If you thought reviving the Muppets as the stars of a behind-the-scenes mockumentary about the making of a late-night variety show sounded like a strained attempt to adapt “The Muppet Show” for a 21st-century audience, you were right. The initial video pitch, also show to advertisers at upfronts and at Comic-Con, wasn’t too bad, but ABC’s conspicuous foot-dragging on making full-fledged episodes of “The Muppets” available to critics raised fears that the show was a stinker, and those fears have more or less come to pass. ABC has been building hype for weeks, getting press outlets to report on the supposed “breakup” of Kermit and Miss Piggy as if it had happened in the real world — and as if their historical relationship wasn’t one of abused stalking victim to obsessive pursuer — but the show itself has been kept under wraps, and now we know why.
As the Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg writes, “That original presentation has been absorbed into the first two ‘Muppets’ episodes sent to critics, like a biologically weaker twin, only a biologically weaker twin that happened to be tighter and more efficiently funny.” Like the 2011 Muppets movie, which often felt like a fine Jason Segel-Amy Adams romantic comedy that happened to have Kermit the Frog in it, “The Muppets” seems strangely wary of its felt creations’ appeal — which would seem like a good reason not to make it at all.
It’s not that critics hate “The Muppets,” so much as that they find almost nothing in it to like. The good news, such as it is, is that “The Muppet Show’s” original episodes are available on DVD for a song (preferably one accompanied by banjo and sung in a swamp). They’re as delightful and timeless as ever, and a much better use of your time.
Brian Lowry, Variety
“The Muppets” brings with it name recognition, and the initial kick — in this new “The Office”-like faux-documentary approach — of seeing the laughs played on a more adult level, such as having fun with misunderstandings that can occur when one advertises being a “bear” online. Yet just as the 2011 Muppets movie featuring Jason Segel yielded a sequel that largely fizzled, the real question is how well this moderately amusing concept will wear, before those fuzzy costumes, and the related gags, begin to feel a tad threadbare. Despite a spate of planned star cameos, including Piggy cozying up to Josh Groban and Fozzie receiving an invite from Jay Leno in the second episode, the main challenge facing “The Muppets” is finding that sweet spot between injecting such irreverence into this venerable franchise and pushing too far or besmirching it in the eyes of more traditional fans.
Kate Aurthur, BuzzFeed
No, it’s not terrible: Bill Prady, its executive producer, also co-created “The Big Bang Theory,” and he is talented. But the new “Muppets” is ill-conceived, smug, unfunny, and mean-spirited. In the two episodes ABC (finally) put on its press site earlier this week, I laughed one time, and that was when the tone of the show-within-the-show abruptly shifts, and the populist religious scholar Reza Aslan is a guest. Does that gag indicate how up its own ass “The Muppets” is? Because it should. The running joke of the show is that Miss Piggy, the star, is a diva monster, and Kermit, her ex-boyfriend and producer, has to wrangle her constantly. Gone is the wit of the Miss Piggy character of the past; the brilliance of Jim Henson’s original creations are entirely absent here so far. And parents, if you were thinking about watching this with your kids, know that there is a waxing joke, fat jokes about Miss Piggy, a Tracy Anderson reference, and a riff on Fozzie’s lack of luck with online dating because “bear” is so frequently misunderstood in his particular case. I’ll be here crying if you need me.
Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter
Fears from certain paranoid quarters that “The Muppets” would yield an excessively adult, and therefore smutty, version of these beloved, family-friendly characters are, of course, unfounded. The Muppets have, in many of their incarnations, sustained a certain amount of double entendre, and this documentary-style glimpse behind the scenes doesn’t remove the gauzy filter in any way. Protective parents can rest assured that Sam the Eagle, representing network standards and practices, is there to protect children from words like “crotchety.” “The Muppets” gets no raunchier than jokes about cuddling, a soft Fozzie reference to responses to listing himself as a bear in his dating profile, and a fairly awesome comment about gender fluidity from Pepe the Prawn. Parents are more likely to have to explain to their children the etiquette of talent booking than anything dirty, and if you’re not prepared to tell your kid about why it isn’t polite to cancel a late-night guest at the last minute, I guess I can’t speculate on what other conversations might prove difficult.
Allison Keene, Collider
“The Muppets” (developed by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Bill Prady and Bob Kushall) had the opportunity with this new series to do something a little different. But there’s also a good argument to be made that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While “The Muppets'” somewhat stale setup feels a lot like a mix of “30 Rock” and “The Office” (and countless others, including ABC’s comedy juggernaut “Modern Family”), it also stays true to the Muppets’ signature meta style. And for fans, that should be enough. It just may not be enough to win any new fans in the adult demographic (for whom the show is skewed, although it’s also fine for kids, too).
Merrill Barr, Forbes
Rather than tap into the unfiltered joy that was present in years past, Bill Prady and Bob Kushell have opted instead to turn Henson’s creations into nothing more than everyday people, and therein lies the problem. The Muppets aren’t “real,” and they aren’t supposed to have “real” problems. Kermit isn’t supposed to be suffering the anxieties of running a television show, Fozzie isn’t supposed to be at odds with his girlfriend’s parents and Miss Piggy isn’t supposed to throw massive fits over the fact that she can’t find a date to a worthless awards show. By taking these creatures and turning them into “real” people, the only way to make them funny becomes having them do outlandish things. The only problem is they’re inherently outlandish just by existing, so everything they do just feels tame and lifeless by comparison.
Dominic Patten, Deadline
In trying to update the variety show format and vaudeville theatre of “The Muppet Show” that ran on TV decades ago, the new Muppets shows way too many of its strings. What little drama can be milked from the tension between Kermit and Miss Piggy — both with new partners, so to speak — is exhausted quickly. Like the old Muppets, the new Muppets has seemingly the entire gang back and a few new additions. Like the old Muppets, the new Muppets has guest stars on the show within the show. However, where the Debbie Harrys and John Denver got in there amid the Jim Henson created-puppets, the likes of a very game Elizabeth Banks and Josh Groban are little more than warm props.