Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TV Review: "The Muppets" gets a shaky start, but has potential

The Muppets
Tuesdays, 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST)

I had high hopes. I really did. While others clutched their Miss Piggy-endorsed pearls over the thought of a naughtier, “adult” take on the Muppets, I didn’t bat an eye. Having been a fan of the gang of misfits since their heyday during my childhood, and having familiarized myself with Jim Henson’s work over the years, I didn’t buy the notion that the Muppets were “for kids” in the first place. In fact, I’ve often said that they lost their way following Henson’s death in 1990 precisely because they were being treated as kiddy entertainment — you can keep your Muppet Treasure Island and others of its ilk. Bring on the double entendres!

True, I was a little disappointed that The Muppets was not going to be a variety show like the classic Muppet Show and the less-classic-but-had-its-moments Muppets Tonight! I felt then, and now feel more than ever, that variety is the medium that the characters truly thrive in. With Neil Patrick Harris singlehandedly attempting to bring back the genre with Best Time Ever, and 2011’s The Muppets and 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted’s focus on that aspect of their history, this could have been their moment to resurrect the form. But I kept an open mind about the single-camera mockumentary format, even if it’s long past being “new” post-The Office, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, Modern Family, and on and on and on. After all, the Muppets often thrive when you place them in situations you don’t expect to find them. So truly, I had high hopes.

Where did The Muppets go wrong? Simple. It just wasn’t very funny.

Like I said, I personally have no problem with the Muppets engaging in edgier humor. As an adult there are plenty of moments of their output during the Henson years that make you say, “How could I have missed that?” Henson had a wicked sensibility, and he and his writers imbued their work with a love of wordplay, innuendo, and even occasional insult humor. Look at the scene in The Muppets Take Manhattan, for example, where an amnesiac Kermit rips Miss Piggy apart for her insistence that she has a romantic relationship with him:
 “Maybe you expected me to go hog wild? Perhaps you could bring home the bacon! Ah, the sounds of love: ‘Soooooo-ey! Oink, oink!’ ”
But the problem with The Muppets is that apparently the entire joke of the show is to put wild, “adult” things in the mouths of the characters, as if to say, “OMG! The Muppets are now PG-13! That’s hysterical!” They just forgot actual jokes. Take for example, this dialogue among members of the band The Electric Mayhem early in the episode.

Floyd: “[He’s] not good on the road.” Animal: “So many women, so many towns.”

If this had been a scene featuring a human band in any TV show or movie made after, say, 1985, would it be funny? No, of course not. It would be trite. Cliché. At best it would be a shorthand character-defining moment, but certainly nothing that would make someone laugh out loud. It’s a stereotype that’s been done to death. But “the joke” here is that it’s Animal, a character with built-in recognition. “Wow! They’re implying that Animal, a puppet, has groupies! That’s amazing!” No, it’s not amazing. It’s not a joke. It doesn’t define the character because the character is already defined. This doesn’t even reach the level of sophistication of Meet the Feebles. And practically every joke is like this. Kermit “stress eats.” Wow! “Fozzie knows what ‘bear’ means in the gay community!” Wow! “Zoot is an addict.” That’s so, like, adult!

Compare this to these excerpts from when Kermit and Rowlf meet in The Muppet Movie: “I finish work, I go home, read a book, have a couple of beers, take myself for a walk and go to bed.” “I don’t mean to scare ya, my friend, but I betcha, come Father’s Day the litter bug’s gonna getcha.” Those lines are clever. They’re examples of wordplay that make you take a second and say, “He’s a dog, he goes to the bathroom by taking himself for a walk!” Or, “They’re talking about sex!” In other words, they’re jokes. They’re not for kids, they fit the characters that have already been established through years of familiarity, and they’re funny.

Aside from the ever-present feeling that the writers are trying to push buttons rather than craft punchlines, The Muppets also lacks an ingredient that has been present in almost every Muppets project for the last 50-plus years: Anarchy. Henson and his team (of which only two colleagues, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire, remain active Muppeteers) loved randomness, non sequiturs, silly puns and sillier physical humor. A well-known quote from Henson regarding his comedic sensibility was, “It all ends in one of two ways: Either something gets eaten or something blows up.” Nothing gets eaten or blown up in The Muppets. Nor do we see ecstatic somersaulting penguins, weirdos getting shot out of cannons, incomprehensible chickens, dance numbers gone terribly wrong, inanimate objects coming to life. Despite ready access to guest stars and musical acts, the writers feel hemmed in by the Larry Sanders Show-like premise, even though there’s no reason this couldn’t have worked if it had been infused with Muppety energy. At no time do the Muppets sing, or dance, or really do much of anything that hasn’t been done much better by real people elsewhere. It feels like such a wasted opportunity.

So, you might ask, did The Muppets do anything well? Absolutely. What The Muppets gets right is an area that hasn’t consistently been done well in the Muppet world, post-Henson: The relationships among the characters are solid. Even “broken up” (we’ll see how long that lasts), there is genuine chemistry and pathos in Miss Piggy and Kermit’s relationship (and let’s not forget that their initial relationship over many years of The Muppet Show was as a “couple” that one of the members denied being a part of). Likewise, Piggy is familiar and well-defined, and the one character who is perfect for this setting. Fozzie Bear’s interactions with his girlfriend’s family also generate actual laughs. And though Gonzo has yet to have a moment to shine, Scooter’s resurgence (many years after the death of Richard Hunt in 1992 put the character on the back-burner for years) was welcome and character-appropriate, as was his relationship to Kermit. The characters feel like themselves even if they don’t feel especially funny. Gone is the angst of the last two Muppet movies, where the central conflict was about Kermit being abandoned by his friends. Here, he is back being the able leader of the team and the character that holds the ensemble together.

Another welcome aspect to the show is that it is, in fact, about the Muppets. The real ones. In their last few movies and television specials it began to feel like the Muppets were doomed to playing second-fiddle to whatever name was lined up to “star” in their films. Between that and the introduction of post-Disney Muppet Walter (blissfully not present in the pilot), I had begun to fear that the writers and puppeteers were afraid to actually focus on the characters Henson and Co. created. Here, the celebrity guests are just that: guests who look happy to let the Muppets shine.

So there is some hope going forward, and I haven’t given up on the show just yet. If the characters we’re tuning in to see could just be funny, occasionally, the Muppets — and their eponymous show — might just have a future.

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