It’s not like I’m particularly surprised at the direction that ABC’s The Muppets is taking. After all, Bill Prady and Bob Kushell’s new puppet venture has been touted as “darker and edgier” since its announcement earlier this year. And that’s fine. I expected – even if I’m not particularly impressed with – innuendo-filled jokes. I just didn’t expect that ABC’s The Office-style show would suck all the fun out of the Muppets.
A far cry from the joyous 2011 film of the same name, this “mockumentary” is a cynical look into the lives of our beloved puppet pals. The premise itself isn’t necessarily the problem – a behind-the-scenes look at a late night show starring Miss Piggy seems rife for hilarity – but the execution is nothing short of depressing. Gone are the days where Kermit and the gang were a force of levity in a harsh, human world. Now they’re just as jaded as the rest of us.
Particularly upsetting is the characterization of Kermit himself. Once an optimistic, wide-eyed dreamer, Kermit’s stressful lot in life has turned him into an irritable, condescending frog. He’s left the spirited Miss Piggy for a younger, thinner, dead-eyed swine whose one major character trait (so far) is that she’s always there to take care of her new man. The actual break-up scene between Kermit and Piggy is surprisingly poignant, but the utter cynicism behind separating a beloved fictional couple after 40-odd years of togetherness really dampens the whole plot-line.
Piggy herself is obnoxiously flanderized into her most noxious, selfish self. The Muppets seems determined to make you dislike her, a far cry from previous adaptations that allowed you to both laugh at and relate to Piggy. While she’s always come off a little too strong – particularly when Kermit is involved – it’s always been fun and slapstick-y. Now, she’s characterized as being mean, hysterical, and petty. It’s as if the writers want you to write her off as a “crazy ex-girlfriend”, and that’s just not Miss Piggy.
The most bizarre and uncomfortable aspect of the new show is that the Muppets now come packaged with overt sexual humor. It’s clearly an attempt to embody the spirit of workplace comedies, where character’s sex and romantic lives are often a focus, but when married to the Muppets it becomes creepy. Never have I ever wanted to imagine Animal, Kermit, or Fozzie as sexual beings. And while Fozzie’s mission to ingratiate himself to his human girlfriend’s parents leads to some amusing bear-related jokes, the idea of them procreating is as nightmarish to me as it is to said girlfriend’s father. That’s not something I ever wanted to think about, and while I’m not exactly up-in-arms about it, it’s not an aspect of the show I enjoy.
This all isn’t to say that The Muppets isn’t funny. It can be, especially when it veers closer to it’s classic styles of humor. Janice’s joke about Imagine Dragons is worthy of a chuckle, and it’s always amusing when Bunson shows off his scientific skills at Beeker’s expense. The roles that all of the Muppets play in the production of Up Late with Miss Piggy are spot-on, with Sam the Eagle’s role as network censor being particularly inspired. And I’m definitely excited to see a lot of the older and lesser known Muppets (dandy Uncle Deadly as Piggy’s stylist) get their due. It’s just disheartening to see these true companions tear each other down instead of lift each other up.
Perhaps the problem is that Prady and Kushell have forgotten that the Muppets aren’t real people. They’re puppets. They’re frogs, and pigs, and weird animal things. They don’t have to suffer the pain of mid-life crises or Hollywood selfishness. They can be happy, and silly, and full of love. And with so many other sitcoms that explore what it’s like to be middle aged, famous, and unhappy, and do it better (Bojack Horseman comes to mind), we absolutely don’t need to drag the Muppets into this. They’re the Muppets! They’re above all of that. They should be there to provide us with fun and laughter. Not to remind us how terrible everything is.
I do have plans to keep watching, if for no other reason than to see how Prady and Kushell will process the criticism they’ve received. There are definitely some things to love about The Muppets. It’s just a matter of how they handle this “edge” going forward.
Images are copyright of ABC.