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Full disclosure, readers: it truly hurts my heart to write a story for that headline. I’ve been a fan of Jim Henson and The Muppets for as long as my memory goes back, and outside of some straight-to-video releases (and the introduction of Walter), I’ve enjoyed everything the brand has put out there. I really liked the first batch of episodes of ABC’s The Muppets, and was anticipating the show’s retooled return to see how things would change up. Unfortunately, though, almost nothing good came of it.
The Muppets’ overhaul – I’d prefer the term “watering down” though – came after co-creator Bob Kushell left the series over creative disputes, and the other co-creator Bill Prady used it as a chance to relaunch the show to try and build up the dwindling audience and shush some of the detractors. And it seemed like it might do something revolutionary by portraying the retooling on the show itself, with June Diane Raphael’s network president dictating what changes should be made. Alas, all the show’s creative team managed to do was make things worse without adding any laughs or interesting situations.
One widely asserted complaint was that this talk show host version of Miss Piggy was a complete bitch and took the character’s usual conceitedness to extreme levels. So how did they fix this? Not by actually turning her into a nice character, but by bringing in a public relations “branding guru” to put her and the rest of the show through mostly unsuccessful attempts to become more accessible to younger audiences. Which basically means lots of hackneyed social media and YouTube jokes that sound like they were written by people who haven’t been young in 60 years. And then Piggy just becomes more annoying when she’s trying to be a fun-loving extrovert, so there’s almost no winning here.
Another knock on The Muppets involves the adult humor that weaved its way in and out of the first batch of episodes, and you can be sure that almost all references to lovemaking and drug-taking are absent here. (There is a nice weirdo moment involving an apparent hallucination, but that’s about it.) We do still get to see Kermit’s romantic life, which is on the rocks, but don’t expect any multi-layered puns or gags that reach kids and adults on different levels. This is all surface stuff, which wouldn’t be so noticeable if the stories had the heart and soul of the Muppets’ past efforts. But that’s not the case.
The most noticeable addition to The Muppets is a focus on scenes and moments that can live on outside the context of the show in a viral video form. That includes musical bits that aren’t just relegated to the end credits, as well as stuff like Pepe’s Uber driver video. These could admittedly be great in the future, and it was nice to watch Kermit and Piggy getting a banjo tune in, but they weren’t so impressive that I believe The Muppets mocking other talk shows’ formats can do all the show’s heavy lifting in the humor department. Watching Pepe misrecognize someone as Edward James Olmos just wasn’t that great.
Now, I’ve only seen the first two episodes from the relaunch, so it’s possible that a more steady rhythm will be found as Season 1 starts to wrap up in the following weeks. But considering I barely even cracked a smile during either of them, these were definitely not exemplary installments of anything going in the right direction. Except for the guest spot from Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, because those guys make everything better, even when they’re making cornball “give me a job” jokes.
Will this more middle-ground approach turn The Muppets into a ratings smash for the remainder of Season 1, or will the majority of audiences share my opinion and move on? Someone get Bunsen to invent a device that can answer that question, possibly while also electrocuting Beaker in the process.
The Muppets airs Tuesday nights on ABC.