Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pilot Review: The Muppets

The Muppets (Tuesdays at 8:00 on ABC)

I have to admit that I've never truly understood the Muppet craze. I grew up with them, like seemingly everyone else aged 2-70; I had a Kermit bedside lamp and a stuffed Fozzie. But I have never held them in such reverential esteem as many millions of others have and do. So I was not surprised to find myself merely bearing with this latest incarnation of the Henson puppets and their adventures. Diehards may find more to love in this more grown-up version of their favorite felt friends, but only casual fans and those young enough to be tuning into their antics for the first time will likely have to find comedic fulfillment elsewhere.

Back in May, ABC head Paul Lee announced The Muppets as a more "adult" version of the 1970s variety show send-up, The Muppet Show. And that it is. There is no crazy backstage chaos this time around (though special guest stars are replete, from Elizabeth Banks to Josh Groban to Laurence Fishburne to Tom Bergeron) as the gang bands together to produce a new late-night talk show: Up Late with Miss Piggy. Kermit and Piggy are no longer a couple, as we all know from the mid-summer press blitz advertising such, but he still serves as the show's producer; Gonzo works to pitch new show ideas; Fozzie is dating a human (Garfunkel & Oates' Riki Lindhome); Bunsen and Beaker are doing their usual shtick. All the major players are here, and then some, and the attempt is made to force most of these characters into more contemporary situations. Sometimes it works (Piggy is as much fun as ever in her diva role as the show's star host), and sometimes it does not (Kermit is rather mopey and off-putting as he goes through a mid-life crisis of sorts).

The update in format, from a send-up of popular 1970s variety shows to a send-up of popular mockumentary shows like The Office, works well. Putting the Muppets in a new setting has almost always worked in favor of the stories and characters. Just look at the filmography: Muppets Treasure Island, Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppets from Space... nearly all have a new place for the merry moppets to explore. So transplanting them in both time and place to a new kind of show is probably creator Bill Prady's (The Big Bang Theory) best idea. Unfortunately, trying to reinvent the kind of comedy the Muppets do doesn't work quite as well.

It's not surprising that television wants to try another Muppets television show. Two new films have been released in the past four years, and both did well with critics and at the box office. There is still an appetite for The Muppets. But those who turned out for those last two films, both of which were throwbacks to the gentle 80s and 90s Muppet films, will not find the same kind of humor here. That could have been a good thing; after all, everyone and everything needs to change somewhat to stay relevant. But does that really apply to a group of felt anthropomorphic animals? Do audiences really want to see characters that look and sound the same as ones so beloved from their childhood, or do they just want that jolt of fun and nostalgia? The resulting pilot of The Muppets would suggest the latter, and that's coming from someone who is admittedly blase about them to begin with.

There are moments of the former Muppets fun here, such as when Bunsen tasers Beaker to begin a meeting or in Gonzo's aforementioned pitch session. But the rest of the time, it feels like characters are acting totally, well... out of character. An attempt is made to bring modern sensibilities, such as gender and sexual expression, into the mix, and while I can appreciate and even condone some of that comedy ("Gender is fluid!" Pepe exclaims at one point, which made me smile a whole lot), the rest feels very much out of place. The most glaring example is one that is already present in some of the new commercials when Kermit says to the camera, "What can I say? I'm attracted to pigs." Then we cut to his new girlfriend, Denise, sucking on a straw. The line is fine for children, and fine for adults who will catch the tame double-entendre, but the visual pun of the straw is a bit too much. The subplot of interspecies dating also feels both timely, what with the recent passing of marriage equality, and a bit disturbing, as many opponents of same-sex marriage use bestiality and such ridiculous claims to back their arguments (I'm not saying those people will use The Muppets to support their stance that such relationships are acceptable, it just feels a little icky to take such an absurd concept and try to make it serious).

There doesn't need to be political commentary. There doesn't need to be snark. The Muppets are good, old-fashioned, fun, family-friendly characters. They fill children of all ages with a sense of wonder and happiness... neither of which we get from a depressing Kermit reflecting on the poor choices he's made. Some things don't need to be updated, and The Muppets proves that this particular band of puppets is one of them.

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