A bit of trepidation stirred in me when I first heard that the new Muppets TV show would be “more adult.” I’m in my forties, and yet I still enjoy watching old episodes of The Muppet Show just as much as I did when I was a kid and they were new, even if sometimes for different reasons. The Muppets are both ageless and timeless, and I think a lot of their appeal to adults is based on vicarious wish fulfillment – on some level, we wish we could have as crazy a life as the Muppets seem to.
ABC’s The Muppets, which premieres tonight at 8:00pm ET/PT, could be broadly defined as “What would it be like if the Muppets were on The Office, but with a late-night talk show instead of a paper company?” The behind-the-scenes of the talk show, called “Up Late With Miss Piggy,” is the setting for the show, which creates a lot of comic potential with Kermit as her long-suffering executive producer and (as I’m sure you’ve heard by now) former boyfriend, and the rest of the Muppets as the show’s crew. (I did keep waiting for a joke pointing out the fact that the only female late-night talk show host on a major network is a fictional pig with too much eye shadow, but if it’s coming it’s not in the first two episodes.)
The Muppets has a lot of what has always made the Muppets great. There are plenty of corny jokes and wonderful little asides. (Kermit, after Piggy complains that the lilacs in her dressing room “don’t smell lilacy enough,” notes to himself “Talk to God about lilacs.”) There are appearances from Muppets old and new – including the welcome return of the unnamed Muppet Newsman – and of course there are human guest stars. The first two episodes (the only ones I’ve seen thus far) highlight Elizabeth Banks and Josh Groban, but also include brief appearances by people who are notably on other ABC shows, including Laurence Fishburne (Black-ish) and Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars). This sort of obvious cross-promotion is to be expected, I suppose, but if it happens in every episode it may get tiresome.
I like that The Muppets treats its audience like human adults, but I’m not as pleased that it treats its characters that way. Just because I remember when Muppet Babies was on TV doesn’t mean I need to think about where Muppet babies might actually come from, particularly when interspecies couples are involved. I don’t need, or want, to see Kermit go through a mid-life crisis, or hear Miss Piggy talk about the work she’s had done on her bosom (which immediately makes me wonder why there are only two, seeing as how she’s a pig, which is also something I don’t need to think about). I want to see Dr. Bunsen Honeydew getting people’s attention at the staff meeting by tasering Beaker (which he does, wonderfully). I want to see Fozzie be funny by, ironically, attempting to be funny and failing. I want to see Gonzo do ridiculous things that no sane whatever-Gonzo-is would even consider. I want to see Animal be his own unique self. In other words, I want to see the Muppets be the Muppets, and not see them parody shows like The Office, because parody of satire is at best weak comedy. I really, really do not want to see Josh Groban French-kiss Miss Piggy.
The Muppets has a lot going for it. Its very funny moments which recall the best of the Muppets make the show worth watching on their own, and the new “more adult” themes might work well if they can make them less awkward and more… chaotic, weird, silly, and corny – in other words, more Muppety. I want to see this show succeed, and I think it’s very good; it just needs to find a better balance, and it could be great. It’s already much better than most sitcoms on TV; it’s just not quite as good as a Muppets sitcom could and should be.
The Muppets airs on Tuesday nights on ABC, starting tonight, at 8:00pm ET/PT.