First look Disney+ TV review: Muppets Now
Ivan Radford | On 31, Jul 2020
It’s time to send the emails. It’s time for video calls…? The Muppets’ official entry into our streaming age may not feel like a natural leap, but Muppets Now on Disney+ marks a surprising return to form – and, more accurately, a return to roots.
The show sees the world’s favourite fuzzy troupe attempting to upload a new streaming show online – a task that is, inevitably, left to Scooter – only for him to be pestered by every other Muppet as he publishes the programme. His frustrated online chats are intercut with clips of the videos he’s dragging and dropping onto the web, cueing a line-up of fragmented skits and jokes featuring an array of familiar faces. The result is a clever reworking of what were originally planned to be individual shorts, the kind that The Muppets has been uploading to their YouTube channel for some time. And, at the same time, a format that takes us back to the sketch show format that made The Muppet Show a timeless classic back in the 1970s.
That will come as good news for those who weren’t convinced by The Muppets’ attempt to pivot into mockumentary with its ABC series from a few years ago – an uneven but interesting outing that balanced iconic family characters with adult woes and worries. Muppet Now’s variety show-style approach is more consistent in tone and identity, with each skit crafted to suit the character at its centre, no matter who’s providing their voice. And so Miss Piggy is an influencer (putting the “lifesty” into “lifestyle”), while Pepe the King Prawn has his own anarchic gameshow. Kermit, meanwhile, tries to conduct serious, thoughtful interviews with celebrities – no points for guessing how well that goes.
Human guest stars have always been a key part of the Muppet formula, giving each manic creation a straight-faced presence to bounce off. Here, the skits are part-unscripted, giving a slightly improvised edge to the silliness. With each video item smartly kept as brief as possible, that mainly means that each guest’s reaction feels a little more genuine, and it’s in that interplay that Muppets Now really works: the Swedish Chef’s culinary show (Økėÿ Døkęÿ Køøkīñ) is hilarious, as he cooks off against Caribbean chef Carlina Will and the moustache-boasting Danny Trejo. RuPaul, meanwhile, is a delight as he politely tolerates excited fan reactions from the entire ensemble. And Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini’s calm participation in Miss Piggy’s well-being segments are the perfect counterpart to the diva’s over-the-top, slapstick intensity.
That’s not to say that the other, Muppet-centric parts don’t work well; Dr Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker’s tech upgrade, which mostly involves them setting things on fire, is as funny as anything they’ve ever done, and having Gonzo and Fozzie pitch Scooter last-minute ideas for stunts is a natural evolution from the in-the-wings madness they instigated when The Muppets were doing this in a theatre. Some segments aren’t as strong as others, but over the first two episodes, the series always knows which jokes bare repeating and which are fine one-off gags.
All wrapped up within 20-minute instalments, the result is a delightfully old-school update for The Muppets, one that allows its performers the freedom to enjoy the same kind of natural chemistry that first made their on-screen antics fizz. Unexpectedly appropriate as a lockdown release, its world of in-computer conversations and background visual nods may recall Searching, or freelancing at home, but it’s sensational fun for the whole family that’s brimming with appealing chaos. Nostalgic yet still accessible for modern newcomers, it’s a finely balanced mix of the celebrational and the Muppetational. Play some more musical numbers and these Muppets will be lighting the lights in living rooms around the world like they’ve never stopped.
Muppets Now is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription.