The critics and journalists who attend the TCA Press Tour every year always represent a diverse range of opinions, but the biggest split that occurred this summer, to the best of my knowledge, came when we were given the opportunity to ask Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy some questions. ABC had brought the duo, along with executive producers Bill Prady and Bob Kushell, to sit on stage for a press conference promoting “The Muppets,” the primetime return of Jim Henson’s most iconic creations.
Some critics literally shouted over each other for the opportunity to ask the two ageless stars about issues like, “What’s it like to have your life play out on camera?” and the (headline-making) current status of Kermit and Piggy’s relationship. Other critics, though, weren’t quite so impressed — because, real talk — we were fighting for the opportunity to interview, well, puppets.
It’s a bit unfair to write off the puppeteers operating these characters during the panel as unimportant, if only because when you “meet” a Muppet or similar Jim Henson creation, you’re usually interacting with a very talented puppeteer/improvisor who keeps alive the illusion that you are, in fact, speaking with a beloved friend from childhood.
(During the TCA winter press tour earlier this year, PBS hosted a meet-and-greet opportunity with Cookie Monster. I called him “Mr. Monster,” because I am a professional journalist. “Call me Cookie,” he replied.)
But beyond that issue, seeing the backlash from critics being asked to treat Kermit and Piggy as legitimate panelists on par with ABC stars like Viola Davis or Ken Jeong (who also appeared that day) made me realize how deeply my personal affection for the Muppets runs, based on what’s come before. And on the eve of a new Muppets media property — one deliberately targeted toward an adult audience, but theoretically an adult audience that was raised on these characters — it’s worth asking what’s key to making the Muppets entertaining for the haters and lovers alike.
There have been eight Muppets films, two TV movies and eight Muppets TV shows. This newest entry, of course, is “The Muppets,” a mockumentary-style sitcom starring characters created by Jim Henson in the 1950s, sold to The Walt Disney in 2004, and reborn over and over again for new audiences ever since.
The most successful Muppets properties have had two things in common: One, the Muppets themselves are at the center of the story. This was a mistake made by the 2011 “Muppets” film, which focused way too much of the plot around muppet/Muppets fanboy Walter and human brother Gary (Jason Segel), trying to reunite the Muppets for one big show. Walter was a well-intentioned character, but not exactly a marquee player, and Segel occupied way too much screen time. The follow-up, “Muppets Most Wanted,” also suffered the same human problem (and I say that as a fan of Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and others involved). Humans belong on the outskirts of the Muppet action — yes, even including the celebrity cameos that are a staple of the franchise.
The other thing the best Muppets adventures have in common is the thing that’s kept the Muppets feeling relevant for decades, if not ahead of its time: a post-modern engagement with the entertainment industry. The original “Muppet Show” (1976-1981) was split between real sketches and the behind-the-scenes antics that occur during a sketch comedy show. “The Muppet Movie” is about Kermit traveling to Hollywood to become a big enough star to star in his own movie. And ABC’s “The Muppets” takes a similar track, though this time focusing on the behind-the-scenes drama of Miss Piggy’s new late night show. (Miss Piggy beat Samantha Bee to a behind-the-desk gig by months. Congrats, mademoiselle.)
This isn’t a universal truth, but a great many of today’s comedy series with some level of critical acclaim happen to be about performers and creators working in TV. From “The Comeback” to “Louie” to “BoJack Horseman,” some of the best laughs of the year come at the expense of the medium delivering them.
Even when the Muppets are technically playing something straight, there’s a twist. Take, for example, “The Muppets Christmas Carol,” which serves as a clean retelling of the Dickens classic… with the addition of Gonzo narrating the action, on screen, as Charles Dickens. The show that I know for certain hooked me into these characters was actually the 1980s animated series “Muppet Babies,” which was rich with pop culture parodies and references I was only barely beginning to understand. Being raised on that from an early age had formative qualities.
This newest go-’round isn’t necessarily intended to create new fans. There are plenty of jokes that adults may not want to explain to their kids, especially when it comes to the concept of Muppets as sexual creatures. But the show does replicate all those factors that have worked for the Muppets before, with some key updates.
It’s not just the way it uses (and at times pokes fun at) the mockumentary format, or the way it makes solid use of its celebrity cameos (Elizabeth Banks, in the premiere, gets some seriously great comedic opportunities, but never without a Muppet involved). It’s also the way that Kermit is experiencing not just some weight gain, but real pathos. “My life is a bacon-wrapped hell” is a far darker sentiment than we’re used to getting from the usually perky frog; one that hurts the heart, in the best ways; because in that first episode, it’s grounded in real heartbreak, creating emotional investment on a level I wasn’t expecting.
And it’s worth noting that Episode 2, “Hostile Takeover,” is a distinct improvement over the pilot (which was subject to a bunch of reshoots and understandably feels pretty disjointed). It’s a show that seems ready to find its groove relatively quickly (especially given the increased cultural interest in the late night format).
“Muppets” isn’t aiming itself at kids, but kids might still watch anyway. For not only is it a bad idea to underestimate younger viewers (who are way more sophisticated than any of us realize), but the really adult stuff will probably go over their heads. And here’s what matters: Of all the recent efforts to bring the Muppets back into the spotlight, this is by far the most engaged I’ve been in a long time. It’s not just because of nostalgia or the celebrity cameos or some pretty solid punchlines. “The Muppets” showcases characters I’ve always loved in a way that reminds me why I love them. Because flesh or felt and/or fictional, a great character always ends up feeling real.
“The Muppets” premieres Tuesday night at 8pm on ABC.