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Sex, drugs and 'The Muppets': a little strange, possibly inappropriate but very clever

Sex, drugs and 'The Muppets': a little strange, possibly inappropriate but very clever
Kermit has a new romantic interest in Denise, left, but must work together with his ex, Miss Piggy, on “The Muppets” on ABC. (Andrea McCallin / ABC)

It is perhaps the most controversial series of the fall television season, a dark reworking of old children's tales in which the world is stood on its head and darkness comes out of the light. I speak of course of "The Muppets," which begins Tuesday on ABC.

The short description is that it's "The Larry Sanders Show" overlaid with "The Office." And Muppets.

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As you may have heard, given the big promotional run-up, Kermit and Miss Piggy are no longer together, though he is producing her late-night series, "Up Late With Miss Piggy." Of his ex, whose quirks he used to find "sexy," he says, "If you take dating out of the equation, she's just a lunatic."

Certainly, if the question is, can you make a dark, slightly depressing series starring the Muppets, the answer, obviously, is yes. Is this an inappropriate use of the characters? I don't know. Is it strange? Certainly.

Technically, it's exceptionally accomplished. The puppeteer-actors know their craft and their art; they are not new to their characters. And where "The Muppet Show" used the TV screen as a proscenium that could hide all manner of stage mechanics, "The Muppets" shoots on location, integrating the characters into the human world with a deftness that, should you stop to think about it all — which most likely you never will — is nothing short of astonishing.

The look of the show — camera movements, the choice of lens, the creaminess of the image — is that of any other ABC comedy or drama. The mockumentary conventions are all in order.

It is as clever and well constructed as many series whose casts are entirely human (and an improvement on the pilot, released to the press early in the summer). To set it around a late-night talk show is in its way quite in the spirit of the old "Muppet Show" — late night being the place where variety and vaudeville still live.

As before, it is a backstage comedy about the difficulties of putting on a show, a format that allows the new series, like the original, to bring in guest stars each week to "play themselves." It's Elizabeth Banks in the series opener.

It is true that the Muppets were never just for kids. As Bill Prady, who co-created the present series with sitcom vet Bob Kushell, has pointed out, a 1975 "Muppet Show" pilot was subtitled "Sex and Violence." (Co-creator of "The Big Bang Theory," Prady does have roots in the organization, having joined Henson Associates when Jim Henson was alive; among other things, he wrote the Disney theme-park attraction Muppet Vision 3D.)

But the "Muppet Show" Muppets are a particular case. They have a history, and though for some younger fans that history begins with Jason Segel's 2011 film reboot, many more will know them, if not from the original series, which ran from 1976 to 1981, then from the specials and movies that followed in its wake. Likely though, they never wondered what these characters did in their private lives, and their public lives were enough.

So how much good does it do — which is to say, how much good does it do us — to give the Muppets sex lives and psychologies that, except in the broadest and sketchiest of terms, are new to them? Are they enriched by having problems that are chronic and existential, problems that won't be resolved merely by The Show Going On?

So while you get jokes whose job is to surprise you with cruelty, contextually, joy, fun and celebration are in short supply. None of these qualities is required for good television, of course — indeed, they are conspicuously absent from much of what is prized in this New Golden Age of Television — but most would be considered useful if not absolutely essential to what would appear to be a family show.

In any case, we now have a Muppet show that comes with sex jokes and drug jokes — half-camouflaged, but there they are. The band is now "legally happy."

Refusing to tour with Imagine Dragons, drummer Animal groans, "Too many women, too many towns." Of his romantic life, Fozzie Bear notes, "When your online profile says, 'Passionate bear looking for love,' you get a lot of wrong responses; not wrong, just wrong for me." And Lea Thompson, you will now know, is on Kermit's "free pass" list.

What "Muppet Show" Kermit or Piggy or Fozzie would or would not do is not even an issue here; that world, "The Muppets" seems to say, was an illusion, a dream of childhood. Wake up.

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'The Muppets'

Where: ABC

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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