For their first prime time TV show in many years, the Muppets have gone back to their roots. Indeed, the premise of new ABC sitcom The Muppets is essentially the same as Jim Henson’s original classic The Muppet Show, after just a few adjustments and modernisations.
Whereas The Muppet Show cast Kermit into the haywire happenings behind the scenes of a live, theatrical variety revue, their new, similarly chaotic project is a late night chat show, Up Late With Miss Piggy. Character roles have translated pretty smoothly, with everybody’s new position on the TV show matching their old Muppet Theater jobs pretty well.
Fozzie Bear is now Piggy’s announcer and warm up act, for example, while Scooter is still tasked with all the floor-management and gophering. Piggy’s house band, as fans would surely expect, are The Electric Mayhem.
Even when the roles are different, they play out in similar ways. To whit, Gonzo’s new duties as one of Up Late’s writers, which gives him another platform from which to pitch his wacked-out ideas. So far, no chickens, but he does kick-start a subplot amongst the rats that gives the episode some nice little moments.
The most obvious differences are aesthetic, with The Muppets looking something like The Office. It might have been better off aping The Larry Sanders Show even more closely, taking up that show’s suitably loose and improvisational camerawork for the desired sense of voyeurism, but without the silliness of aggressive zoom-abuse.
The core drama – at least as established in Pig Girls Don’t Cry, the first half-hour episode – once again revolves around the romantic strife between Kermit and Miss Piggy. This is obvious right away, from the very short pre-title scene, but it’s also where the show finds the most depth and resonance as the narrative unfolds.
Piggy could well be a tricky character to get right, with a tough, guarded exterior that hides a far more complex interior. A couple of very important, effective decisions as to how she’s been presented in this episode left me optimistic that, while things are fairly simple right now, her character will be properly elucidated as the series goes on.
The most crucial of these was the pay-off to the episode’s core plot, which sees Piggy veto one of the show’s special guests, a celebrity that Kermit has booked for her to interview. After some initial wobbling, the frog goes ahead and puts this guest on the schedule anyway. Piggy’s reason for not wanting to see this particular individual is neither vain, nor superficial, though you might consider it a touch sentimental. Nonetheless, it re-establishes very firmly the truth of her feelings for Kermit.
Not to say that Piggy is no longer brusque. She’s still one to stomp on toes as she rushes indignantly about, and her comments on Kermit’s physique are guaranteed to resonate through oncoming episodes. The notion that this agelessly handsome frog could be concerned about his pot belly is one thing, but then there’s his overall attitude to food, as alluded to throughout the episode, and prospectively a subject for some very relatable, maybe even poignant, scenes to come.
As for Kermit’s feelings for Piggy, they’re being obscured somewhat by his fledgling romance with Denise. Denise also works on the show, in marketing for the ABC network. She’s also a Muppet… and a pig. She’s younger than Piggy, and seemingly more ‘classically tasteful’ too. From what we’ve seen so far, she seems to really like Kermit, but I don’t know how she could ever gain enough affection from audiences that they’ll ever root for any outcome that isn’t a Kermit-Piggy reunion.
The other Muppet with a new romance is Fozzie, who is dating Becky, a human who looks an awful lot like Riki Lindhome. This B-plot sees Fozzie subject to some hurtful prejudice and numerous discriminations against his nature, all delivered with privileged, middle-class ease. “What if you had children?” asks Becky’s father, “How would you raise them? Where would they go to the bathroom? In the woods?”
We’ve never seen ongoing soap-ish plotlines with the Muppets before, but the characters lend themselves perfectly to such a format. Not only are they all clearly writ personalities, loaded with latent conflicts that are ready to go off in all manner of directions depending on how they’re combined, the Muppets are also far more than relatable enough to allow for all sorts of quiet, interior anxieties and emotional story arcs.
As we’ve come to expect from the Muppets, there’s absolutely no doubting the production value and polish on show. The FX and other trickery is often most impressive because its effectively invisible. Scooter gets an especially slick stunt, ending in what might have been a totally opportunistic bit of sound work that totally seals the deal. There aren’t many shots that will show us below the Muppets’ waistlines, but this fits the overall look comfortably enough to not feel like a cop-out.
I would like to think fans that know the previous Muppet shows well-enough will also get a kick out of the various homages and call-backs squeezed in here and there. The title sequence is very obviously genre-specific, and feels bang-on trend, but manages to very sweetly echo The Muppet Show in both melody and a little bit of dialogue for Kermit.
Also like The Muppet Show, there are a number of famous faces popping up. Sadly these cameos haven’t been handled anything like smoothly enough in this first episode, and some bits of the dialogue have been contorted into stiff, expositional shapes, just to make sure we all know know who this ‘famous person’ is.
At least one such ‘flag’ line seems to have been bent into obsequiousness by network notes, and this is both a terrible shame and real disappointment, especially given how irreverently The Muppets have treated their human co-stars and guests in the past. Did this guest star really want to be buffed in this way?
I think that ABC could well be onto both a popular hit and a real, Muppets-worthy gem with this new format, something to polish up nicely as the episodes – hopefully many seasons of them – roll out.
The Muppets is often funny, occasionally really so, and even when it isn’t, it’s almost always engaging and likeable. All of they key cast play themselves to perfection, and once again demonstrate that they’re a comedy troupe without equal. Now it’s up to the team of writers and programme makers to lift their game to that level of excellence too.
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