Hanging in There for Old Times’ Sake

I usually give new television shows three episodes to grab me.  If I’m not on board by the end of episode three, your show probably isn’t for me.  I’ve made a few exceptions.  Last season, for example, I stuck with Gotham all the way through until the season finale made me question my life choices.  I’ve heard that this season is somewhat better, but I can’t go back.  I can’t.  I won’t!  You can’t make me!

Um…sorry.  Moving on.

The third episode of The Muppets aired this week, and I quite honestly have no idea if I’m on board yet.  Let’s get the argument against the show that I’ve seen in the media out of the way first.  The Muppets is not too adult and in no way a betrayal of the characters that Jim Henson created.

I’m not sure if the parent groups up in arms about these things are aware of the history of the Muppets, but it doesn’t start with Sesame Street.  Back in 1957, Jim Henson used Muppets in a series of commercials for Wilkins Coffee.  The Muppet Wiki describes the commercials like this:

The ads starred the cheerful Wilkins, who liked Wilkins Coffee, and the grumpy Wontkins, who hated it. Wilkins would often do serious harm to Wontkins in the ads -- blowing him up, stabbing him with a knife, and smashing him with a club, among many other violent acts.

You don’t find many stabbings on Sesame Street unless the neighborhood has gotten a lot worse since I was a kid.

And to rebut any thought that The Muppet Show from the 1970s was all innocent and wholesome, I offer THIS CLIP.  That’s Miss Piggy basically attacking ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in a sauna when the poor man is dressed in nothing but a towel…a towel that Miss Piggy would very much like to remove.

In this week’s episode of the current show, Kermit and Fozzie go to a bar run by Rowlf the Dog, where Kermit has a beer.  Again, this isn’t the first time Muppets have had alcoholic drinks.  Back in 1979’s The Muppet Movie, Kermit and Piggy have a dinner date and order wine in THIS SCENE featuring a cameo from Steve Martin as their waiter.

So can we please quit with the “It’s too adult” argument?

My problem, if it even really is a problem, with the show is that it doesn’t feel like the Muppets.  I’m aware that that is an incredibly subjective statement to make.  Here is the series’ basic concept: The producer of a late night talk show tries to keep things running while dealing with the diva of a host, who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend, and the other assorted crazies and weirdoes on his staff. 

This very same series could easily exist with a human cast of characters, but in this case we have the Muppets in the parts.  In the human version of this show, the writers would create characters, figure out their basic personalities, and then develop them over the course of the show’s run.  But with the Muppet version, we already know the character’s personalities.  Some of us have been watching these people…er…creatures for 40 years.  This producer isn’t a blank slate for a writer to develop.  It’s Kermit The Frog.  We KNOW Kermit The Frog.

Now the Muppets have played other characters before.  The Muppet Christmas Carol is a great example of this.  In the film, Kermit is playing Bob Cratchit, Piggy is Mrs. Cratchit, and so on.  Certain aspects of their Muppet personalities show through, but they are basically actors in this kind of project.

In the The Muppets television series they are themselves, but they’ve been shoehorned into these roles at a fake talk show, and the writers now have to figure out what to do with them.  Your counter-argument might be that this was basically true of the original The Muppet Show; however, look at the structure of that series.  It was really a variety show with some interstitial bits involving what was happening back stage.  Of the show’s half hour, at least half of it was dedicated to the songs, skits, dances, etc. happening out on stage, and much of the time was also focused on that week’s guest star. 

This new series is supposed to be about the Muppets themselves.  The guest stars are little more than cameos, and we’ve so far seen very little of the talk show they are all making.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible for the writers to make a series when the characters have been predefined.  In some ways, it’s like they’re coming into a later season of an existing show, only in this instance, the show itself hasn’t really been defined either.

The Muppets hasn’t been bad.  I’d say that this week’s episode was the weakest of the three that have aired, but even it had a couple of great bits.  Kermit had a line about licking his cousin (Trust me.  It made sense in context.) that forced me to pause the episode until I stopped laughing.  I just don’t know that I would still be watching if it wasn’t for my pre-existing love of the characters.

Part of me honestly wishes that they’d just go back to putting on a variety show.

“But no one does variety shows anymore!” I hear you cry.

True. 

At least it was true until this season.  Now we have Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris airing on NBC, which is very much a variety show…

…airing on the same night as The Muppets

…in the same time slot as The Muppets (as of this coming week).

Maybe Kermit should see if Neil needs a new producer.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter