TV TATTLE

With Muppets Now, Disney has finally made a good Muppet show

  • "Keep believing, keep pretending, and in that moment, you too could be a Muppet. That’s the guiding principle of Muppets Now, the Muppets’ new streaming series and Disney’s best effort to date at bringing Henson’s most famous creations back to TV," says Erik Adams of the new Disney+ Muppets series. "It’s not the entirety of what makes the Muppets work (and some of those other qualities are, fortunately, on display here, too), but it’s a good starting point. On Muppets Now, the Muppets get grown adults to answer deeply personal questions, smear their faces with makeup, and splatter a pizza parlor’s entire menu against a wall. It’s the kind of show where a tense taco cook-off between Danny Trejo and The Swedish Chef ends, like Kermit and Joey’s ABCs standoff, in a heart-melting show of affection. Muppets Now largely succeeds at folding flesh-and-blood guests into its proceedings, and for the most part shows no wear from the bumpy ride the characters took to Disney+. It’s an intriguing package to put the franchise in, a variety show with unscripted elements presented as the Muppets’ big foray into subscription on-demand video—with all the teetering on the edge of disaster that implies."

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    • Muppets Now feels like it's using maybe a tenth of the brand's potential, failing to capitalize on what ought to be TV's deepest ensemble of scene-stealers: "You would think that with all of the available characters, and the endless range of unscripted formats, repetition would be easily avoidable," says Daniel Fienberg. "Instead, with four sketches per episode, each of the episodes I've seen features 'Lifesty With Miss Piggy,' a self-improvement show she insists should be 'Lifestyle,' and a cooking competition in which the Swedish Chef goes head-to-head with a celebrity chef making the same dish. Three episodes include a 'Muppet Labs Field Test' segment with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker destroying things in the process of exploring a single scientific concept, while there are multiple 'Mup Close and Personal' interviews and several installments of a game show hosted by Pepe the Prawn. Leaving aside the reality deficit here — no correspondent-driven show of this sort would be able to maintain a production schedule having so few different types of segments — the result is the world of the Muppets feeling small and insular, which should never be the case. There's a temptation to wonder if the recent COVID-19 quarantine is behind the decision to avoid packing the frame with multiple Muppets. But apparently, the sketches were all shot well before the quarantine, so that head-scratching limitation can't be so easily excused away."
    • Muppets Now is geared towards kids raised on short YouTube videos: "At a brisk six episodes, the series doesn’t waste time with its setup, keeping the meta 'backstage' chatter (a Muppets staple) to a minimum," says Caroline Framke. "As becomes clear in its cold opens, in which a harried Scooter tries to get the final cut locked despite Kermit and everyone giving him dozens of last minute notes, Muppets Now isn’t a variety show in the traditional Muppet sense. Instead, it’s a series of sketches and unscripted demonstrations delivered in the style of YouTube channels, the better to appeal to the generation it’s now targeting via Disney Plus."
    • Muppets Now almost feels like a corrective to ABC's failed The Muppets series: "That it was designed for a family-oriented platform has possibly kept it from the 'adult' excesses of The Muppets, but it also looks for inspiration and substance to The Muppet Show, the late ’70s-early ’80s syndicated series that introduced most of the characters who didn’t come from Sesame Street," says Robert Lloyd, adding: "I’ve seen four episodes, out of six — too few! — and the only segment that felt off to me — and, yes, this probably says more about me than it does about Muppets Now — is one in which Kermit displays his photobombing skills. I mean, it was fine; I just didn’t buy it as a thing he’d be into. (Gonzo, sure; Fozzie, absolutely.) The abuse Beaker takes in the 'Muppet Labs' episodes can be a little distressing — there is an emotional as well as a slapstick component to it — but that always was an asymmetrical toxic relationship. I hope these half-dozen episodes are a token of more to come; I want to see where else they take it. Within the bounds of Muppetness, of course."
    • Muppets Now improves on the failed ABC sitcom because it understands what the Muppets are and why we love them: "They’re not mopey stand-ins for us but wild, demonic imaginings of ourselves, unburdened by impulse control and the laws of physics," says James Poniewozik. "Like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, the bespectacled scientist of Muppet Labs, this show knows there’s no point in getting access to a budget and a camera if you’re not going to blow things up. But with the segmented format of Muppets Now, you lose the big-scale interaction among characters that animated the 1970s variety show. The connective tissue here mostly consists of Kermit and Scooter teleconferencing. There are some nice throwaway jokes there. (Scooter’s shared computer desktop includes the random folder 'UFOs?') But just like all the Zoom webinars you’re attending these days, it’s not quite the same."
    • The conceit of Muppets Now never feels genuine: "In the end, Muppets Now leaves the Muppets exactly where they’ve been for the last decade: still charming but stymied by a company that continues to see them as irrelevant," says Kristen Lopez. "In this case, the Muppets have taken to the internet — ironic considering Disney’s push a few years ago to put them on YouTube — to release a streaming show called Muppets Now."
    • Muppets Now isn’t a show with a coherent overarching plot or character arcs, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: "Muppets Now, like the many Muppet-led shows before it, takes inspiration from, homages, and parodies the format of the day," says Michelle Jaworski. "For both The Muppet Show and Muppets Tonight, it was a variety show. For the short-lived The Muppets, it was a mockumentary about what went on behind the scenes of a late-night talk show. Muppets Now is often akin to a YouTube show or a webseries in scope or feel; much of it feels low-tech in that you can believe that the Muppets are pulling all the strings only to tear them apart. Many of the recurring sketches are instantly recognizable to what we’ve already seen online."
    • Muppets Now proves it isn't easy to capture the old Muppets magic: "I really wanted to love Muppets Now, but after seeing half of the episodes that will be rolled out weekly this season, all I can do at this point is like it," says David Bianculli. "That's because as I watch Muppets Now, I remember Muppets then, back when the writing was super sharp and the guest stars were great."
    • Kermit’s character has shifted in the modern era—a little less “Rainbow Connection,” a little more disgruntled dad: "It’s noticeable, in Muppets Now, that Kermit is kind of the group’s boss, and little more than that—there aren’t many segments where he shows up to be a funnyman or a singer," says Sonia Soraiya. "His most frequent recurring bit is in the legal disclaimers that come before Bunsen and Beaker’s science show, where a mammalian lawyer muppet named Joe from legal cackles to the audience that they better not try the experiments at home. Even here, Kermit’s the straight man. If Muppets Now seeks to reclaim the glory of The Muppet Show in future seasons, they will have to find a place for Kermit—his strange sensitivity, his sinuous limbs, his terror of Miss Piggy’s sexuality, and his robust, undying optimism, all rolled into one."
    • Muppets Now benefits from not trying to appeal to adults: "It’s got wit, warmth and charm in abundance, and although it includes adults in its fun it doesn’t cater to them, as so many children’s programs – especially in rebooted form – fall into the trap of doing, by letting an underlying cynicism intrude," says Lucy Mangan. "Not all the segments work all the time but it doesn’t matter. There will be another one along in a minute and there are always enough jokes to keep you going. Muppets Now has the good, pure, funny heart of the Muppets Then and that is phenomenon enough."
    • Executive producer Bill Barretta says his team made sure Jim Henson's heart was infused in Muppets Now along with his sense of fun: “I think the atmosphere of play and that all ideas and suggestions are valuable and valid was something that Jim loved to do as well,” he says. “(Jim) was open to any good idea. So, I really wanted (this) to be a very collaborative experience between the writers and the directors and the performers and the Muppet studio folks who were coming in, just making it feel very collaborative. And so, when people feel like we're moving into a 'new era' now — whatever that means — and that this is a 'new way,' I just think if you stay true to who the characters are, then the characters grow themselves, as we do. They're always growing and changing, but there's a little path that we all walk along that we know when you go too far and when you don't.”
    • Muppets Now is an attempt to get back to basics after other recent efforts to reboot the characters fizzled out: “The thinking is to stop trying so hard to be like everybody else and just be the Muppets,” says Barretta. “Let’s celebrate the fact that they all have to deal with each other and just be silly and play and entertain again.”

    TOPICS: Muppets Now, Disney+, The Muppets, The Muppet Show, Bill Barretta, Jim Henson's Muppets




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