It has been an up and down three years for the Muppets franchise. When they came back to the zeitgeist in 2011’s The Muppets, it looked like Kermit and crew were back. The film took advantage of audience nostalgia in order to earn its praise but it worked, dammit! The sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, appeared to aim for the heights of being The Great Muppet Caper by being a wrong-man adventure. Unfortunately, an impressive cast couldn’t save the lack of a human character and financial success, which halted production on a possible third film.
Now The Muppets are back where they started with a new TV show. However, instead of a variety show, they have adopted a “crazy, handheld, documentary style” with cutaways to one-on-one interviews that became en vogue with The Office, Parks and Recreation and ABC’s flagship comedy, Modern Family. In Gonzo’s own words, it’s a “totally overused device to make easy jokes,” but he was clearly overruled by the brass at ABC.
What’s interesting about this new The Muppets is that it wasn’t clear from the promos, most of which have Jim Henson’s creations interacting with leads from other ABC programs, what kind of show this actually is. The trailer makes it seem like The Muppets is about making a TV show, but there were hints that the series had a greater agenda by incorporating these “fabricated Americans” — to borrow a phrase from FOX’s short-lived series Greg the Bunny — into our world with everyday problems.
The pilot has a B-plot involving Fozzie meeting his human girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Needless to say, the parents aren’t thrilled about the interspecies relationship. ABC tried to play a race relations allegory for laughs before with Cavemen, a sitcom based on the characters from a Geico ad campaign to no avail. Maybe they’re hoping the much more likeable — and less product placement-driven — Muppets can make the lesson go down easier. It’s less ambitious here and the analogy is strangely dropped when the parents visit the set of the late-night talk show, “Up Late with Miss Piggy.”
Where The Muppets succeeds, though, is that the allegory isn’t the main premise of the series. The reason for the aforementioned documentary style is that there is an actual crew filming the behind-the-scenes happenings of Miss Piggy’s talk show. The setting definitely draws up similarities to 30 Rock with its writers room meetings, Kermit walking through production offices, and using celebrity cameos to draw on jokes. But there doesn’t appear to be any human character regulars. While that might be fine, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like for the writer at the table for the “Dancing with the Czars” pitch to be part of the cast.
Unfortunately, the successes in the first episode are few and far between. The jokes don’t land with the same umph. The best gag of the pilot involves them bringing in Tom Bergeron in to replace Elizabeth Banks as a guest on the show. I like the idea that the ABC journeyman host is literally willing to do anything, even after Kermit rips on Scooter for booking the host of Dancing with the Stars, rather than, y’know, actual stars.
However, the rest of the jokes reek of the writers struggling to find that balance between being for grown-ups or grown-up families. Granted, this is a sitcom pilot and like its more and less successful brethren, it spends a lot of time on plot and set-up that won’t be there come episode 10.
The Muppets certainly won’t find itself with dramatic elements that feel like “sitcom drama.” In the pilot, the story focuses on Kermit and Piggy and follows the typical sitcom beats of Kermit thinking Piggy is being a conceited diva, only to discover the reasons behind her irrationality run deeper than her ego.
Nostalgia worked in the first movie because the story focused on the group, not Piggy and Kermit as a couple. But if the series pushes a “will-they-or-won’t-they” plot for the couple, it will lack the drama of a Sam & Diane, Ross & Rachel, or Jim & Pam because they’re “Kermit and Miss Piggy,” are supposed to be together and likely will be by the end of the season. I will admit, though, that the break-up flashback with Piggy and Kermit was a bright spot among the show’s dramatic moments.
Hopefully, this isn’t the start of The Muppets entering another drought akin to the late 90s and early aughts, when fans would grasp at anything that wasn’t terrible like 2002’s It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. As with many sitcoms, I’m sure this one will find its voice as the show moves forward in the coming weeks. Something is definitely there and while it will be impossible for this series to live up to the franchise’s high points, I’m excited to see the show get better as it tries.