Why Do We Always Come Here? I Guess We'll Never Know.
Our resident Muppet superfans try to decide how they feel about the recently announced new series.
Adam! As the only other person I know who has his own custom-made Muppet, I assume you are fully aware of the new Muppet TV show, coming soon to ABC? Are you ready to Catch the Felt Fever or whatever?
That sounds like a way that someone might die on Reign, but yes, I was aware...and I have some thoughts, as I assume you do too! Before we get too deep into it, where do you stand on new Muppet properties?
I'm generally all in favor of them. I thought the two recent movies were fun, although the introduction of Walter did not work for me. And I liked It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie a lot, although I'm not sure a TV movie from thirteen years ago can really be called "new" at this point. And yourself?
I agree! I know there are Henson purists out there, and I get that, but it's not like there weren't some clunkers made while he was alive too. I thought the reboot movie was a bit more of a nostalgia machine than an actual movie, but I'd be lying if I said that machine didn't work on me, and I liked Muppets Most Wanted a lot, if only because I was happy it had an actual story apart from just "Hey look, it's The Muppets!" I think the people in charge of the characters have generally been respectful of Henson and company's vision and legacy. There was some concern when they announced this series that it would be "for adults," but let's not forget that the original Muppet Show pilot was called "Sex and Violence."
And of course, there were Muppets on the first season of Saturday Night Live, although nobody really liked the result. But at this point, there's almost as much post-Henson Muppet history as there was when he was around. In fact, as we write this, it's the 25th anniversary of Jim Henson's death. So...is the new show going to make him roll over in his grave?
Maybe? But I'd like to think no, and not just because I'm an eternal Muppet optimist. I mean, who knows what he'd be doing now? After all, the Muppets started out doing commercials, and he sold them to Disney himself before he died (though he was still working with them).
I think Henson definitely would have moved on to new things while letting Disney continue to do things like sell Muppet/Star Wars crossover toys. Which, don't get me wrong, are pretty neat. But that brings us to the thing that actually worries me about this new show. I really like Kermit and Miss Piggy and Fozzie and the old gang. They're great. But it feels weird to make an announcement saying "This is not your grandmother's Muppets" and then have a show consisting entirely of characters from forty years ago. Plus Walter.
Agreed! (And I have those Muppet/Star Wars toys too, so...we're nerds.) You may recall Muppets Tonight, the last attempt at a Muppet primetime series (well, I know you do; everyone else may not), and while that failed in the ratings, one of the really smart things they did with it was focusing mostly on new and minor characters, rather than having us spend the whole time thinking "Oh, Kermit's voice doesn't sound right." It was reminiscent of The Muppet Show but still felt like its own thing.
And one advantage of throwing a bunch of new characters out there is that they had a chance to add some to the recurring roster. As it happens, I think only Pepe really stuck, which is a shame because I thought Sal the Gorilla had star power. However, I am aware that we are not technically here to talk about what worked and didn't work with Muppets Tonight.
I fucking hated Sal. But it did lead to a Rizzo revival, so no complaints. Anyway, as irrational as it is, I think that because the Muppets are real-life, three-dimensional objects, we tend to see them as real people -- er, frogs, pigs, bears, etc. So when they change hands (see what I did there?) it's not like a new actor playing James Bond or the replacement cast of a Broadway show or even a new voice actor on a cartoon. It's weirdly unsettling. Like what's the matter with Rowlf?? So they're trying to hook our nostalgia at the same time they're totally destroying it. It really would be smarter just to do something brand-new, wouldn't it?
Well, as I understand it, the "brand-new" aspect is supposed to be the format. It's going to be an Office-style mockumentary, and I feel obligated to point out that The Office premiered ten years ago. In the U.S. Parks & Recreation is gone. It's not so much a hot take on a really common way of doing sitcoms as "the way that Modern Family works" at this point. Gonzo makes fun of the whole idea in the trailer, and I think I agree with him. I feel like when Gonzo is the voice of reason, something's weird somewhere.
Well, it's not like vaudeville was exactly current when The Muppet Show was parodying that. But they do call it "edgy" in the trailer, which seems problematic. Let's pause here to let readers who haven't seen it watch the trailer (and for the record, it's not clear to me if any of this is from the actual show, or if this was just thrown together for Upfronts).
I have to admit, two jokes made me laugh out loud: the bear shitting in the woods because it's cheap in just the right way, and Piggy and Gonzo doing Love Letters in some obscure theatre because it's knowing in just the right way.
I like the idea of Piggy and Gonzo doing regional theatre. That seems like it coheres with the characters as seen on the old show. But I have trouble squaring that with Piggy not knowing anyone's name. She's always been egotistical and a diva (note to children: you literally would not believe the quantity of Miss Piggy merchandise that was on sale at one point) but not to the point of not knowing who people were. Especially Gonzo, who used to basically be a Miss Piggy Stalker.
Yeah, there's something off here in general. Rowlf, who was in many ways the heart of the old show -- and the stand-in for Henson, even more than Kermit -- seems to have morphed into Brian from Family Guy. Which is not to say that the cone joke isn't funny -- after all, Rowlf once talked about how his nightly routine included "taking himself for a walk" -- but it's just off.
Yeah, that's the thing that keeps stopping me. There are legitimate jokes in there. There are things I really do find funny, mixed in with my impotent rage that now Kermit is some kind of porcine fetishist. The entire dynamic is supposed to be that Piggy pursues Kermit, dang it!
Henson and the original team always knew where the line was. Now, granted, times have changed and the line has moved. But the beauty of a joke about Kermit and Piggy one day getting married and having "bouncing baby figs" is that it's a little bit of wordplay that is over quickly and if anything, gives you an image of dried fruit. If you actually take it to the extreme that they took it to in Muppets Most Wanted...
...you have The Island of Dr. Moreau. So, yeah, maybe less with Kermit having a "type." And if -- IF -- you're going to go there, for god's sake, really go there and make the bear jokes gay.
It's not like the Henson Company shies away from modern comedy. They had that Puppet Up! show (very briefly) where they combined Muppets and improv into something that wasn't quite a living nightmare. And they're behind No, YOU Shut Up!, the Paul F. Tompkins fake news talk show on some channel that may not actually exist. So it's weird that they're regressing to the original show so hard, while bragging about how much grandmothers will hate it.
Well, the problem I think is that (a) neither of those shows are technically Muppet properties, and this isn't technically a Henson property (thanks, copyright!), and (b) Muppets are what sell major network TV shows. It's all about the brand. But then I guess the question is why reinvent it? Why not do something more kid-friendly, or more straight up nostalgic? Since it seems like everyone is kind of mad.
Do we know yet what kind of show the Muppets in the show are trying to put on? I'm just assuming that (like in about half the movies) they're trying to reunite the group so they can put on a vaudeville show. Which is a plot we've seen before, but kind of impresses me. I love the idea of a vaudeville impresario putting on the same show for decades and repeatedly having to drag people back. It's like Sisyphus.
We do! And I'm glad you asked because I'm determined to end this on a vaguely hopeful note, and here's where mine is. In that same interview with the unfortunate grandmother quote, they say it's going to be about a late-night show. I don't especially care about late-night shows specifically, but I'm on record in my belief that the backstage parts of The Muppet Show are the best parts, so I'm glad that this will be about show business and not just The Real Housepigs or whatever. It will also let celebrities come in and be weird, which was often the second best part of both The Muppet Show and Muppets Tonight.
I would also like to end this on a note of optimism, so I will say this: that trailer found the absolute best way to employ Walter, the new Muppet. Specifically, he stands there and has absolutely zero lines. If he goes several episodes without ever speaking, I promise to find that the funniest thing in the world.