Without seeing last week’s premiere episode of The Muppets, the group One Million Moms had called for a boycott. “The mature version of The Muppets will cover a range of topics from sex to drugs,” they said, noting that “Miss Piggy came out as a pro-choice feminist during an MSNBC interview. The puppet characters loved by kids in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond are now weighing in on interspecies relationships and promiscuity.”
Well… I’ve only seen two more episodes than the big fat zero seen by the group, so I don’t really know how much accidental truth there will eventually be in their gong-banging guesses, but it’s a matter of record that Piggy is definitely pro-choice and the show does have some points to make about interspecies relationships, by way of attacking bigotry. Not that I don’t know what’s wrong with either of those things at all. Indeed, it’s exactly what I’d expect – and in fact, it’s absolutely what I want from the Muppets.
So yes: sex and drugs are in the show’s sphere of reference now, if only remotely and tangentially. I don’t think any parent will find themselves forced into “explaining” anything about either topic to their children as a result of watching this show (not that this would necessarily be a bad thing, anyway). Sex was certainly part of The Muppet Show’s awareness too, with a lot of determined flirting going on, and while I can’t recall any references to drugs of any kind, I’d believe you instantly if you told me that you could. Existing in a universe where recreational drugs exist, as it’s very lightly, loosely implied The Muppets now do, is not at all the same as endorsing drug abuse.
It’s not just easy-target reactionary protest groups who are up in arms at the new show. Grantland’s review, to choose just one of the more overly critical pieces, says that the series “gets everything wrong about the Muppets.”
The same piece goes on to imply fidelity to the original characterisations, never more precisely than when saying “basically, The Muppets gives us Miss Piggy as [30 Rock’s] Jenna Maroney, which is weird because Jenna Maroney was basically Jane Krakowski doing Miss Piggy.”
At worst they’re saying that this is a close copy of a close copy of the original, certainly not that it’s a complete inversion, revision or cancellation of Piggy’s characteristics. Even if it were, this would hardly be “getting everything wrong.” The truth is, the show’s new context is close enough to 30 Rock that Maroney might come easily to mind, but only really because of the trappings of the setting, those most surface elements, and not its core. That and the fact, of course, that looking at an original once more may conjure up memories of its clones.
In that review and many more like it, what critics actually seem to be complaining about, I’m afraid, is that The Muppets takes place in a modern world. The difference between The Muppet Theatre and the studio where Up Late With Miss Piggy (the talk show that the new Muppets TV program is set around) is produced should be measured in years, not ideology. This TV studio is simply contemporary, or at least pseudo-contemporary, while the theatre was already steeped in nostalgia by the time The Muppet Show hit the air. This is at worst inconsequential, at best a positive thing, a way to enforce the connection between the Muppets’ values and the here and now, removing the frosted-glass of sentimental remembrance. Why should The Muppets be relegated to a hazy fantasyland of yesteryear when we actually need them and what they mean right here with us in the present day?
Despite this basic recontextualisation, you see, the Muppets are very much still The Muppets.
Take Piggy, for example, who is as demanding, self-centred and prone to explosive rage as she ever was. There’s always been a risk that, with bad writing, Piggy might come over more like Shakespeare’s Shrew than Henson and Oz’s pig, and some scenes of The Muppets – when taken strictly in isolation – have walked too close to this line. Way, way too close, perhaps, though never fully crossing it; small errors and missteps have been made, not calamitous swerves off the cliffside.
In the second episode, “Hostile Makeover,” Piggy is on the rampage. The catalyst for her frustrations are the lack of a date for the People’s Choice Awards. Is this because Piggy thinks she needs a fella for legitimacy? No. Definitely not, and this becomes a decisive point by the end of the episode. Piggy then takes this late-revealed, more obviously positive part of her personality and refracts it through a prism of narcissism. Of course she does. That’s her way. It’s always been her way.
There are more celebrity cameos in the second episode, and they’re handled much more appropriately and nimbly than in the first. Chief amongst these is Josh Groban who gets painted as every bit as vain and superficial as Piggy at her worst, if more quietly so, and without the same depth or the arguably-redemptive side that Piggy shows towards the closing moments.
There’s a common misconception that Kermit has always been a simple-minded Polyanna, a ball of optimism untainted by anxiety. This is not at all accurate and the engine that drove The Muppet Show ran on Kermit’s nervous energy. Piggy has been causing him personal and professional stress since they first shared the screen. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen him lose his temper, hold his head in his hands or convolute a scheme to manipulate a way to just get through the day intact.
Perhaps what’s missing from the latest The Muppets is the moment where Kermit and Piggy kiss and make-up, but this is simply structural: The Muppet Show and the various Muppet movies would hit a reset button after the end credits, allowing for similar character arcs to play out again in the next installment, but The Muppets is serialized, and so the dynamic between Pig and Frog must play out over more cycles, at a very different pace. This is Muppet soap, and Kermit and Piggy need to keep their (undying) love buried largely submerged for the format to work.
Crucially, Kermit is still moral and when he stops to think about what he’s doing, he’ll always make the right call. Not giving him the time to stop and think is part of what The Muppets must do to create some kind of narrative for Kermit, rather than let the show’s protagonist wheel along unhindered on a bumpless road.
45 minutes into what could be an 10-hour season seems far too early to jump to any conclusions about how Kermit and Piggy will be characterised overall, and how their separation story will finally play out. There’s plenty of time yet for the show to fine tune this relationship to perfection… or to wander so far off the path that things really do go wrong. For now, though, it seems to be setting itself up for eventual success.
Indeed, judging from how much funnier episode 2 is than episode 1 – it’s noticeably more chucklesome, I think – then I’d say The Muppets are well and truly on the up.