the Muppets runs deep. Like Star Wars deep. So it’s reasonable and maybe even right to have Monster hopes and Gonzo expectations for another prime-time vehicle starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the whole beautiful crew of lovingly made, imaginatively performed, very real special effects.
It’s quite possible that in the weeks to come, The Muppets will satisfy the way we want it to satisfy. It’s quite possible that this weird and wonky thing will grow into itself, and/or we will grow into it. In the premiere, though, the show stumbles out of the gate, subverted by a strategy for relevancy that’s not only a few steps behind the moment but misguided.
Like most Muppetainment, from previous TV shows (most notably, The Muppet Show, which ran from 1976–1981) and the big-screen films, The Muppets is set in our world, or a comic caricature of it. These furry, fuzzy, wire-assisted assemblages are treated as real by human beings, most of whom exhibit a blasé regard of their extraordinary nature, too. The premise: Kermit and friends have moved on from making neo-vaudeville variety shows (see: Muppets Tonight, 1996) to producing a late-night talk show on for the biggest star to ever emerge from their ranks. Up Late with Miss Piggy is produced by The Walt Disney Company, airs after Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and is shot on the same lot where Dancing with the Stars is filmed. Each episode has several story lines, with the main story focused on Kermit handling some behind-the-scenes crisis that threatens to trigger the outrageous wrath of the volatile Miss Piggy, still crazy-diva after all these years. Sample problem: When Miss Piggy nixes Elizabeth Banks as a guest, Kermit must scramble to find replacement. Tom Bergeron is always available, but Kermit aspires for better. Poor Tom Bergeron.
If you’ve been following the marketing for The Muppets, then you know another key element: Kermit and Miss Piggy, a longtime couple, have split. His choice, not hers, though Kermit lays the blame at Miss Piggy’s cloven hooves. Too interested in her relationship with fame, not interested enough in her relationship with him. Kermit is now dating another pig, Denise, who heads up marketing for the network. They met at a cross-promotional meeting, he says, “and we ended up, uh, cross-promoting.” If the idea of Kermit acknowledging a sex life makes you turn green, take some Dramamine before you watch: There’s more. He even uses the word “sexy” at one point. Scandalous!
Such is the “modernization” that has been foisted upon the Muppets. They’re not sophisticated kid stuff anymore — they’re decidedly adult. My favorite revelation comes late in episode 2, when we learn in a throwaway line that Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem dig living in a marijuana-legal state. Some of this “modernization” isn’t thought through. Is Kermit’s relationship with Denise professionally appropriate? Why does Miss Piggy put up with the humiliation of Kermit’s workplace canoodling for even a second? Fire the frog’s ass, girl! The real-world context and the characterizations invite these questions, but they go unacknowledged.
But there are bigger problems, beginning with presentation. The show belongs to the “mockumentary” genre made commonplace by the likes of The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. This isn’t a novel approach, and The Muppets does nothing fresh with the form. If anything, the show effectively demonstrates how contrived it’s always been and how stale it’s become, both by example and by simply saying so. “One-on-one interviews. What an overused device!” Gonzo complains during one of his one-on-one interviews. “You tell the camera how you really feel, and then they cut back to saying something completely different. I hate these interviews.” The scene then cuts back to Gonzo at a meeting, declaring: “I love these interviews! Great device!” This too-telegraphed joke isn’t funny, and it backfires by opening our eyes to clichés and implicitly promising to improve upon them.
The mockumentary format flatters Kermit, for better and worse. Mr. “It ain’t easy being green” has an internal life that he keeps from others, so his one-on-ones can be character-driven and revealing. And because Kermit is capable of introspection and empathy, he can use this reflection to change. Consequently, Kermit can get away with being a jerk, because he’s wired for atonement, and the show is rigged to facilitate it. The premiere, in fact, is all about Kermit overcoming his post-breakup disdain for Miss Piggy (“If you take dating out of the equation,” he realizes, “she’s a lunatic.”) to recognize and apologize for some insensitivity on his part.
Kermit can mature, of course, because maturity is intrinsic to his brand. Other characters aren’t so lucky, and the show suffers for it. Kermit’s right: On this show, Miss Piggy is a lunatic, and it’s not enjoyable. The pricklier aspects of her personality are dialed up to 11 – she’s selfish, she’s rude, she’s shrill, she’s bonkers irrational – while all of her mitigating characteristics, such as her strength, her self-confidence, and her insecurity, are muted. If she was anything but a puppety pig representing a tired, terrible female archetype – if she was a flesh and blood woman representing a tired, terrible female archetype — we’d tweet her off of television and flame the writers. Was she always this flawed of an idea? Did we only ever tolerate her because Kermit did? At every turn, even in a key scene designed to illuminate Kermit’s big mistake, Miss Piggy comes off horrible. (“Can we just skip to the part where you admit you were wrong and just buy me a bracelet?”) Watching the first two episodes, I kept waiting for a one-on-one interview with Miss Piggy so I could get her side of the story. We don’t get it. Why? Does her brand not allow for reflection and depth? Maybe it should, and quickly.
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Worse than presenting Miss Piggy as worthy of our hatred, The Muppets actively hates on her. Characters mock Miss Piggy behind her back for her weight and for her tendency to, you know, eat like a pig. To my ears, they sounded like fat jokes. Granted, the jokes are cornball fat jokes. Muppet humor has always been knowingly corny, and it remains so, and it plays best when you can hear (or imagine) a rimshot, like in The Muppet Show, which was set in a closed, heightened reality, had a laugh track to coach us, and had Statler and Waldorf in the balcony to mock the lameness and shake their heads on our behalf (and shame us for being so nitpicky; clever device, those two). But the insider, docu-style presentation of The Muppets works against the cornball, especially the insult jokes. You don’t laugh. You think: “That’s a fat joke, and in the real world, fat jokes aren’t funny.” It even fails at mockumentary cringe comedy, because there’s no self-conscious awkwardness exhibited by the offending characters; the butt of the joke is Miss Piggy, not the jokers. (And is Miss Piggy really so heavy, anyway? I never thought so.)
The poorly realized fixation with realism undermines The Muppets in other, less egregious, maybe-it’s-just-me ways, too. There’s a subplot in the premiere in which Fozzie has dinner with the human parents of his new, human girlfriend. He drives to her house in a convertible, on the freeway, in an impressive shot that nonetheless distracts you by trying to impress you. (Team Henson loved evolving their craft in order to cast more complex illusions – remember those original movies, with Kermit riding the bike? – but for me, this showing-off only accentuated the inauthenticity of the Muppets.) During the dinner scene, Dad refuses to accept the fact that her daughter is dating a bear, while Mom struggles to be understanding. It’s a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? spoof (which might not be a good thing to spoof), except you have no idea which side to take, neutralizing the funny of it all. You might be biased toward Fozzie, you realize very quickly that Dad (played by the hilarious Jere Burns) is totally right in his perspective … except for the bizarre part where he sees Fozzie as a bear. Because Fozzie isn’t a bear. He’s a Muppet! Right? Or have I been misreading Fozzie my whole life? I always thought that the Muppets were their own special, magical class of creature, and …
Oh, never mind. My only point here is that the aesthetic and the jokes risk getting you thinking about things that are counter-productive to the aim of the show, which, simply, is to make us laugh.
Here’s the good news: The second episode is much better. The Miss Piggy problem remains egregious, but everything else is improved. The jokes are fresher (it’s high grade cornball), the story gets more Muppets involved, and utilizes the celeb guests more inspired ways for more sophisticated effects (including Josh Groban, Jay Leno, and – a provocative choice – religious scholar Reza Aslan, who, BTW, happens to be a consulting producer on the new season of The Leftovers). It also pokes directly at something I’d love to see the show hit harder: The fact that Miss Piggy is not just the only female puppet pig currently hosting a late night talk show, but the only female host of any kind to be doing so. Now there’s a vision of reality worth of exploring. I bet Miss Piggy would have a lot to say about her work and the pressures and responsibility she feels. Maybe soon, The Muppets will actually let her say it.