Last week, I had a chance to watch the pilot of the newest version of the Muppets, this time a prime-time sitcom called (creatively) The Muppets. In many ways it’s a setup taken from the beloved Muppet Show of the 1970s – our gang gets together and puts on a show every week, with backstage wackiness providing grist for the comedy mill. But something didn’t sit quite right about it with me:
Watching @TheMuppetsABC is one of the weirdest experience I’ve had watching TV that didn’t involve subtitles. #unsettling
— JD Byrne (@JDBAuthor) September 23, 2015
It’s like somebody decided what was holding back “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was the lack of puppets. #TheMuppets
— JD Byrne (@JDBAuthor) September 23, 2015
There were a few good jokes, and it’s always good to see Dr. Teeth and crew back on TV, but the whole thing just didn’t work for me. I thought about it for a bit and finally figured out why. There’s one important difference between the classic Muppet Show and the new one, one that kind of ruins the whole thing for me.
If you look closely at the old Muppet Show, you’ll notice that it doesn’t take place in our world. Obviously, that’s true of any TV show with talking puppets, but what I mean is that it’s a Muppet world there – we’re just invited in every week. Look at the audience – it’s all puppets! It’s truly a fantastic thing, something that exists outside of reality and the humdrum of the real world. Human guest stars were clearly playing along for the fun of it.
By contrast, The Muppets is set in our world, modified slightly by the presence of a late-night talk show hosted and run by felt creatures (sort of like the kiddy morning show in that puppetastic episode of Angel). We’re not visiting their madcap, zany, confusing world – they’re visiting ours. And ours, well, kind of sucks in comparison.
I agree with David Sims, writing in The Atlantic:
But entirely gone is the manic energy of The Muppet Show, the classic behind-the-scenes formula that gave Jim Henson’s creations their big break. In its place is sardonic drudgery that makes for very unenjoyable viewing.
Dan Caffrey at the AV Club kind of hits on the same thing, from a different direction, when discussing a scene from that first episode:
Sometime later, there’s a flashback to the demise of Kermit and Piggy’s relationship . . .. The breakup itself isn’t anything surprising—Kermit has, quite fairly, grown tired of dealing with the constant bouts of vanity, jealousy, and anger from his famous partner—but then something unexpected happens. After he delivers the bad news, the handheld camera hangs on Piggy, shaking ever so slightly. Her breathing gets labored, her snout scrunches up, the camera continues to wobble. It looks like she’s going to cry—not the dramatic sob she’s done plenty of times in the past to get what she wants, but a stoic, painful, honest-to-goodness cry. Suddenly, we’re viewing Miss Piggy in a sympathetic light, thanks to the use of a convention we’ve seen in so many mockumentary breakup scenes before. Her character expands into something much more complex and—I’ll just come out and say it—human.
I don’t disagree with the technical aspects of the scene – they’re well done, even moving. But I don’t care because I don’t want Muppets who have real world problems. That’s the whole fucking point of the Muppets in the first place, isn’t it? If you’re telling stories that could just as easily be told with live people in their place, it seems kind of useless.
Let me say, at this point, that I’m talking strictly on a subjective level of “quality” here. The calls in some quarters for ABC to cancel the show because it’s “indecent” or whatever are just silly. Muppets dealing with some real world situations does not equal smut. You want smut with puppets? I’ll give you smut with puppets:
I’m clearly in the minority on this, but that’s OK. Over the years I’ve concluded I’m very hard on reboots for jettisoning what I see as the essential elements of the property being revived. Don’t care for Daniel Craig’s Bond flicks because, to me, they seem like generic action flicks, without the charm of the Bond flicks I grew up with. Don’t care for JJ Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek, which takes a thoughtful sci-fi property and turns into yet another excuse to blow shit up while being cool (I have more hope for his take on Star Wars, however). Just chock this up as another example.