Review: The Muppets redeem themselves — well, Disney does — with delightful ‘Muppets Now’
Just because you own a brand doesn’t mean you know what to do with it. The Muppets, which have been largely controlled by Disney since 2004, have had their ups and downs over those 16 years. The height of their success in that time came with the very popular, well-reviewed Jason Segel film “The Muppets.” The height of their failure, to my mind, was the 2015 ABC series also called “The Muppets,” a mockumentary account of the production of a late-night show starring Miss Piggy that overlaid a sophisticated worldliness, and adult cares, onto the troupe.
Audiences, too, have their own ideas of what should be done with an intellectual property, what is true to a character or a world; I have just owned to that myself. It’s not that I’m averse to change. There’s no reason why a Daniel Craig James Bond should look anything like Sean Connery’s — indeed, it requires a modicum of mental gymnastics, historical context and ironic distance to enjoy those old Bonds at all — or that the next should look anything like Craig’s, or be white, or a guy. Any sort of person can be the Doctor on “Doctor Who.” Do anything you want with “Star Wars,” I don’t care.
But when it comes to the Muppets, I can be something of a stickler. Maybe a pill.
If ABC’s “The Muppets” wasn’t quite “Riverdale,” which turned Archie Andrews’ hometown into a place beyond Peyton Place, it was a step too far for me, and apparently for many. (It lasted only a season.) The Muppets were already real enough without being made “realer.” We know who they are without explication or complication, their essences as immediately graspable as those of any other great screen comedians. They do not need their quirks framed as neuroses, or their love even a tiny bit sexualized: Stars in Miss Piggy’s eyes tell that story well enough.
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 am very happy to say this is not the case with “Muppets Now,” a delightful new series premiering Friday on Disney+. Although it picks up a theme or two from the ABC series, and does have the odd dark moment (a mothballed computer complaining of “crippling loneliness”), it feels almost like a corrective to the 2015 series — getting back to the roots, not getting a reboot. That it was designed for a family-oriented platform has possibly kept it from the “adult” excesses of “The Muppets,” but it also looks for inspiration and substance to “The Muppet Show,” the late ’70s-early ’80s syndicated series that introduced most of the characters who didn’t come from “Sesame Street.” (Kermit predates both.)
They are a repertory company. In films like “Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island,” they play other characters, while remaining themselves. (I hope I will not upset anyone if I point out that they are in turn played by other people, who are not Muppets, but Muppeteers.) At other times, as in “The Great Muppet Caper,” they play themselves, but as characters. Putting on shows is what they do, and as in “The Muppet Show” — and “The Muppets,” for that matter — that’s what’s happening here, updated for the webbed world. The frame this time is an online streaming channel, with Scooter once again handling the practical matter of getting things on their feet. (Kermit is around, kibitzing a little.)
All your favorite Muppets — you have favorite Muppets, I trust — are here, in new and old-but-remodeled situations. The “Muppet Labs” segment, with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his “resilient assistant” Beaker, which used to revolve around silly inventions like an electric sledgehammer, germ-enlarger, fireproof paper and edible paper clips, here involves some actual science — you have to pay a little attention — and “Mythbusters"-like experiments: catapulting pizzas at a target in a segment on velocity; setting things on fire to see if they’ll melt or burn: marshmallows, ping-pong balls, steel wool, a ukulele, a clock (which comes with a Salvador Dali joke). Similarly, real food is prepared during the Swedish Chef series “Okey Dokey Kookin,” a sort of cook-off between the Swedish Chef and a kitchen celebrity — Carlina Will, Danny Trejo, Roy Choi, chef Giuseppe Losavio. If you have seen the Swedish Chef work, you know how this turns out, and that if mole is on the menu, there will be a mole present.
Miss Piggy gets a “Goop Lab”-esque program that is supposed to be called “Lifestyles” but winds up represented as “Lifesty,” and features regular appearances by Linda Cardellini (“my sister from another mister”), who is part of a chat segment, and Taye Diggs, who explores hot yoga and in-the-dark dining with her. (In the latter scene, she grabs a hot plate and Diggs asks, “Smells like carnitas?” “No, that’s my hand,” Piggy replies, in perhaps the series’ weirdest joke.) Pepe the King Prawn gets a game show, whose rules he makes up as he goes along.
Jim Henson, creator of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the other Muppets who entertained and educated millions of preschoolers and their parents around the world, died early Wednesday of pneumonia.
The felt-and-glue Muppets have always excelled at interacting off the cuff with flesh-and-blood humans, and some of these segments are certainly unscripted, if not entirely improvised, which leaves room for real reactions and interesting rhythms; it makes the show feel modern without being needlessly edgy. Miss Piggy sits down with Aubrey Plaza and asks about her choice of roles.
“Anything that makes me feel something,” says Plaza. “I just want to be alive.”
“You’re alive,” says Miss Piggy.
“I don’t know if you’re looking for affirmation, but I am here to tell you that you are alive, girl.”
“You may have no expression on your face, but you are alive.”
“You’re as alive as me,” says Piggy. And just for a second, you can see Plaza pondering the ramifications of this statement.
I’ve seen four episodes, out of six — too few! — and the only segment that felt off to me — and, yes, this probably says more about me than it does about “Muppets Now” — is one in which Kermit displays his photobombing skills. I mean, it was fine; I just didn’t buy it as a thing he’d be into. (Gonzo, sure; Fozzie, absolutely.) The abuse Beaker takes in the “Muppet Labs” episodes can be a little distressing — there is an emotional as well as a slapstick component to it — but that always was an asymmetrical toxic relationship. I hope these half-dozen episodes are a token of more to come; I want to see where else they take it. Within the bounds of Muppetness, of course.
When: Any time starting Friday, Aug. 1
Rated: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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