'Muppets Tonight!' Means the Return of Cuddly Chaos

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

For years, the Muppets have given chaos a good name. Which is why it's a pleasure welcoming back television's dysfunctional family of fuzzy weirdos.

This is the time of year when networks test series they're considering for the coming season. Hence, the premiere of "Muppets Tonight!," the newest vehicle for these famed funny characters created by the late Jim Henson and his associates. The executive producers are Dick Blasucci and Brian Henson, Jim's son.

As always, the Muppets are easy to like and easy for adults (as well as kids) to laugh at.

As always, there's a show to put on, and succeeding Kermit the frog as host (Kermit does stop by for a cameo) is the hip, red-locked Clifford ("Waz up! Waz up!"), who has a real feel for the job.

As always, there are terrible problems that threaten the show, this time concerning the inadvertent booking of two epic guest stars, Michelle Pfeiffer and Miss Piggy.

Somehow, however, "Muppets Tonight!" surmounts its dueling blonds dilemma. Letting them share the role of Maria Von Trapp in a Muppetized production of "The Sound of Music" is an inspired way to resolve the problem. There's also time for the usual pig parody ("Bay of Pigswatch"), a cerebral public-affairs segment in "Great Moments in Elvis History" and a rousing performance by the red-hot Dancing Cheeses who, unfortunately, do not survive to see the final credits.

They are eaten by our old friend, Rizzo the rat. "I'm a rat, they're cheeses," Rizzo explains. "It's the circle of life."

The Muppets are their own circle of life, one that deserves to be unbroken.

* "Muppets Tonight!" premieres at 8:30 tonight on ABC (Channels 7, 3).

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