Disney owns several fan-favorite pop culture properties and have found a great deal of success with many of them. Their Marvel and Star Wars films continuously break the bank, and the Mouse House remains a powerhouse in the realm of animation. That said, nobody is perfect, and even the great Disney can have a misfire or two. After bringing back Jim Henson’s lovable Muppets with a well-received movie in 2011, a path was paved for Kermit and the gang to return to their original home on the small screen. However, things didn’t go as planned.
With an approach akin to The Office (as opposed to the variety show format of the old Muppet Show), ABC’s The Muppets attempted to put a more adult spin on the brand, which didn’t sit well with viewers. The series received lukewarm reviews and struggled in the ratings, a combination that led to its cancelation after a single season. Usually, Muppets are a sure bet, so many wondered what went wrong with this take. Franchise veteran Frank Oz thinks he knows why The Muppets failed.
In an interview with Variety (hat tip CBR) at the SXSW festival, Oz explained his feelings on the character portrayals, believing they were a betrayal of what was established by Henson many years ago:
“I felt the show wasn’t true to the characters. There was a purity in each character that was vital. I felt that purity was being moved around to areas that didn’t feel right.”
Oz, who was the longtime performer for Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and others, knows better than most what makes The Muppets work, so it’s safe to trust his judgment. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from, as ABC’s series eschewed the typical wholesome family entertainment the brand was known for in favor of more “mature” topics like relationship drama and drug use. The result was something that tried too hard to be “edgy” for the sake of it, and people like Oz (who only watched the first 15 minutes of the pilot) jumped ship early. ABC tried to save the show by changing showrunners halfway through, but it was to no avail.
In addition to the themes, Oz also criticized the approach of The Muppets, which was different from the property’s heyday in regards to how closely it stuck to a set script:
“My brothers, my sisters, were in there [as the puppeteers]. They did the very best they could. But essentially, they were working with scripts that other people wrote. They had to do it the way it was. If it was given more air and they trusted the performers, as we had air, it would have come alive more. Those abilities, to riff and be smart enough, weren’t appreciated.”
The original Muppet team, consisting of Henson, Oz, Richard Hunt, and others, had fantastic chemistry and were able to play off each other with ease. Those conditions could be difficult to replicate, but the current crew (including Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson) have been playing their characters for a while and probably have a good feel for one another. Part of the Muppets’ appeal is the crazed mayhem, an aspect the most recent show was lacking in. Some of the funniest moments in the old episodes were on-the-spot improvs that injected some life and humanity into the proceedings, endearing Kermit, Gonzo, and the rest to millions of adoring fans. If Disney is to ever bring The Muppets back again, hopefully they’ve learned some lessons and stay more true to what made it an all-time classic.