Ever since Jim Henson first brought his rag-tag team to the television screen with The Muppet Show, the Muppets have become an endearing pop culture force. They worked their way into the hearts of audiences back in 1976, bringing with them a storm of bad jokes, self-aware humor, musical numbers, and celebrity appearances. More than that, they brought along a sense of fun and optimistic cheerfulness that proved to be irresistible. Since that TV show, the Muppets have starred in numerous films and TV specials with their signature brand of humor. Now, the results of these works varies in quality, but even the worst can’t dim the fun that comes with the Muppets. In fact, the 2011 film The Muppets was a great reminder of it, capturing their optimistic spirit while framing the Muppets against a cynical world. Now, the Muppets have made their return to television with their new series, which is also called The Muppets. Though it is still early and the result is a bit mixed, there is still a glimmer of that promise.
Done in a mockumentary style, the series follows the Muppets as they make and shoot a late-night talk show. Hosted by Miss Piggy, the show has Fozzie Bear as a warm-up comedian and Kermit the Frog as executive producer and showrunner. Even with the challenges of making a late-night talk show, things are particularly tense when it comes to Kermit and Miss Piggy. The two of them have broken up, with Miss Piggy being her usual stormy self while Kermit has the company of Denise, a pig who serves as Head of Marketing and his new girlfriend. As such, the tension mounts between Kermit and Miss Piggy as they try to work together, even with all the other headaches that come with making a talk show.
Now, the format of the show is done in the style of mockumentary, a format that has really taken a hold on television through the successes of shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation. Those are shows where part of the humor comes from a drier approach, from awkward pauses and tension built between characters. This is generally not a style used by the Muppets. Their work tends to be quicker paced, filled with jokes and punchlines and the sort of gags that hail from the days of vaudeville. It’s really a more old-fashioned style, one made to move fast and pull for laughs. Seeing the familiar characters utilized in this drier, more slow and modern approach feels…well, weird. I hesitate to say bad, because the writing is still sharp. There are also doses and dashes of the sort of fun but groan-worthy jokes that most people associate with the Muppets. It’s just…different. It could be that the format is simply one that requires a little adjustment to accepting. After all, the Muppets have generally had one specific style for the many years of their franchise. A major change like this will take some getting used to. However, a more direct issue that could use some better handling is in how it can use this format to its best advantage.
Honestly, the Muppets have always had an adult sensibility. There was a clever wit to their proceedings, one that can be enjoyed on both an adult level and on a kid level. True, this show does use more specifically adult jokes which might rub some groups the wrong way, but those jokes are solidly-done for the most part. Rather, how this series can achieve its tonal goal of being a more “adult” Muppet series is in really making the Muppets do more than just make us laugh. Rather, they can make us feel for them. Near the end of this first episode, we see a flashback to the break up between Miss Piggy and Kermit and the pain is palpable. Frustrations that have built up over the course of this franchise, finally at their breaking point. When the break up finally occurs, it is a quiet moment. When its impact finally sets in, Miss Piggy doesn’t showcase any of her histrionic bawling. It’s a simple, constrained cry, the sort that can come from a bad turn in fate. The moment is emotional, and one that allows us to feel and connect to a pig who’s most known for taking up the spotlight or eagerly feasting on meals. This is something that is truly more “adult”, not simply jokes that relate to adult subjects like drugs or sex. This is allowing us to peel back away from more than the jokes and letting see the all-too-familiar emotions that lay in us all. That is what can make this a truly more “adult” Muppet series, by showing us the pathos behind the Muppets while still delivering on the fine humor and optimistic spirit that comes with them.
Now, the show just premiered on ABC, so there is still plenty of time to see if The Muppets can live up to its potential. If it can, then it will make for a strong and fascinating addition to the Muppets franchise. Viwers can watch the show on ABC at 8 PM on Tuesdays, or catch up with Hulu if you don’t have cable. For the meantime, I recommend viewers give it five to six episodes to see if it reaches that glimmering of potential.