Review: Restore your faith in humanity with Disney’s alien talk show, ‘Earth to Ned’
I was stumbling recently through the thicket we call television when I came upon the sunny clearing that is “Earth to Ned,” streaming since September on Disney+. Having already written about the year’s two previous Muppet-related series — “The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo” on HBO Max” and “Muppets Now,” also on Disney+ — it seemed only right, even belatedly, to review this third, from Brian Henson and the Jim Henson Company, in which a four-armed alien sent to invade Earth instead falls in love with it. Also, I liked it a lot; it made me happy, with its dry humor leavened with a pinch of sentimentality or, as they say on the cooking shows, the sweet cut by heat. And so I have come to proselytize.
Specifically, Ned (Paul Rugg, supported by three other puppeteers) has become entranced by celebrities, and while he stalls the invasion, sending false messages back home, he hosts a talk show. Real human personalities occupy the couch. Put-upon lieutenant Cornelius (Michael Oosterom, with two other puppeteers) is Ned’s announcer-sidekick; caustic artificial intelligence BETI (Colleen Smith) is a sort of producer and “all-knowing energy current” in the form of a masklike floating head. Little creatures called Clods (or CLODs — it’s another acronym, never mind for what), vicious or friendly depending on the situation, pop up here and there. “Don’t acknowledge it or look it in the eye,” Ned advises first guest Andy Richter. (They will also appear in a fashion show, wearing costumes inspired by Bob Mackie’s work for Cher, for the benefit of guest RuPaul Charles. )
Comedic takes on talk shows have long been a staple of television. What comes most quickly to mind watching “Earth to Ned” are Adult Swim’s seminal “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” in which a cartoon superhero was repurposed into an awkwardly paced late-night show, and Martin Short’s brilliant “Primetime Glick,” for its improvisational rhythms, and because Rugg’s delivery sounds very much modeled on Short’s puffed-up Hollywood reporter, though warmer and less wicked. (Like his castmates, Rugg has a long list of credits where he remains invisible, but you may well have seen him in a popular series of online videos featuring his excitable chihuahua, Lucky.)
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Neither is this the first time that puppets have been employed to interview people — see “Elmo,” above. (Of course, people have been asking puppets questions for ages.) There is some of that in the mix on “Muppets Now”; Disney’s first Muppet series, 2015’s “The Muppets,” on ABC, was a mockumentary built around a Miss Piggy-hosted talk show. Back in 2004, TVLand aired several episodes of “ALF’s Hit Talk Show,” featuring the late-’80s sitcom alien, a pretty straight, and rather dull, translation of a late-night show but with a puppet behind the desk (and Ed McMahon as his announcer). Triumph the Insult Comic Dog has done a lot of field interviews over the course of his career. Oosterom, Smith and Rugg all worked on the excellent Henson Alternative series “No You Shut Up,” which ran from 2013 to 2016 on Fusion TV and featured Paul F. Tompkins and a rotating panel of puppet animals commentating on hot topics and current events.
As anyone who has ever put a hand to — or in — one can tell you, puppets do lend themselves to extemporaneous expression. The hugely successful, exceptionally smart “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” a landmark of television’s first decade, was almost completely improvised. As seen here, and as demonstrated countless times before, on stage and television and in living rooms, creatures of flesh and of felt can cozily share a reality. It is not just the professional pretenders who sit on Ned’s couch who know how to occupy that space but the ordinary earthlings to whom Cornelius is sent midway through each episode for “information” — a dog groomer, a fashion stylist, a street artist, wrestlers. He gets onstage at the Improv, where Maria Bamford tells him, “You know who you remind me of? Dave Chappelle.” It is the person of very little imagination who can’t talk to a puppet.
And, like Elmo’s “Not-Too-Late Show,” “Earth to Ned” is an actual talk show, in that the interviews are largely unplanned and produce, along with the improv comedy, real information. With two guests per half-hour episode, they do not constitute a deep dive, but you may feel you’ve learned something real and possibly significant from Kristen Schaal or Lil Rel Howery or Reggie Watts or Rachel Bloom or Raven Symoné before they’re beamed back to the surface. (Beamed up — Ned’s spaceship is for some reason buried underground.) None of the guests, abducted though they may have been, are frightened or confused for more than a few seconds; some declare themselves to already be fans of the show.
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Throwaway lines and half-muttered asides power the comedy. Richter being announced as “a staple of late-night TV for 27 nonconsecutive years” is a good example of the series’ droll, jokes-that-are-barely-jokes tone. It’s an approach that works very well on me, as in BETI’s “I’m an AI, I don’t have any children — that I know about, heh heh,” or Ned’s response to Paul Scheer’s question, “Do you have a tough relationship with your dad?” (Ned is the ignored child of his fleet’s admiral.) “Well, yes … and yes.”
Although Ned is insistent on being seen as the boss and thought talented (“I am a natural!”), as a newcomer to the planet and the profession he will nevertheless ask his guests for guidance. And though his relations with his crew are sometimes fraught, he is also full of love and a yearning for beauty, coming as he does from a culturally arid society — “no music, no art, no lacrosse” — whose warlike ways are not his own.
Each episode has a bit of a theme — humor, horror, animals, art, sports, “Star Wars” (you cannot escape IP cross-promotions in the Disneyverse) — taken up in Ned’s closing video message to his father, underscoring why humans might be worth saving from invasion and enslavement. At the end of the first episode, he describes entertainment as something “that allows these humans to experience aspects of each other’s lives so that they may learn about their differences and find their similarities … and it’s wonderful to enjoy with my favorite Earth liquid, mayonnaise.” It’s the kind of thing many of us humans need to hear these days.
Not the mayonnaise part, though. That’s disgusting.
‘Earth to Ned’
Where: Disney +
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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