There are some franchises that stand the test of time. Superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, get rebooted and recreated over and over again. Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse’s crew are technically the same characters over time, but the art styles and personalities shift by the generation and evolve, for better or worse. The Muppets, on the other hand, are always meant to be the same. They’re the same characters from the 70s with the same designs and dynamics. It’s not about rebooting the brand, but finding new settings for them.
The Muppets have persevered in different concepts, like hosting a meta variety show, starring in various movies, doing one hell of a Christmas special, having their own dated 4D Disney World show, and being reimagined as cartoon babies. Disney has been trying to figure out how to make them relevant in modern times, which led to a nostalgia-fueled comeback movie and a lesser follow-up.
Then came an attempt at a sitcom that mixed the mockumentary style of the Office and Parks and Recreation with the comedic show-about-a-show style of 30 Rock. The Muppets, which lasted one 16-episode season, had its growing pains, but by the time it was figuring itself out, the creative team was replaced. By the time THAT creative team was hitting its stride, it was cancelled. In the end, I felt the show hit more than it missed, even if it took a few episodes to start working.
I hope the same could be said about Muppets Now, the new series on Disney+ that once again tries to put these timeless icons in a setup that keeps them relevant. At its very base, it’s trying to be like the Muppet Show. This is another series about the Muppets chaotically putting on a show that features celebrity guests. Though, to differentiate itself from the other Muppet vehicles, there are two gimmicks.
For one, the format is more of a web-based variety show. It’s like if various Muppets have their own unrelated YouTube shows and the only thing holding it together is a framing device based on Scooter trying to get it all uploaded as a single entity. Miss Piggy has a fashion/makeup advice show, which brings back the sitcom’s brilliant idea of making Uncle Deadly her personal assistant. Walter hosts a segment about how some Muppets have special talents the viewers don’t know about. Swedish Chef is a contestant in a cook-off against a celebrity chef. Then there’s Kermit the Frog’s celebrity interview segment.
The other gimmick is that parts of the show are supposedly unscripted. When this was announced way back when, I imagined something akin of Whose Line is it Anyway? with Muppets. If funny, it would come off as impressive. From watching this, it comes off as the Muppets being scripted (or at least having a lot of direction) while it’s the celebrities who have to improvise off them. If that’s the case, then hoo boy, this does not work.
This first episode features four celebrities. Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini appear in Piggy’s segment and only Diggs appears to have anything to work with, as brief as it is. Carlina Will competes against Swedish Chef and is…just there, adding nothing as the host Beverly Plume (a talking turkey) is already the straight character of the bit. Then there’s RuPaul as the guest of Kermit’s interview segment. RuPaul’s unscripted performance is little more than rolling with the punches while the Muppets do their schtick. It’s fine, but nothing memorable.
The whole experiment reminds me of that Simpsons bit where Troy McClure hosts an educational video and backs up his information by saying, “Just ask this scientist!” and we see a random scientist say, “Uhhhh…” before it cuts to something else. So far, the celebrities and their unscripted nature are forgettable and useless.
Oddly enough, it’s Walter’s segment – the one that is completely devoid of celebrity guests – that acts as the highlight. First off, it’s great seeing Walter show up again and not be doomed to obscurity after Muppets Most Wanted left theaters. In this segment, he, Kermit, and Sam Eagle play off of each other perfectly and it gets silly enough to get a couple laughs out of me (especially when Kermit makes a fun reference to a certain Kermit meme). Having Piggy and Uncle Deadly show up at the end also helps make the episode feel slightly more connected.
The bottom of the barrel is “Okey Dokey Kookin’,” the Swedish Chef segment. Imagine your average Swedish Chef bit. Now add two characters talking over it for the sake of having something normal to contrast with, as if we already didn’t get that Swedish Chef’s behavior is completely weird. Also, make Swedish Chef kind of an asshole. Then have the bit go on for far too long. It’s really rough and there’s at least three more installments on the horizon.
What’s harsh in all of this is that the season of six episodes was filmed over the course of several days. There will be no real-time tinkering, so the only hope is that they’ve been saving their A material for later episodes or they’ve been learning some of their mistakes while in the editing chair.
If not, it’s back to the drawing board yet again for the Henson crew.