There are three constants in this world: death, taxes and the ability of humans to degrade even the purest forms of existence.
Which brings me to to The Muppets. (Gird your loins: I’m about to spend 900 words talking about the Muppets like they’re real people — because they are.)
A new Muppet-centric TV show should be an occasion of great joy. And it was. Until I watched ABC’s drained, draining revival of a beloved group of hand-puppet misfits. Now, I don’t just feel bad; I feel sorry. Sorry for us, sorry for Jim Henson, sorry for The Muppets themselves.
But let’s begin at the beginning. Just as they poked fun in The Muppet Show at the past-its-prime sketch comedy show, The Muppets make their heralded return to the boob tube in the pseudo-documentary sitcom style of The Office, which was past its prime long before its run actually ended.
Maybe this is where it goes wrong, straight from the concept. The Muppets ABC tosses our way are tired, jaded, world-weary and cold. The hands up their innards might as well be Dunder Mifflin employees. Sure, the muppetational hallmarks are there: Bunsen Honeydew uses a taser on Beeker. Fozzie tells some terrible warm-up jokes. Piggy is an overbearing diva. Kermit is at his wit’s end.
While all those things could be said of any Muppet property since their inception, there is a difference here. The spirit of the Muppets has always been goofiness, unabashed and congenial — a zaniness that borders on mania, but never manages to lose its playfulness and its sincerity.
None of that warmth is present in this new show. Producers seem to have memorized the gags without paying much attention to what actually makes them work: the personalities that turn felt, ping-pong balls and a dude’s hand into a sentient, feeling being.
Bunsen Honeydew has tormented Beeker since he first got the idea for exploding pants, but he never did it maliciously. Here, he electrically shocks his angular assistant deliberately to call a meeting to order. You’ve turned a nutty professor into a maniacal melon monster.
Likewise, Fozzie has always been the worst ursine comedian this side of Jellystone Park, but his inner struggle — his understanding of his failings — was what made him compelling and realistic. Fozzie always knew he was a loser, but he got up there and tried anyway. Here he’s just Andy Richter in a tiny hat, irritation brimming behind that limp bowtie. His fury when confronting his human girlfriend’s family is an unnerving out-of-character moment of rage.
And Piggy. Oh god, Piggy. I’ve never particularly cared for Kermit’s chosen swine, mostly because she reminds me of every person I’ve ever disliked, but what the writers have done to her is egregious. Piggy has always been temperamental, one karate chop away from a one-way walk out of HR. But she’s always cared. She had a heart. Setting up her as a late-night host should be a great device (and a hopeful premonition for the future of nonfictional late-night TV). Instead, she’s been turned into an unfeeling, hardened, calculated shrew.
How could you ever feel a pang of regret about her breakup with Kermit, when there’s not a soul left inside he porcine body? That’s not even to speak of Kermit, who’s so worn down from his “bacon-wrapped hellhole” of a life, I was worried he’d take a long walk off a short sewing table. Kermit gets exasperated, sad, nervous, anxious, but never depressively defeated like this.
Maybe his dismay stems from his new relationship. Denise, yet another pig, is Kermit’s new dead-eyed paramour. Let’s be clear about one thing: Denise is as much a Muppet as a tuna sandwich to which you affixed googly eyes. In fact, she’s worse off. She’s hit a certain number of basic principles, but the tuna sandwich has the advantage of at least having once contained life.
Janice is a yam with undercooked spaghetti for hair and she is more believably lifelike than Denise. (As an aside: I’ll register my dislike of David Rudman’s versions of Janice and Scooter now. They sound like they’ve been regurgitated from a Trump casino or a correctional facility.) Denise’s Southern accent is pretty awful in its own right, but she never stood a chance. She’s inherently flawed. Here is where you should Google Jim Henson’s “magic triangle” and a get a good grip on constructing Muppet facial features, because this chick ain’t got the magic.
When it comes down to it, though, I have but one question: WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND DECIDED WE NEEDED WORLD-WEARY MUPPETS? The splendor, the sheer enjoyability of The Muppet Show was derived from one central principle: The Muppets brought their human guests to their level. It was the puppets who behaved abnormally, non-adult-like, sometimes absolutely insane. We were treated to a separate reality only made possible through these little nut loafs. The Muppets does the opposite: It dumps the thoughts, feelings and neuroses of human adults onto these fragile felt shoulders.
And for what? Does this make them more relatable? Who ever said we wanted them to be relatable? The Muppets are escapist entertainment in its purest form. They provide a safe place for Peter Sellers to dress up like a Viking Queen Victoria and play chickens with his armpits. We needed them to do this, because only Muppets could do this. Now, we’ve crammed them into a show that could star flesh-and-bone actors to the same results. If we’d wanted a puppet episode of 30 Rock, we could have had a puppet episode of 30 Rock.
Maybe the second episode proves me wrong. Maybe it’s just a half-hour of Sam Eagle reciting FCC regulations. Maybe we’ll resuscitate men and women who can write a decent zinger for Statler and Waldorf. Maybe Walter, the Wesley Crusher of Jason Segel’s The Muppets, shows up and injects an ounce of earnestness to the proceedings.
But if none of that happens, I blame Disney, who’s spectacularly good at marketing its own properties but has never quite understood the ANIMAL, ANIMAL, ANIMAL it was dealing with in Jim Henson’s creatures. I blame the creative team whose shortcut to “edginess” was a string of winking (and dull) references to Muppet sex lives. And I blame us for turning these characters into The Muppets our sad-sack century deserves.