“What can I say? I’m attracted to pigs.” That’s Kermit in ABC’s new TV series, The Muppets (starting tonight on Sky 1 and NOW TV). If you’ve been upset for years by wrong-sounding Muppets, this show probably isn’t for you: it gives a whole new meaning to Jim Henson’s creations not sounding like they used to.
It’s not the voices that are the problem – Steve Whitmire’s inherited role of our ensemble’s lead frog has long been an accepted replacement for the late Jim – but the words The Muppets say. This new reboot is a harsher, cynical version of the puppets you remember from your childhood. Gone is the variety production in a theatre: in its place, a late-night talk show, Up Late with Miss Piggy; gone is the whimsy: in its place, fake vox-pops with the characters talking to camera.
Mockumentaries are the found-footage flicks of the comedy genre; it’s not easy to make them seem fresh. ABC even acknowledges the fact by changing the typeface of the show’s title to that of Ricky Gervais’ The Office. The addition of puppets, then, is a smart move – specifically, puppets that have a history with their audience. It’s telling that the best fly-on-the-wall comedies work when we actually care about the people on screen. Parks and Recreation, for example, managed to adopt the cynical format, but to endearing effect. The Muppets, though, relies upon existing affection to get away with its caustic humour; it undermines all those fond memories for laughs.
It’s a brave (or foolish) move at first glance, but one that, under the surface, is a neater fit than you might think. The Muppets, ever since the original show, have always rejoiced in being anarchic and subversive, but the puppets played to kids as much as adults: Henson’s creatures managed to be sweet and sincere; like Sesame St’s Big Bird or Elmo, they were innocent as well as grown-up.
In the years since Jim’s passing, The Muppets have succeeded and failed to recapture that magic balance many times. Outings involving Quentin Tarantino or Lady Gaga failed by trying to be too hip, while 2011’s The Muppets won everyone over simply through pure nostalgia. The Muppets follows the feature-length sequel to that effort, Muppets Most Wanted, and sits in similar territory: that movie got away with its self-aware parade of celebrity cameos by merit of being funny.
It also recalls the uneven, but underrated, Muppets Tonight, which saw the puppets run a variety TV show in the 1990s. There’s a curious blend of loyalty and disregard here for its heritage. Zoot is now openly an alcoholic, while Animal is a rock veteran with “too many women” notched up on his bedpost. In the middle of it all, Kermit has gone from a lover and dreamer to a world-weary producer.
The frog has always carried that exasperated air in his role as ringmaster – one that provides a comforting constant between old days and new. But the humour used to stem from his efforts to shepherd everyone through the chaos to put on a show, a successful act of pulling together that left you cheering on the characters. 2015’s The Muppets, on the other hand, relies on pulling them apart for comic effect: Kermit and Miss Piggy, for example, have now split up, with Kermit dating Denise, the TV networking’s marketing executive instead. That leaves Miss Piggy to become more selfish and offensive, qualities that have always been there, but were tempered by her love for Kermy. Likewise, the frog seems a bit meaner than before.
But the structure of the narrative is also different: in the old days, each episode was a standalone farce, where 2015’s The Muppets is closer to a serial, as we continue to follow their attempts to stage a TV show, despite ongoing romantic entanglements and other adult themes. The result is skewed towards those who grew up with The Muppets as children, but the darker tone is also a result of the stretched out story; the feel-good ending and familiar teamwork presumably won’t come until the season finale. In the meantime, there is some sweetness to be found – Fozzie Bear’s subplot, which sees him trying to impress the parents of his human girlfriend, plays on the classic Muppet awareness of the impossibility of inter-species relations – and technical wizardry to admire aplenty. The crucial question, though, is whether it’s funny. Based on the first episode, there are questions to be answered about how The Muppets will balance its adult edge with the original’s childlike sincerity, but for all its inconsistent, perhaps problematic decisions, there are certainly many laughs peppered throughout the first 30 minutes. As for the rest, it may not always sound right, but there’s still a chance that some day, this will find that rainbow connection.
The Muppets is available as a box set on DVD and pay-per-view VOD.