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ABC's 'Muppets' takes Kermit and Co. out into the real world -- will they remain subtly subversive?

The typical U.S. office has a surprising ability to endure failed romance. According to a CareerBuilder survey, nearly 40% of Americans have dated a co-worker, many of them emerging no worse for the wear.

Then again, that doomed relationship never involved Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.

The vagaries of inter-species puppet love is but one workplace issue explored in "The Muppets," a new series that returns the fur-clad wags to living rooms nearly 35 years since they last carried prime time with "The Muppet Show." (A short-lived series, "Muppets Tonight," aired in the 1990s.)

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Led by the amphibian-porcine duo (recently broken up), the whole gang is back when the ABC comedy debuts Sept. 22, including Fozzie, Animal, Gonzo and — to the delight of cynics everywhere — peanut-gallery pundits Statler and Waldorf. Unlike the "Muppets" movies (which tended to focus on a specific quest) or the original series (which both indulged in and poked fun at the conventions of the classic variety show), the new "Muppets" aims to explore the lives and relationships of its title characters.

The setting this time is a late-night show, "Up Late With Miss Piggy," that the Muppets stage nightly. Viewers follow the creatures at work, at home and out and about in Los Angeles.

"Whether it's Kermit on the 405 or Fozzie at Gelson's, we want you to see them as real people out in the world," said Bill Prady, "The Big Bang Theory" co-creator and Jim Henson acolyte who co-created the new series. "There's a bar that the 'Big Bang' cast goes to when they finish shooting an episode. We want to take you to that bar, only it's with the Muppets."

Hi-ho, everyone.

Since being created by Henson a half-century ago, the Muppets have had one of the most unlikely and influential runs in popular culture. The specter of cuddly creatures saying witty things long preceded the "Avenue Q" and Pixar ages to follow. And the property's meta turns (the first film, in 1979, included a script for the movie viewers were watching) anticipated by decades the "Lego" and "Birdman" moments of today.

Yet as with Beaker trying not to blow up the lab, the question of whether a forerunner can come back in the age it helped create is a perpetual one. After all, the Henson creatures' latest big-screen foray, "Muppets Most Wanted," flopped just last year.

Producers say the difference is a focus on fleshed-out characters.

While cannily allowing for showbiz sendups and celebrity cameos (a Muppets tradition), the putting-on-a-show format affords a number of advantages. When big personalities crash on showbiz deadline it tends to heighten the drama and the comedy (think "30 Rock"). And the ongoing nature of a regular TV show, both actual and fictional, allows story lines to be cultivated in a different way.

"What the show does is let us really see who these characters are on a 365-day-a-year basis instead of just once every few years," said Debbie McLellan, vice president of the Muppets Studio, which oversees the property. "It allows people to see who they really are."

The late-night backdrop certainly furnishes a job for every Muppet. To wit:

Gonzo heads the writing team.

Fozzie is the Ed McMahon-esque sidekick.

Animal anchors the house band.

Statler and Waldorf heckle from the studio audience.

The Swedish chef is of course in charge of craft services.

And then there is Kermit and Piggy, the former a capable if put-upon executive producer, the latter a diva-ish celebrity hostess.

The duo's love, like a tadpole on a hot summer day, is a fragile thing, and as the show opens Kermit has separated with her to be with Denise from marketing. Piggy has shown no outward signs of heartbreak, taking up with on-set costars like Topher Grace with the glee of an ungulate in mud.

Relationships are played for a mix of humanist and absurdist Muppets-y appeal pretty much down the line. "Even though they're frogs and bears and pigs you care about them as if they're human," said Bob Kushell, a writing veteran of "The Simpsons" and "3rd Rock from the Sun" who co-created the new "Muppets" series with Prady. "We're not changing the characters. We're just changing the dilemmas."

He added, "I don't think you've ever seen them like this before. You've never seen their lives. You never think of Fozzie as having feelings."

The porkpied one is himself trying to find love and across the human-bear puppet divide. But when he meets the parents of his flesh-and-blood boo, snags arise. His potential in-laws raise a host of concerns, not least whether their daughter's new paramour might give them grandchildren who go to the bathroom in the woods.

"OK, that is an offensive stereotype," Fozzie snaps back, annoyed.

"Muppets" creators are using a 21st-century format to pull off the verisimilitude. Lead director Randall Einhorn and others are shooting episodes in the docu-comedy style popularized by "The Office" and "Modern Family," where Einhorn has worked. Though some may regard the technique as stale, he said it particularly suits the Muppets.

"When you see Steve Carell and John Krasinski in a veneer of realism, it's not much of a leap. But here they're so extreme it helps to ground the characters."

Of course, Einhorn faces a slightly greater challenge directing fuzzy two-footers. "Kermit picking up the coffee cup is not him picking up the coffee cup — it's an elaborate system," he said. (The performers, including longtime Muppeteers Bill Barretta and Dave Goelz, are all back, playing multiple characters.)

Prady, who had an early job writing for the Muppets under Henson beginning in the 1980s, actually had the idea for a revival nearly a decade ago. But the network passed and the idea seemed permanently iced. But Prady and the Muppets Studio (it falls under the same Disney umbrella as ABC) stayed with it. Earlier this year, ABC, looking for new comedies to fill its slate, showed interest, and the project was fast-tracked.

The network has high hopes for the show, which it has scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesdays, hoping it can give a lead-in boost to sophomore comedy "Fresh Off the Boat."

The very mention of the Muppets evokes a nostalgia that will earn the show goodwill among a generation of fans raised on the property beginning in the 1970s. Still, the new "Muppets" will face the perception that it is part of a wave of titles being endlessly rebooted even after they've run their course, and the idea that the new version presents special circumstances could be seen as a conglomerate looking to sheepishly explain away questionable ideas, a kind of TV industry "wocka wocka."

ABC executives say the audience will make that determination based on execution — and in any event, the brand name is not an automatic benefit.

"There's a shorthand with the Muppets so you can get out of the gate faster," said Samie Kim Falvey, executive vice president of comedy and international scripted development at ABC. "But there's also a lot of pressure because people know it. I had a friend write me after it was announced. 'This is great. Will it suck?' The fact that it's the Muppets makes it a double-edged sword."

The new Muppets will also face a hurdle with millennials, who were not even born when the characters were last a force in prime time. The behind-the-scenes qualities of the show might add appeal in the TMZ era, as might Muppet characters' appearances on "Sesame Street" over the years. Current musical guests will be featured on the show too; Imagine Dragons is among the first.

Perhaps the biggest issue is whether the Muppets can remain as subtly subversive as in their early days on the air, when the financial stakes were lower and groups like the Parents Television Council were still unformed.

"I know there are questions like that out there," Prady said when asked if edge could be maintained. "But that's for people on the outside to decide. We're just trying to tell a good story with these characters people love."

Or as Beaker would say, "Meep."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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