What’s Wrong with ‘The Muppets’?

Muppets01

Originally posted on Reel World Theology.

“It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to raise the curtain on The Muppet Show tonight!”

When I heard that the Muppets were returning to TV, I was elated. Being a fan from way back, I adore the Muppets and their brand of lovable, good-natured mayhem. The original Muppet Show is still a joy to watch. The films are great – some more than others, of course. And the 2011 film welcoming Kermit and the gang back to the big screen was a clear return to form and purpose for these characters.

Moreover, I have always loved these characters because of what they represented: free-wheeling imagination coupled with innocent, satirical humor. Like most successful geniuses in entertainment, Jim Henson had a definite talent of making outside-the-box ideas palatable by peppering them with familiar tropes and cultural staples. Even the pitch reel for The Muppet Show (performed by Henson himself) reflected this seemingly chaotic blend to great effect:

The Muppet Show was indeed the penultimate Muppet experience – a musical variety show with hilarious behind-the-scenes interstitials that was always on the verge of descending into anarchy, save for Kermit’s fretful herding.

But to my dismay, this new Muppet TV show is not Jim Henson’s Muppets. This is Disney trying very hard to make the Muppets be something they aren’t.

The Muppets, as the show is called, has very little of the good-natured, smart humor of its predecessor, and is a much more cynical take on the characters. While they’re not as hard as the Moopets (the dark doppelgangers introduced in the 2011 Muppets movie), it’s still a very jarring take on these characters I thought I knew so well.

The show is plagued by odd and sometimes disturbing character choices. In trying to make them more relatable and “relevant,” the showrunners gave the Muppets a lot of flaws and human traits they didn’t need.

Muppets09They have relationship issues. The entire hook for the TV show was the breakup between Kermit and Miss Piggy. Fozzie has a human girlfriend, and at one point contemplates moving in with her. Sam the Eagle has a crush on Janice. All these story points are counter to some of the longtime personality traits of these characters.

The celebrity hosts are played as terrible people, for the most part. It extends the stereotype that Hollywood celebrities are vain, aloof narcissists. The original Muppet Show gave the celebrity guest stars a platform to be at their best. I suppose this is a reflection of the current Kardashian-era of celebrity, in which everyone likes to see a train-wreck.

What’s probably the worst is that the show has these lovable, innocent characters participating in, or at least alluding to participating in, some no-so-innocent stuff. The Electric Mayhem is explicitly depicted as a bunch of stoners. Sexual innuendo is very blatant. In one episode, the Muppets even get drunk at a karaoke bar (that’s owned by Rowlf!).

All of this change in the TV show left me confused. The stewards of these characters made two films that really reflected the Muppets’ brand of humor, and served as a wonderful re-introduction to a new generation of audience without alienating the old. But the TV show shares very little with the films, in terms of both continuity and style, and treats the characters as darker versions of themselves.

Muppets03There are some good things about this show. The premise of the Muppets working on a late-night talk show is a logical, modern upgrade from The Muppet Show, which itself was patterned after the musical variety shows popular in the 1970s. Having Statler and Waldorf as hecklers in the TV audience is genius (and doubly so because Fozzie is supposed to be the audience warm-up guy). Even the aforementioned karaoke scene is funny in parts (Swedish Chef singing “Rapper’s Delight” is hilarious), and would probably be funnier in a better context than a bar.

This is an unfortunate byproduct of the Disney acquisition, which happened back in 2004. Don’t get me wrong; I’m actually glad the Muppets went to Disney. In fact, that’s where Jim Henson wanted them to go, and was making a deal with Disney before his tragic death in 1990. When the Muppets finally came to Disney, it seemed that no one really knew what to do with them. The first projects that came after the purchase fell flat with mainstream audiences and longtime fans. The 2011 Muppets film was a great reboot, and it made me hope that whoever was in charge of The Muppets Studio was someone who finally got it.

I really want this show to succeed. I want the Muppets to take their rightful place in the pantheon of modern entertainment, and bring a little more levity to an ever-increasing slate of cynical TV shows. The reports of a new showrunner taking The Muppets in a new direction is filling me with hope. So, I have humbly served up some helpful suggestions to this new crew:

Drop the heavy drama. This show doesn’t need drama to be interesting. Lose the romantic subplots, especially the human-Muppet ones. The whole gag about Kermit and Piggy’s relationship is that there never really was one. Kermit is amiable, and Piggy thinks he’s in love with her. There shouldn’t really be any romantic relationships between the characters anyway. Light, funny drama is still okay, like a subplot about a misunderstanding between a Muppet character and the guest star.

the-muppets-abc-e1443020316158Let the characters be themselves. The Muppets don’t need deep human flaws to be relatable. Scooter doesn’t need to be a neurotic fanboy with mommy issues. That’s depressing. Sam should be the overly-patriotic, stoic stick-in-the-mud he has always been, pointing out with contempt all the “weeeeeeeeirdos” he has to work with. It’s what makes him funny. And please, let’s not have the Muppets do things that are severely out of character, like going out to a bar and getting hammered.

No humans on the crew. The entire crew of Up Late with Miss Piggy should be Muppets. The humans are awkward the way they’re strewn amongst the characters. This would pave the way for more gag possibilities with the production of the show. Who wouldn’t love to see Crazy Harry working the lights or Beauregard manning a camera?

More clever humor. While pratfalls and slapstick humor have been a signature for the Muppets since the beginning, their wackiness is punctuated with somewhat sophisticated joke-telling, often breaking the fourth wall and letting the audience in on the joke. These jokes and gags give the comedy a bit more substance. The show does have them, but it needs more, and relying less on awkward double-entendres.

Muppets06Acknowledge the past. One of the reasons the 2011 Muppets film succeeded was because it respected and revered the history of the Muppets. One of this show’s most glaring flaws is that they think they can just reboot who these characters are and their history. It’s an insult to Jim Henson and his original Muppeteers. At the very least, there should be a giant picture of Henson somewhere on the set.

One guest star (maybe two). The show should be as big a vehicle for the guest star as it is for the Muppets themselves. It should be an opportunity for the audience to get to know the guests’ core talents. Since it’s talk show, I can see the need for maybe one or two more. Leave the multiple cameos for the films, where they should be. And no train-wreck celebrities like the Kardashians. The Muppets are better than that.

Muppets04Keep the talk show format. It’s an interesting, modern twist that really works. However, I can take or leave the “mockumentary” format. It works it some ways, but in others it’s a bit of a burden. Why can’t it just be a multi-cam sitcom like Malcolm in the Middle? The omnipotent camera looking behind the scenes at the mayhem backstage, with the characters breaking the fourth wall every so often.

More musical numbers. Every episode – EVERY ONE – should have at least one big musical portion with the celebrity guest star. It’s a hallmark of the Muppets’ repertoire that is sorely lacking in this new show.

The Muppets can be a funny, relevant and entertaining show if the showrunners simply embrace what makes these characters endearing. They shouldn’t be trying to make the Muppets something they’re not. These characters are not cynical, manipulative working stiffs that complain about their vocation. They are enthusiastic performers that want to put on a good show, despite the chaos that inevitably comes.

Jim Henson left a huge legacy of wonderful and sincere entertainment. Just use it. When they do, it’s magic.

Writer’s Update: After viewing the latest episode of The Muppets from February 2, I can say that the new showrunners are on the right track.

The antagonist was a pompous hipster “image consultant” working for a clueless network executive. The consultant not only tried to make the Muppets into something they weren’t, but intentionally sabotaged them and took credit when they succeeded anyway. It was a very meta message about the new direction of the show.

They are definitely getting in touch and acknowledging the past. The plot of the entire episode centered on what has made the Muppets special. The impromptu performance of The Muppet Show theme was awesome. Getting the rest of the Muppet crew to be part of the show was great. And Key and Peele were hilarious without being cynical.

There is still a little innuendo and the relationship issues. However the Sam/Janice plot line appears to have been dropped.

It’s a promising start. Based upon the setup in that episode, most of the bad points I made above may be going away.

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