BARNHART

Muppets Now on Disney+ Is a Lot Like the Muppets Back Then

Still, the latest revival of the furry marionettes can't compete with their original 1970s show.
  • Muppets Now (Disney+)
    Muppets Now (Disney+)
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    Batman, Wonder Woman, Luke Skywalker, Snoopy, Archie and Veronica — they're more than just some of America’s best-known characters. They’re also among the most valuable intellectual properties in the entertainment world. Media companies use IP in much the way you and I use ATMs, taking the most time-tested characters back to the bank again and again.

    Now consider these iconic names: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, the Swedish Chef, Statler and Waldorf — they’re all Muppets, well into their fifth decade as one of show business’s most enduring and valuable performing troupes. Created in 1955 by Jim and Jane Henson, the felt-covered marionettes have come a long way since their debut on a Washington TV station.

    Which brings us to Muppets Now, the latest comedy-sketch series featuring the ensemble that first debuted in 1976 on the syndicated TV classic The Muppet Show. It drops today on Disney+. Disney bought the rights to the Muppets from the Jim Henson Company and has been working on multiple fronts to re-introduce Kermit and the gang to a new generation of viewers. Just last year an entirely different effort starring Josh Gad and titled Muppets Live Another Day was scrapped. Meanwhile, Disney Jr. recently revived Muppet Babies, which reimagines Kermit and other popular Muppet characters as verbose toddlers.

    And then there’s HBO Max, which has a deal with the Henson Company and Sesame Workshop, and launched The Not Too Late Show with Elmo, a celebrity interview show that's apparently quite good, according to people who do not recoil in pain whenever that mop-headed squeaky toy opens his mouth. Through complicated business deals over the years, Henson Company CEO Brian Henson has been able to protect the Muppets while maintaining the family-run company’s independence to work on other projects (like the upcoming Pinocchio movie and the return of Fraggle Rock on Apple TV+).

    Clearly, though, everyone fiduciarily tied to Kermit and the gang have come to agree on one thing: Unlike their DC and Marvel counterparts, the Muppets must never change. Scooter, The Muppet Show’s overwhelmed line producer, has become on Muppets Now an online producer, in order to make this new show digitally relevant. He has not, however, turned into a brooding, tortured soul, as Batman and Archie Andrews have in their current incarnations. Likewise, the Swedish Chef’s English is no better now than it was 40 years ago. Nor are his cooking skills.

    Like previous iterations — ABC's much-maligned The Muppets notwithstanding — Muppets Now carries the DNA of the original Muppet Show, which itself was genetically identical to Sesame Street. Muppets are uniformly guileless, extroverted, and curious (even if, as in Miss Piggy’s case, she’s mostly curious about what kind of flattering thing you want to tell her). They are respectful, if not reverent, toward the humans with whom they share the screen. They are cartoons with the souls of superheroes. They have survived, with few adaptations, in an ever-changing and unforgiving entertainment landscape.

    The Muppets’ emergence as pop culture superstars in the 1960s and ’70s was a triumph of Jim and Jane Henson’s vision and unshakable determination. They spent years fruitlessly pitching executives with ideas for their sophisticated puppets until public television came along. Sesame Street launched in 1969, bringing a group of childlike, teachable Muppets into American homes for the first time. Ironically, PBS’s non-commercial status made Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie trusted friends in millions of homes, ultimately resulting in a cascade of merchandise and concert-ticket sales.

    Merch is the oil gusher of IP, but Sesame Street's success proved both a blessing and a curse. Despite the presence of edgier Muppets on a new show called Saturday Night Live, American TV executives feared that grown-ups would never go for a prime-time version of a children’s show. In the end it was an outsider, a shrewd British TV magnate named Lew Grade, who made The Muppet Show happen.

    “Sir Low Grade,” as he was sometimes called, specialized in budget-friendly shows produced in England — The Prisoner, The Saint — which were prized by American TV stations that needed cheap schedule filler, especially in summer. (How times have changed, not.) Grade loved making variety shows, and he loved the Muppets pilot that the networks had rejected. He proposed that Henson bring his idea across the pond and shoot The Muppet Show at his Elstree Studios, in that entertainment mecca of Hertfordshire, and then shop it around the world.

    The Muppet Show ran for five glorious seasons in more than 100 countries, and made possible the Henson Company’s expansion in the 1980s and ’90s, when it developed Muppetry for entirely new productions like Fraggle Rock and Farscape. Every few years, though, The Muppet Show gang would reunite for some new TV or film project, parodying whatever was floating around in the popular culture while bantering with celebrity guests of the moment.

    So it was with great anticipation that I started watching Muppets Now… and with some regret that I report the new version didn’t do much for me. Its computer-desktop motif and Zoom-like video conferencing are rather prescient, given that the show was made months before the COVID-19 pandemic. But other attempts to freshen the Muppets formula felt unnecessary and gratuitous.

    Muppets Now is being promoted as the first Muppet show with “unscripted elements,” although these segments are so heavily edited that I doubt you’ll notice or care. In one recurring bit, the Swedish Chef welcomes a real-life celebrity chef into his kitchen. While the celebrity chef walks us through an actual recipe following the cooking-show model, the Swede does his thing, flinging ingredients and implements around… but it’s not comical. Actually, it feels kind of angry. You start to get the impression that old Swedey doesn’t appreciate being outcooked. This passive-aggressive response to the human in the room is not on-brand for the Muppets.

    A new character on the show is a gopher (I think) named Joe from Legal, who interrupts the show from time to time to lay down some L.A. law on everybody, as in this promotional teaser:

    Again, not the kind of tone I associate with the free-wheeling Muppets. Your mileage may vary. If you have Disney+ you should definitely check out Muppets Now… and then you should go back and stream some of the original Muppet Show episodes, bizarrely not on Disney+ but all over YouTube. They’re timeless, and they’ll be printing money long after this new show has faded.

    The premiere episode of Muppets Now is now streaming on Disney+. New episodes will drop Fridays through August.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Muppets Now, Disney+, Brian Henson, Jim Henson