Seriously, I’m asking, because I don’t know the answer. It’s not that the jokes aren’t funny—some of them were super funny, although last night’s series premiere was definitely hit and miss. It’s more that this whole concept is just wrong for the freaking Muppets. And then there’s Miss Piggy. Sigh.
Let’s back up a bit. The Muppets mean different things to different people, because they’ve been around for so many decades at this point. These fuzzy puppets, which include talking animals as well as humans and odd creatures, are a mainstay of the children’s show Sesame Street. But they also starred in The Muppet Show, an off-kilter Vaudeville variety show in the late 1970s, where they did weird skits like “Pigs in Space.” And they’ve had a long and extremely variable movie career, with amazing highs (The Muppet Movie, The Muppets) and lows (the 1990s).
But in general, the Muppets are associated with a certain gentle humor, and a good-natured goofiness. Sure, there’s sometimes brutal slapstick, with Gonzo the stunt Muppet and his endless head injuries, or Beaker the perennial test subject for weird science experiments. And there’s always been an edge of neurosis to characters like Fozzy Bear, the terrible comedian.
In fact, the version of the Muppets that’s appeared outside Sesame Street has generally been a bit more “adult” and slightly edgier—as can be seen in Kermit the Frog, the main character who’s able to cross over between both universes. The Sesame Street Kermit is sweeter and gentler, best known for singing about the difficulty of Being Green, while the Muppet Show Kermit is a more complicated and troubled character, including a long-running romance with the tempestuous and demanding Miss Piggy.
So there’s always been room for different interpretations of the Muppets, even within the version that’s had a long-running movie franchise.
Where this new Muppets television show goes wrong, I think, is in playing up the undercurrent of neurosis and adult self-loathing that was always present in The Muppet Show and the movies. And also, in grafting a much more self-aware, midlife-crisis-style humor onto these essentially good-natured characters.
In the new Muppets, we’re still running a show—but it’s no longer a variety show in an old theater. Instead, it’s a modern-day talk show, along the lines of The Tonight Show, with Miss Piggy as the host. Which means that the show’s lifeblood is not the theater, and the mishaps of putting on a show by the skin of your teeth, but rather a more rigid format of “behind the scenes” mishaps on a regular TV show.
And right off the bat, the show is clearly referencing fairly recent mockumentary-style sitcoms like The Office, as well as the meta-TV comedy 30 Rock. This is not a carefree-but-harried theater troupe, but a collection of exhausted and stressed-out TV producers, along with the talk show’s house band (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, of course) plus Fozzy the warm-up comedian and announcer. And Miss Piggy, the star.
The result is a show that’s much more “real” and less joyfully silly than anything the Muppets have ever done before, and it’s kind of depressing to watch. Even though some of the jokes work as jokes, they feel wrong, and kind of unpleasant, coming from the Muppets. There is a lot of uncomfortable humor in this episode, in which characters are faced with their own inadequacies.
Take the main subplot, in which Fozzy Bear is dating a human woman whose parents (especially her father) are prejudiced against him because he’s a bear. It’s kind of a weird mish-mash of extremely funny and kind of weirdly tone-deaf. Like the father is such a dick after a while, you wonder why people don’t just smack him in the head whereve he goes. And yet it all builds up to a scene where Fozzy’s girlfriend says it doesn’t matter if her parents don’t approve, she loves him. And Fozzy takes a beat and says “Yeah, that’s not enough,” and runs after the parents, still chasing their approval. It’s actually a funny moment... which completely destroys any investment I might ever have in the character of Fozzy or his relationship with this woman.
Oh, and Animal making a weird remark about “too many women” also threw me right out of the show. I don’t want to think about Animal having a love life.
A lot of stuff in last night’s episode is like that. The humor is both too “edgy” and self-aware for the characters, and it’s too willing to throw the characters under the bus for the sake of a joke. Even if it were way funnier, I wouldn’t want to tune in for this every week.
It’s also disconcerting to see them walking around, thanks to some new VFX wizardry. But whatever.
And then... there’s Miss Piggy. The big surprising reveal in this new show is that Kermit has dumped the brassy diva for a younger, more subservient pig, who just brings him food and tells him how great he is. A lot of the mechanics of the episode are about Miss Piggy being a nightmare to work with—at one point early on, Kermit tells Scooter, “It’s too late for me, save yourself” before meeting with her—and there are a lot of uncomfortable jokes about her weight and her physical appearance.
The actual plot has to do with Miss Piggy unreasonably vetoing her show’s main guest, the beautiful and talented Elizabeth Banks. And it turns out she sort of has a good reason, but we only find that out after a whole episode about how she’s an unreasonable, demanding, psychotic, unattractive bitch who doesn’t take care of Kermit the way his new pig girlfriend does.
And in this way, too, the show is taking something that the Muppets always had but handled with sweetness and gentleness, and turning it into something ugly and extreme. The result is a parody of a strong woman that borders on misogyny at times. Miss Piggy was always the subject of a lot of jokes for her shrill, demanding personality, and her bossy nature. But this was always tempered with a lot of love and respect for the character, allowing us to laugh at her a little bit but still see why she’s awesome.
And in retrospect, a lot of why Miss Piggy was able to get away with being a total bitch in her previous incarnations had to do with Kermit’s love for her. Kermit loved her so much, and so visibly, that the audience had no choice but to love her too. As Kermit himself says early on in this episode, when he was in love with her, all her over-the-top behavior seemed quirky and intoxicating—but now it’s just awful.
The same can actually be said for the Muppets themselves. The love is gone, and all the things that were charming and delightful about them suddenly start to seem just shitty.
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