Not quite muppetational: ABC’s ‘The Muppets’ struggles to capture the joy of its characters

screen-shot-2015-05-12-at-12-11-52-pm-135469By JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the Oct. 15, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

I’m trying to keep an open mind about The Muppets. I really am. The new series, which premiered last month on ABC, is the first primetime network series starring Jim Henson’s creations since Muppets Tonight ended its brief run in 1998. With two feature films since 2011, it was inevitable that Disney — which has owned all things Muppets since 2004 — would find even more ways to develop these properties. But while it’s good to have these beloved characters back, this current iteration is still struggling to find itself.

Shot in a single-camera mockumentary style similar to The Office and Modern Family, the series follows the behind-the-scenes production of Up Late with Miss Piggy, a fictional show within a show starring the titular pig. Broadly speaking, this format is reminiscent of the original Muppet Show, however, the numerous talking head segments and focus on interpersonal relationships is a marked departure.

The rest of the gang is also present to round out the large cast. Kermit is once again the beleaguered executive producer. Gonzo is the head writer. Fozzie is the show announcer and Piggy’s on-air sidekick. The Electric Mayhem is the house band. Sam the Eagle is a standards and practices suit. It all feels just about right.

Show creators and executive producers Bill Prady and Bob Kushell clearly have a lot of love for these characters, as well as a deep well of knowledge. That affection is apparent even if the show’s execution is somewhat disappointing thus far.

Tonally the show is a bit darker than previous Muppet projects. “Adult” is a word that’s been tossed around, and it fits. In addition to behind-the-scenes antics, we get a whole lot of time exploring character dynamics. If ever wondered about Kermit and Piggy’s sex lives, this show is for you.

Indeed, the Kermit-Piggy relationship is once again front and center. However, where the couple’s past bickering was playful and romantic, here it’s largely bitter and acrimonious.

On the heels is a recent and messy breakup, the pair is forced to keep things professional for the sake for the show despite their unresolved feelings. The result casts both characters in an unpleasant light. Miss Piggy is a shrill, demanding diva who mistreats her show staff. Kermit is a passive-aggressive jerk who mopes about and stress eats. The series is most certainly putting the couple on the path to reconciliation, but until we get there, none of it enjoyable to watch.

Fortunately, there is humor to be found around the edges. As stage manager, Bobo the Bear adds is consistently funny as he floats in and out of scenes. Similarly, Gonzo with his room full of misfit writers, including Pepe the King Prawn and Rizzo the Rat, is a solid parody of comedy writers as awkward weirdoes.

The guest stars, a staple of The Muppet Show, have been hit or miss so far. Elizabeth Banks, always a game comic actor, plays off the cast well in the pilot — especially in her abuse of Scooter. So, too, does Riki Lindholme (Garfunkle and Oats) as Fozzie’s girlfriend Becky.

An appearance by Tom Bergeron as an unwanted last-minute guest for Piggy’s show also gets laughs at the expense of the Dancing with the Stars host who is a good sport throughout. “A room full of dancing stars, and this is who you bring me?” a disappointed Kermit says to Scooter.

Less successful are cameos by Jay Leno, Josh Groban, and Imagine Dragons. The latter is a disappointment for me personally as a fan of the original “Muppet Show,” whose musical performances were often the centerpieces of episodes. To see the music relegated to the end credits sequence and featuring such a lousy band really just bummed me out.

Bummer is a good word for much of what I’ve seen so far from The Muppets. The series is lacks the joyfulness, optimism and offbeat feel that made “The Muppet Show,” the early films, and even Jason Segel’s 2011 The Muppets film such a delight. That joy is largely absent here.

However, all is not lost. Contrary to what some critics might say, Prady and Kushell haven’t ruined The Muppets. Course correction is simply a matter of dialing down the relationship drama and bringing more of the variety and performative aspects of the show to the fore. Give us some sketches. Give us some songs. Give us some better guest stars. Let the Muppets have fun again.

Show notes:

  • Speaking of bummers, finding out Jay Leno is Fozzie’ comedy hero made me lose a little respect for him. He’s probably also a fan of Jeff Dunham.
  • Fozzie and Riki Lindholme should be a couple IRL. Also, Kate Micucci and Gonzo should date.
  • Note to the writers: Tom Bergeron being a perpetually bumped fill-in guest would make for a fun running gag.
  • If you think about it, we’ve already had our Muppet reboot with 30 Rock, which really is just a live-action The Muppet Show. The characters match up uncannily: Liz is Kermit, Jenna is Miss Piggy, Tracy is Gonzo, Kenneth is Scooter, Jack is Sam the Eagle. You’re welcome.

CHECK IT OUT: The Muppets airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Catch up on previous episodes on Hulu.