The revival of “The Muppets” -- more accurately, the new show built around our furry and felt-covered friends -- is puzzling on a number of levels.
When news emerged that ABC had commissioned a new show starring the characters many had come to love during the 1976-1981 run of “The Muppets,” it wasn’t all that surprising. Not only is ABC part of an enormous media behemoth bent on wringing maximum value from “Scandal” and “Star Wars” and the Marvel universe, just about every property and franchise in Hollywood is being rebooted or re-imagined for the modern era.
Why not bring to TV an array of characters who still elicit a lot of fondness every time they appear, even if “Muppets” movies tend to be of variable quality? In this age of TV mega-saturation, cutting through the clutter with characters many people already know and enjoy is a smart business call, but here was one reboot that didn’t appear designed only to please corporate accountants. The existence of ABC’s new “Muppets” dangled exciting possibilities in front of fans of Kermit, Miss Piggy and their pals: What if the new show updated the vibe of the gang’s adventures but held on to the intelligence, wit and sincerity that made the Muppets’ worldview special? How hard could that be?
Pretty hard, as it turns out. I experienced a wave of nostalgic affection when I sighted the familiar features of Beaker, Animal and Sam the Eagle, and there are some solid jokes and gags scattered throughout the first two episodes. But as I watched them, it was difficult not to feel a sense of deflation that strayed into disappointment. It became more and more clear over the course of those episodes that “The Muppets” had been jammed into a format that doesn’t quite suit them.
The mockumentary comedy style widely popularized by the U.K. and the U.S. versions of “The Office” offers TV writers a lot of helpful things: Those talking-head bits can add jokes and bring shading and nuance to characterizations and relationships; the frank “interview” moments can also give the audience new information or let viewers in on secrets that can increase the dramatic tension of that week’s plot, and, of course, those asides can be an opportunity to let funny actors riff and mug for the camera in amusing ways.
But the interviews for documentaries we never end up seeing are double-edged swords. They are designed to let the viewer into the minds of the characters; we’re supposed to identify with their emotions, or at least relate to where they’re coming from. But relating is a little tougher when it comes to the “Muppets.” Not only are their faces less expressive (and that’s no knock on the puppet wranglers working behind the scenes, who do fine work), it’s not easy to see what anyone gains by knowing, in great detail, that Kermit’s life is one big pond full of stress.
When it comes to “The Muppets,” being on the outside looking in simply works better. Why not just watch them put on a show and, in doing so, come into conflict with each other, which worked for everything from “Larry Sanders” to “30 Rock”? That approach would be even more understandable if "The Muppets" wants to go broader than those shows; after all, the jokes that land hardest in these episodes are the ones that occur in conversations or during physical bits. I can’t imagine anyone was dying to know what Fozzie really thinks of his girlfriend’s parents, which would be easy to figure out, in any case, by his strained interactions with them. As it is, Fozzie’s psychological state is the least interesting thing about that story thread; Jere Burns runs away with those scenes by merely lifting an eyebrow a precisely calibrated amount.
Even if the mockumentary format was working -- and who knows, it might seem like a better fit later in the season -- the conception of the core characters leaves a lot to be desired.
TV can always use more imperious divas, but as depicted in “The Muppets,” Miss Piggy isn’t magnificently and amusingly self-absorbed -- she’s simply mean, and not compellingly so. The face of late-night remains 100 percent male (thanks for reminding us, Vanity Fair!), which makes me even more eager to watch a sharp comedy about a female host trying to make her way in that challenging arena.
But how Miss Piggy conducts herself as a leader, an entertainer or a powerful, driven pig doesn’t appear to be of much interest to “The Muppets,” which gives us the only female host in late-night but doesn’t let her have good ideas or drive the stories. That part of the show focuses continually on Kermit’s point of view, as he nervously reacts to her displays of unreasonable pique and rampant jealousy, and it’s a dynamic that both gets old fast and denies the full comic potential of Miss Piggy's insecurity and grandiosity. It's strange that a comedy that wants us to peek into the minds under the felt allows one of its most famous characters to be so one-dimensional.
On top of all that, Kermit has been saddled with a new porcine girlfriend (“I’m attracted to pigs,” he tells the camera) who adds little or nothing to the proceedings. While I may have cared about Jim and Pam on “The Office” or (early on) Phil and Claire on “Modern Family,” my curiosity about Kermie’s love triangle and job strain is less extensive than “The Muppets” thinks it is. I just want to laugh at some goofy, well-constructed adventures, not watch Josh Groban awkwardly romance an on-the-rebound Miss Piggy.
I can only imagine how difficult it is to write for a large array of beloved characters while also figuring out how to stage and shoot scenes involving humans and puppets of various sizes. It must be an incredibly challenging task. I plan to keep watching as the show works through its growing pains, and I’ll be hoping “The Muppets” figures out how to dial back on the angst, the cynicism and the stabs at psychological complexity, which are in bountiful supply elsewhere in the TV realm. Sure, it's not easy being green -- or an ambitious pig -- but the Muppets work best when the comedy and the emotional layers are manipulated with a light hand.
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