Since their first appearance in a dorm room in 1954, to their introduction on the silver screen in 1976, The Muppets have been a cultural phenomenon that have spanned generations. From vaudevillian physical comedy, to inspired variety performances, to moments of soft optimism amidst continually shifting popularity, they’ve been a staple of pop culture for almost half a century. Though their appearances have been few and far between in recent years, announcement of ABC’s network revival ‘The Muppets’ left fans with a twinkle of optimism.
So why the title on this review? Though we’ve been graced in recent years with the 2011 film (and its critically tolerated sequel Muppets Most Wanted), the promise of an edgy half hour fix was highly anticipated by adults who loved the original show. To parents and adults who grew up alongside Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the dozens of other felt-covered personalities, this would either be a nostalgic return to form in a modern world, or a way to introduce a new generation to Henson’s imagined cast. Though initial press release promised a far more adult hue to the program, there was no accounting for how poorly presented it would be.
Part of The Muppet’s original charm was the ability to entertain the whole family— with bold, physical humor for the kids, and with sly nods and elbow nudges towards the adults. The new show isn’t subtle: Zoot is outed as an alcoholic, Miss Piggy makes boob job jokes and flaunts a constant disdain of her own appearance, and Kermit openly stoops in his own personal hell. For parents, the anxiety of having to explain more jokes outweighs the joy of actually watching the show. For adults in general, it’s a bit like watching Mickey Mouse take off the costume head backstage and light up a Marlboro.
At the heart of ABC’s show is the constant airing of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s dirty laundry. Though the couple have always had a volatile relationship, their falling out is presented here with all the comfort of watching two divorcing parents fight. The show’s brief introduction to Kermit’s new girlfriend, Denise, is given all the depth of an episode of TMZ. Meanwhile, Miss Piggy’s provocative exploits are used to disgrace her, not empower her. When paired with his existentialist crisis and her body issues, we see two of the most recognizable Muppets at their most broken.
‘The Muppets’ seems to be aware of what it’s trying to spoof. The audience is made abundantly aware of Gonzo’s disdain for the meta interview format in which the show is filmed. The tabloid press coverage of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s breakup made up most of its early advertising. Even the backstage antics seem less inspired and more like contrived copies of old 30 Rock scripts.
However, among the uncomfortable existentialism of the premiere are genuine moments of comedy. The supporting cast shines with throwaway filler jokes and small interludes. When the cameras follow Fozzie the Bear to a dinner with the parents of his new girlfriend (played by Rikki Lindhome), a dragged out interracial relationship joke becomes one of the most original moments of comedy. Which, admittedly, isn’t saying much.
It’s possible that the show has created a platform of rock-bottom from which to emerge, clinging on to the pitfalls of modern television as a means of capturing our attention. At the heart of The Muppets is a struggle for relevance in a constantly shifting culture. Jim Henson’s own optimism remained very much in the spirit of the franchise long after his death. Despite cancellations, production challenges, and constant adversity, The Muppets have always presented a message of hope to kids and adults.
We can only hope that same spirit will emerge in future episodes, somewhere amid Kermit’s “Bacon wrapped hell.”