The Muppets, Season 1
Created by Bill Prady & Bob Kushell
Premieres Tuesday, September 22nd at 8pm (ET) on ABC
Two episodes watched for review
There’s a scene in “Hostile Makeover,” the second episode of The Muppets, which exemplifies the fundamentally misguided nature of the show’s approach. Waldorf and Statler, the perennial curmudgeons of the Muppets universe, watch Josh Groban perform. Contrary to their usual hatred of everything, they’re impressed by the singer’s talent, and they appear to genuinely enjoy his song. The joke, or what’s intended to function as such, lies in the subversion of the viewer’s expectations of the characters.
But while creators Bill Prady and Bob Kushell know Waldorf and Statler well enough to riff on their personas, Prady and Kushell don’t seem to understand that it’s the consistency of these personas which makes the characters work as well as they do. Their curmudgeonliness never functions on the element of surprise; rather, it’s the myriad ways in which Jim Henson and the other writers and performers on The Muppet Show exploit the characters’ traits again and again which make them so memorable. In abandoning that repetition for what feels like an attempt at a subtler style, Prady and Kushell also abandon everything that gives the characters their legacy.
A break from traditional Muppets fashion appears to be first and foremost on this show’s agenda, and one doesn’t have to be a Muppets purist to say that it’s not a good move. The multi-cam variety format has been dropped in favor of a single-cam mockumentary style, and from the opening scene, it feels like a poor fit. Whereas the laugh track and live audience helped The Muppet Show milk its jokes for all their worth, the dry style of The Muppets simply leaves the show feeling like it’s missing something. The technique works beautifully on, say, The Office (US)—a frequent director of which, Randall Einhorn, also directed the first two episodes of The Muppets—where it helps connect the show’s absurdity with the everyday insanity inextricable from the modern workplace, but there’s no comparable justification for it here. If anything, the joke (as with the out-of-character behavior by Waldorf and Statler) seems to be in just how poor a fit the style is for the characters. The concept could possibly work as a brief comedy sketch, but it’s simply not enough to sustain an entire series.
As a result, The Muppets is left with an ugly disjointedness between content and form which holds back the potential pleasures it offers. The first two episodes have several puns and double entendres which have the potential to find their way into the Muppets canon, but they’re not sold well enough to end up anywhere close. It’s easy to imagine aspects of The Muppets working if they’d been presented in the exuberant style endemic to the characters’ existence, but they’re shown instead in a way which doesn’t give the jokes the breathing room they need to work.
And not only are they unfunny, but the style reveals a meanness which makes the show feel all the more in poor taste. There are jokes about alcoholism amongst the members of Dr. Teeth and Electric Mayhem, Fozzie’s sexual orientation, and the nature of the relationship between Waldorf and Statler. In the context of The Muppets’ failure to make its style work, they come across as lame attempts to land some sort of joke. The original Muppet Show would hardly pass a Tumblr acid test, but the writers and performers sell their offensive humor with naughty glee. By contrast, there’s an overwhelming tepidness to the new Muppets which fails to give the show anything near a license to offend.
In spite of the drastic style change, The Muppets does seem to be burdened by a sense of Muppets history, which keeps the show from whatever potential it could’ve had as a radical reinvention of the characters. Even though the focus here is behind-the-scenes, the variety show setting remains, as do the puns. Celebrity guest stars play themselves, and they continue to interact with the Muppets as if they were normal people. But within the chosen mode of presentation for The Muppets, none of these elements have the effect they do in the original series. In attempting to keep some links with the characters’ pasts, Prady and Kushell destroy what made the personalities so beloved in the first place.
And so we’re left with a Muppets which feels caught between being a radical reinvention and a dutiful homage. Not wholly ready to break with tradition, but certainly not thoughtful enough to hold onto it, The Muppets ends up working neither as a tribute nor an original creation with a well-developed identity of its own. The remnants that do remain from the show’s history simply don’t have the same appeal in their recontextualized form, leaving a show which struggles to justify its existence. Wocka wocka wocka.