Jon Hein knows TV. In the late 1990s, he coined the phrase "Jump the Shark" when he founded the site of the same name. Since then, he's written about television everywhere from The New York Times to TV Guide. In his column for Primetimer, he shares his thoughts on what's new and good on TV and the shows on his radar for the coming week.
Jim Henson’s Muppets made me who I am today — or at least a large part of me.
I'll preview the latest Muppet return in my picks below, but the context goes well beyond a three paragraph blurb.
The other night my youngest daughter Emily, who is now 23, asked if I'd like to check out Elmo's new late night talk show on HBO Max. Both of my daughters bonded over singing along with the Muppets as they grew older, so why not check out the latest take from the furry red monster. It didn't work for me (full disclosure: I'm not an Elmo fan). But what did work was checking out the classic Sesame Street episodes that HBO Max offers.
I was two when Sesame Street debuted in November of 1969, the perfect age for sunny days to sweep my clouds away. I cannot thank my mom enough for plopping me down in front of the TV to fully absorb all that the Children's Television Workshop had to offer in those heady days.
Sesame Street was my preschool. Early episodes in particular never talked down to children — I felt like I was in on the joke and part of an extended family. Only Big Bird could see his imaginary friend Mr. Snuffaluffagus. Oscar pulled no punches living in that garbage can and singing about trash. Ernie and Bert were close pals with different attitudes toward life. Kermit was the ultimate straight man, uh, frog. Mix in some trippy animation counting to 10 or reciting the alphabet, and you've got a better way to learn than most classrooms provide right now.
And Sesame Street was very funny, my first glimpse into sketch comedy. I hoped for vignettes featuring my favorite blue monsters Cookie Monster and Grover. I wanted to go to Roosevelt Franklin (Bah) Elementary School. Guy Smiley made me want to be a game show host in real life. And the lyrics to those songs they sang were building blocks in my education.
The Muppets aged right along with me. Next up was The Muppet Show featuring a mostly new cast of characters led by Kermit and more adult humor. I was 9 years old and could not get enough of the chaos. Miss Piggy, Animal, Gonzo and so many more made their debuts on this fake stage.
It wasn't long before the Muppets starred in their first feature film — The Muppet Movie. Sesame Street would soon jump the shark with the forced cuteness of Elmo, but the big screen still had that wit and sense of adventure. We all got caught up in Kermit's journey to Hollywood and finding the Rainbow Connection.
Then the marketing department took over, and the sequels got away from the core of what made the Muppets work. These beloved pieces of felt possess an innocence and savviness that makes you want to be a part of their world.
I've made a living in the entertainment field for the past couple of decades, and I thank Jim Henson and all of those great performers for getting me started. Checking out Sesame Street 50 years later, I still got that warm feeling watching three monsters count, run around and bump into each other over and over again.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
Last Chance U (NETFLIX)
So long, Kansas. Hello, Oakland. My favorite show about junior college football doesn't skip a beat this season.
The first four seasons profiled national JuCo powerhouses stacked with top talent trying to make it back to the big schools. These athletes made the most (or least) of their last shots to play the game they love as coaches filled with personality try to get another ring and keep the kids focused.
The last two seasons got too caught up in the awareness of the show and played to the cameras way too much. Relocating to Laney College was a wise choice. There's no scholarships, free housing or food – all students pay their own way to be there. Head coach John Beam isn't there to be a star - he's there to coach football as he has done for the past 40 years.
Right from the get go, you're invested in the defending champion Laney Eagles as they struggle to stay on top. The real-life obstacles they try to overcome are even more compelling than the final score of any game.
Frayed (HBO Max)
Thursday July 30 (Premiere)
I'm a sucker for a good fish out of water story. This comedy starts across the pond and then heads to a completely different hemisphere.
Simone lives a lush life in the late 80's in a London mansion with a perfect husband and two teenage kids. Her hubby dies from a heart attack under odd circumstances, and her world gets turned upside down forcing a return to her hometown in Australia where we find out who she really is.
Sarah Kendall is fantastic in the lead role. Everyone hates her in Australia, and that's just the start of the obstacles she needs to overcome to get back to London. Putting your life back together with your hometown reminding you, and your kids, of who you really are leads to some very funny situations.
Muppets Now (DISNEY+)
Friday July 31 (Premiere)
It's time to start the music, it's time to light the lights… again.
The Muppets are back for another TV show, but this time, they're going back to their sketch comedy roots.
The last Muppet reboot (the 2016 ABC series The Muppets) felt like The Office gone bad, forcing them into situations that made no sense. A single-cam mockumentary centered around Kermit and Piggy breaking up? Big swing, big miss.
The classic Muppet Show was a variety show with real-life guest stars, cheesy acts, and chaos on and off the stage. Muppets Now aims to bring that chaos to the way entertainment is consumed today, so prepare for lots of sketches featuring some of your favorites.
I've already spotted Kermit, Miss Piggy, Beeker and the Swedish Chef in preview clips. The Muppets can still work — as evidenced by their take on Bohemian Rhapsody and the Jason Segel-led 2011 movie.
I know the reviews from Statler and Waldorf won't be good ones, but if they're brutally honest, I'll be laughing right along with them.
If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.
Wear a mask. Stay healthy and safe.