Yeah I know, we’ve been here before. This isn’t the first attempt at putting out Jim Henson’s fuzzy creations on a prime time slot in a world where questions hang over their relevance. The success of the new movies have helped, but the prospect of The Muppets returning to that old, classic formula is both exciting and daunting. It was tried in the late nineties with Muppets Tonight, a show that did both too much and too little to change the blueprint of the show.
Muppets Tonight needed some fresh characters so adding Clifford to the main cast was a great idea, but having him host wasn’t. It was too big a burden to put on a newbie’s shoulders. Recreating the vibe of the original by telling the story of how the show comes together is part of The Muppets DNA, but to still centre the show around the celebrity guest is missing the point. By now, the stars of any Muppets vehicles are supposed to be The Muppets.
Fortunately, the new 2015 revival is done smart. They have just enough new ideas to give the show its own identity, and keep just enough of the old style to still be considered canon. This time around, the show the Muppets are playing the music and lighting the lights to is Up Late With Miss Piggy. A talk show headed by the legendary Porcine, with Kermit as producer, Fozzy as her warm up, Electric Mayhem as the house band and Scooter as talent manger. You still get to see a funny show, but where the real laughs come from is how the show is falling apart around them. Just like old times.
Mostly though, what sets The Muppets apart, is the very thing that Muppets Tonight lacked. Confidence. That show buckled under the pressure of keeping the Muppet Legacy alive while simultaneously keeping it relevant for a nineties audience. This one knows what to do and how to do it. It tackles the 21st century head first and finds its place in contemporary comedy.
The time is right for it. While the nineties demanded attitude and edginess, the 2000’s is more open to whimsy and wacky. After all, the comedy writers of today grew up watching the antics of Jim Henson’s furry freinds and you can clearly feel their influence they’ve had in today’s scene. It’s no small wonder then why this new show seems so much like 30 Rock meets The American Office.
One of the ways it does this is by ditching the younger audience. I wouldn’t even say that this new series is for families. It is for intelligent, switched on adults. The kinds that have jobs, apartments and read Harry Potter on their way to work; or the kind that would take selfies of themselves lined up to see Star Wars Secret Cinema in full costume and post the photos on their Linkedin profiles.
The humour simply goes too close to the knuckle for young children. By now you would have heard that Piggy and Kermit have broken up. But what you might not have heard is that Fozzy is dating a human woman. One whose father is none too pleased at this interspecies mingling. The allegory towards racism hits too many close-to-the-bone notes and would be too harsh an introduction to the subject for children. This is the deepest subject matter in the show but throughout there is so much humour that would go over the heads of children, you wonder if there is any left for them to laugh at. The show still exhibits that innocent style of old vaudeville humour and well worn jokes – the kind where you know how bad they are but that’s part of the fun – but they realise that it isn’t enough. Not anymore.
The other aspect of the show that proves it isn’t for kids (with one eye on their iPhones and one eye on their tablets, occasionally overhearing what the TV has to say), is the greater emphasis on plot. Back in the day, Muppet stories were loosely tied together and served more as sketch shows than sitcoms, almost like how Family Guy is today. But in 2015 The Muppets has a narrative that demands your attention. You know I said that some of Fozzy’s scenes cut too close to the bone? Ditto for Kermit and Piggy, whose relationship you realise would be impossible to maintain for two such disparate personalities. The Muppets have always been about heart, but this is the first time they have set about breaking them, let alone dissecting them to see what makes them tick.
That’s why The Muppets have made a such a bold move by adding in all of these extra layers. The boom in TV quality of the last fifteen years has taught us that people will hang around for a good story well told. And why can’t The Muppets try to tell an edgy and contemporary story? We live in an age where Captain America is discussing race in the comics, where videogames are making people cry and where Stephen Universe is considered a modern classic in inventive storytelling. Why not open our minds and let The Muppets surprise us too?
4 / 5
Dir: Randall Einhorn
Scr: Bob Kushell, Bill Prady
Starring: Dave Goelz, Eric Jacobson, Steve Whitmire
Prd: Kris Eber, Margee Magee, Emily Wilson
DOP: Craig Kief
Music: Ed Mitchell, Steve Morrell
Episode run time (14 episodes): 21 mins