After appearing on television and in movies for over 40 years, The Muppets are certified icons. Catching their first big break with The Muppet Show in the 1970s, what followed was a career filled with hit movie after hit movie. Then came the untimely death of the man who made them stars — Jim Henson — after which The Muppets couldn’t recover and stumbled with their next few films. It wouldn’t be until 2011 when The Muppets – along with Jason Segel – would reunite to great success, beginning a strong comeback at their new home, Walt Disney Studios.
As you cans see, it’s quite easy to recount the career of Henson’s creations as if they were living, breathing performers and not made of foam and felt — it’s how these characters have been portrayed in the media for years. That wasn’t a part of their shtick initially, however, but treating The Muppets as actual individuals caught on the more popular and prevalent the characters became. And given how Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and the rest have surpassed in prominence any puppeteer who’s ever operated them (excluding only Henson and perhaps Frank Oz), it should come as no surprise that The Muppets would eventually star in their own reality show.
ABC’s The Muppets aims to lampoon reality television in much the same way as The Office or Modern Family, featuring a mockumentary style spliced with talking head interview footage. For the most part, this approach works and it allows for the comedy to come of not only what’s happening from scene to scene, but also straight out of The Muppets’ mouths, with clever commentary spoken directly to camera. There’s a particularly self-referential use of the talking head gimmick early on in the premiere (that was also featured heavily in trailers) and it’s a good example of how The Muppets is a more overt parody than previous mockumentary shows.
The Muppets is also spoofing late night talk/variety/comedy shows, but more specifically the shows that focused on the behind-the-scenes happenings of said programs. It’s similar to 30 Rock or Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in that sense (which is funny seeing as there’s a good bit of ‘walk and talk’ used, something of a feat when you remember they’re puppets). In this case, The Muppets all work for a late night program hosted by Miss Piggy — Up Late with Miss Piggy — where Kermit is the beleaguered executive producer, Fozzie is Piggy’s Ed McMahon or Andy Richter, Gonzo is the head writer, Scooter is the talent booking agent, Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem are the house band, and so on.
The distinct personalities of each Muppet fits their backstage roles extremely well, which only adds to the believability that this is what it’s like for The Muppets when the cameras are off. Though this aspect isn’t exactly new territory. On The Muppet Show, Kermit was the hapless straight man in charge of the wild bunch, Miss Piggy the diva, Scooter the stage manager, etc. And where ABC’s The Muppets works best is when it’s playing to those old habits. For example, grumpy old hecklers, Statler and Waldorf appear just as they have countless times before and even though (but more likely because) nothing about their act has changed, they’re a highlight of the episode.
Another Muppet staple are the star-studded cameos and ABC’s The Muppets makes good use of them, allowing their guest stars to poke fun at themselves as well as the characters of the show. Already in the premiere, Elizabeth Banks, fitness trainer Tracy Anderson, and Tom Bergeron made appearances playing themselves — Banks as Up Late‘s guest, Anderson as Piggy’s trainer, and Bergeron as their back-up guest after Piggy refuses Banks due to a past feud. The cameos are funny and presented well within the format of the show, with Banks getting a hilarious scene opposite Scooter and Bergeron, in what is likely the funniest beat in the episode.
Yet, the largest selling point behind this new, more “adult” spin on The Muppets is the stronger focus on the behind-the-scenes drama, especially the fallout surrounding Miss Piggy and Kermit’s very public break-up. And while this development makes sense narratively and adds necessary tension, it also forces us to think too deeply about Miss Piggy and Kermit’s relationship. It is more than their creators ever did, that’s for sure, because the Piggy/Kermit relationship has never really been explored in any thoughtful manner in the past.
Bringing that relationship to the forefront as the series’ central focus could prove tricky. After all, why were Piggy and Kermit together in the first place? (Beyond that’s how they were written.) What do they see in each other? What do they like about each other? And most importantly, will ABC’s The Muppets gives us a reason why we should root for them to be together other than ‘just because’? If it doesn’t, then what’s the point of tuning in once a week for a show’s that’s predominantly concerned with the drama surrounding Piggy and Kermit’s rocky relationship? It’s a frighteningly deep rabbit hole of questions once we begin examining it too closely, one that ABC could find itself lost down sooner rather than later.
ABC’s The Muppets works best when it lets The Muppets be as weird and wacky as we’ve come to know and love them. But the show suffers whenever it focuses too closely on personal drama, painting them as jaded versions of themselves, devoid of the optimism and joy that permeated every fiber of 2011’s The Muppets. Still, when The Muppets goes for the jokes over the sensationalized drama, it’s a riot, so here’s hoping they lean more heavily on the comedy as the season progresses.
The Muppets airs Tuesdays at 8pm on ABC.