When the Walt Disney Company purchased Jim Henson’s The Muppets in 2004 it seemed like a match made in heaven. Both companies connected with children and adults for decades, so what better opportunity than to bring them together? (The history of the Mouse House’s attempts to purchase Kermit and friends actually is a bit more intricate than that, and less smiley.)
That being said, since owning the Muppets, Disney hasn’t known what to do with them. Outside of two theatrical features — the last released six years ago to solid reviews and middling box office — and a short-lived sitcom with a convoluted backstory, the Muppets generally have been relegated to short features and commercial opportunities. The arrival of Disney+ left many fans believing the Muppets would finally get a chance to entertain families in a proper venue.
It wasn’t until last year’s D23 that audiences heard about how Disney planned to use the Muppets. The brief commercial for “Muppets Now” was vague, doing little more than announcing that something was coming to Disney+ and it would involve the Muppets once again putting on a show. An announcement a week later about the company canceling a Muppets project being overseen by Josh Gad, and set to include music written by Oscar-winning duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, left many wondering what “Muppets Now” would offer that the Gad project didn’t.
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. 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.” Every episode — clocking in at about 20 minutes — consists of three to four segments, ranging from a cooking show with the Swedish Chef to a lifestyle vlog hosted by Miss Piggy.
The individual components of “Muppets Now” are solid, which is no surprise considering two of the three credited screenwriters — Bill Barretta and Jim Lewis — are longtime Henson associates. Each episode starts with Scooter putting up the episode and falling into issues, such as Fozzie Bear dropping in to pitch show ideas or needing Animal to keep him awake.
These moments last about a minute at the beginning and end of the story and do little more than remind you of the logistics of the show itself. The various pop-ups on show overseer Scooter (voiced by David Rudman) lead to some hilarious worded jokes and will catch the eye of those who know the Muppets’ penchant for puns and wordplay.
But of the four episodes made available, the conceit of the series never feels genuine. Scooter and the other characters are presented on a computer screen in various Zoom-like windows, removing the sense of community and camaraderie the Muppets are known for and reminding the audience that this is how content is delivered today. Do children really care how the Muppets come to them?
And the concept of a streaming series on a website like YouTube immediately feels out of date, especially knowing Disney already tried that with the Muppets once. If anything, the meta narrative would have worked better if the team was actually working on putting on a show for a Netflix-esque streaming service and dealt with the problems therein.
A web series also leaves the Muppets feeling like a far smaller band of players than they’ve ever been. Gone is the frame packed with different puppets ,and instead we get one or two per segment, usually broken up by being patched in, like Miss Piggy’s “Le Chat Room” segments of her Lifestyle series. It feels like this was always a post-pandemic series because of how limited the characters are per episode.
The Miss Piggy segments are the liveliest, as Piggy’s patented brand of narcissism remains cheeky and fun. Her special guests, including Linda Cardellini and Taye Diggs, work wonderfully with the puppets and this, in itself, could easily hold its own as a web series.
Other vignettes also could stand alone, including the Swedish Chef’s “Okie Dokie Kookin,” the second regular series throughout all the episodes next to Piggy’s. The Swedish Chef interacts with various famous culinary masters, including Danny Trejo. What makes this segment hilarious, beyond the Swedish Chef’s antics, is addition of new puppet Beverly Plume, who becomes a fully fleshed out character in just four episodes. Where the Swedish Chef is just wacky, Beverly is inquisitive, funny, and in one episode becomes incredibly thirsty, shall we say, for Chef Roy Choi.
But other series don’t work because of how limited they feel. Pepe the Prawn’s gameshow is fun, though it’s unclear if they brought in real people to play the contestants or actors, giving off a sterilized feeling. Muppets Field Test, a science show hosted by Bunsen Honeydew and his tormented assistant Beaker, also feels hampered, not just by “Muppets Now” legal person Joe, but by Disney itself.
A disclaimer by Kermit and Joe From Legal precedes every episode, reminding kids not try this at home. And from there the episodes do present science topics, like how heat works or how velocity is achieved. But where kids have grown up watching Beaker be hit in the face with things, the emphasis on drawings of Beaker feels like either an attempt to downplay the danger at best, or a budget constraint at worst.
Really, “Muppets Now” could have easily been in the vein of the other Disney+ short series’ like “Forky Asks a Question” or the SparkShorts. The belief that this is a show, specifically, never gets off the ground, leaving everything to feel clunky; it’s the “hello there, fellow kids” of the Disney+ world. This isn’t to say “Muppets Now” is bad. It’s great to see these characters back in action. “Muppets Now” just isn’t a great use of their talents, as always.
“Muppets Now” is available on Disney+.