‘The Muppets': Is the new TV show a faithful portrayal of the beloved characters?

24 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Pig Girls Don’t Cry’.

In ABC’s new mockumentary-style comedy, the furry friends’ personal lives and relationships (or lack thereof for former longtime couple Kermit and Piggy) are on full display, as cameras follow the characters at home and at work, which proves to be interesting when the office is the set of Miss Piggy’s new late-night talk show. By the 1980s, when the Jim Henson Muppet Empire had reached the size of a small city, he was running it out of a well-appointed townhouse in an elegant section of Manhattan.The new show featuring the Muppets is presented in a mockumentary style and follows the characters as they produce a new late-night show for ABC titled “Up Late with Miss Piggy.” The program also portrays the characters’ lives backstage.ABC’s much-hyped reboot of Jim Henson‘s ragtag gang of Muppets, which will soon be screened on Channel 7, shows off an edgier side, in both jokes and plot. Well, not exactly, as the premiere of ABC’s latest spin on the characters saddles them with enough relationship and work problems to look more like the staff of Dunder Mifflin than the crew behind the classic The Muppet Show.

I support nothing else about The Muppets except the pilot’s use of the great Jere Burns, drier than a silica gel packet as always, in a B-plot in which he refuses to accept his daughter’s interspecies relationship with Fozzie Bear. The consensus seems to be that there are glimpses of the old Muppets humor and the potential for an entertaining show but that the first episodes need some work. KERMIT THE FROG: A late-night host needs to be a larger-than-life personality and, let’s be honest here, Miss Piggy is larger than life in every sense of the word. The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever called the program “smart and often witty” and The Wrap’s Ned Ehrbar wrote that “for the most part, the show works.” On the other hand, others found that “the fun is limited,” that the show is “still finding itself… more potential than achievement” and is “disappointing… not hopeless.” Some reviewers also took issue with how the show is presenting Miss Piggy. I guess I’ve found the one marriage-equality hypothetical on which I’m a fuming mossback conservative: Turns out I am opposed to the sexualization of the Muppets and therefore to the implication that humans and Muppets1 can or should miscegenate.

He’s now going out with the new pig in town, Denise. (“What can I say, I’m attracted to pigs,” Kermit says in a confessional, which opens up the floodgates for how exactly the Muppets view interspecies relationships. This puts me roughly on the same team as the fainting-couch wearer-outers at the Donald Wildmon front group One Million Moms, who took a break from their courageous war on homofascist breakfast cereal and sinfully delicious lesbian yogurt on Monday to declare a fatwa on the new Muppets as “perverted” based solely on the ads — particularly the one that promises “full frontal nudity” and features Kermit the Frog in a casual locker-room pose. Following “The Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1981, the Muppets starred in their own films, including “The Muppet Movie” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” Their movies continued into the 1990s with films such as “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island,” but after the 1999 movie “Muppets from Space” failed at the box office, new movies like “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” premiered on TV instead. But the riff goes deeper than that- Banks had a behind-the-scenes, accidental role in Kermit and Piggy’s breakup. “My life is a bacon-wrapped hell on earth,” Kermit says at one point. What attracts Fozzie to humans twice his size, and is he then okay with always being the little spoon?) But the split has put Piggy in a particularly bad mood — well, worse than usual—and among her list of demands is that Elizabeth Banks be removed from the guest list for the upcoming episode. (ASIDE: She also wants her lilacs to smell more lilac-y, and Kermit mentions he’ll talk to God about it.

I liked Avenue Q and I liked Wonder Showzen and I remember Greg the Bunny being underrated and I think the original Ted is the best work to date by one of America’s worst filmmakers. I get that adorable felt characters indulging depraved grown-up urges and espousing cynical grown-up sentiments can be funny and subversive, because I’m not an idiot. Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron is called on to fill in for Banks, but in the end, Banks and Piggy go head-to-head in an awkward interview segment.

But shows like these work because they zero in on the discrepancy between the soft and brightly colored fantasies of comfort and security with which we nurture children and the often unpleasant and painful truths of the adult world. But so was the rest of Jim Henson’s band, which is precisely the reason his creations were not only influential in the fields of animation and television, but why ordinary citizens in 80 countries around the world just flat-out, downright like them. Films by Pixar, from “Toy Story” to “Inside Out,” all embrace the idea of having smart, fun humor that will appeal to children and adults alike, as the Muppets projects do. In fact, the show was really a world where seemingly odd alliances of puppets and people teamed up to make elusive principles like respect and harmony work. Interviews with those behind the upcoming “Star Wars” film, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” have suggested the new film will return to the practice of using practical effects, like the original Yoda puppet, rather than creating space creatures out of CGI. “Looking at all the ‘Star Wars’ movies and getting a feel for what even some of the early films did, combining real locations and special effects – that’s something we’re looking very seriously at,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said of the new movie.

The Guardian characterised it as another “misstep,” saying “What were previously sly winks to a grown-up audience are now grotesque full-body grimaces, delivered with depressing sledgehammer brutality.” Ouch. He learns that Piggy had a bad screen test with Banks when the former auditioned for The Hunger Games — there are games and people are hungry, who needs to read a script before an audition? New York Magazine, though, thought there’s some hope: “It might take some time to adapt to what the gang is trying to do here, but it’s definitely in sync with the Muppet mission of entertaining everyone at their own level,” their critic wrote. Kermit calls Banks back in, but when she arrives early to hang out with Piggy — and Kermit hasn’t revealed to Piggy that Banks has been reinstated — he has Scooter distract her.

The Journal’s television critic Dorothy Rabinowitz was much more optimistic, concluding that “It’s hard, after this encounter with the Muppets, to imagine any confidences from them, private or public, one wouldn’t want to hear more of.” The creators of the show said they’re not trying to exclude kids but the jokes are aimed at fans old enough to remember the Muppets from the ’70s and ’80s. “The Muppets kind of lost their way over the years when they became strictly a product for children,” said “Muppets” executive producer Bob Kushell in a recent Journal article about the show’s comeback. Muppets never break up.’” As two guys who’d been emotionally clobbered at an early age by the “Saying Goodbye” number from The Muppets Take Manhattan, we both sat there shaking our heads at the very idea.

The Muppet world was this bright, weird counterculture family that individual Muppets occasionally left to visit the outside world, which tended to be full of cravenness and corruption and jewel thievery. With Kermit’s apology, they two don’t necessarily make up, but Piggy agrees to let Banks on the show and all goes well… until Animal plays with Imagine Dragons that is. Occasionally the governing forces of that world would pull the Muppets apart; inevitably they would be reunited, to put on a show whose idea of “putting on a show” was already dated in 1976.

Henson was a young teenager when TV arrived, and he developed a quick fondness for “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” the famous early TV puppet show, and the work of puppet master Bill Baird. “The Muppets come from puppets, though that’s not exactly what they are,” he said. “They blend the puppetry tradition with TV and films.” “Critter technology,” he called it, with a warning. “You have to be careful of letting technology take over. Zoot pretty much admits he’s an alcoholic at the morning meeting, Janice is horrible at telling a story, and Animal… well, Animal apparently is quite the ladies’ muppet. “Too many shows, too many women,” he explains when having to decline Imagine Dragons offer to tour with them on the road. (Do you think Imagine Dragons’ actual drummer had any input on that offer?) But, when Mayhem meets Dragons, Animal may have found an escape route. This was hippie Jim Henson’s idea of a tragic fate, and yet on The Muppets all the vaudeville has been bled from the equation, and being a Muppet is just another job, the thankless kind about which they make workplace sitcoms. Cocreator Bill Prady also cocreated The Big Bang Theory, but the obvious touchstones here are The Larry Sanders Show and especially The Office, the hottest pseudo-documentary sitcom of, um, 2006 or so. Truth is, he said, he invested so much in them that when a major project was finished, he very often felt depressed. “I see every little mistake….I say it wasn’t worth it.

The Venetian blinds behind Kermit in his talking-head interviews are very Dunder Mifflin; the way The Muppets cops to the tiredness of the pseudo-doc approach by having Gonzo complain that it’s a tired approach is very wocka wocka wocka. But after some time has passed, you get a sense whether it was.” Not that Henson wasn’t someone just off the bus from Mississippi, creating things he didn’t understand. “I think it’s safe to say my work has helped create a tradition,” he said, and he also kept a close eye on his marketplace. But Fozzie has a bigger concern during “Pig Girls” — he’s dating Becky, a human, and her parents are not too pleased with the relationship. (ASIDE: It’s a shame Becky and Fozzie don’t work out, because as cruel as Jere Burns’ comments toward Fozzie are, his utter confusion with the whole situation is hilarious.) Fozzie tries to butter them up by offering to let them meet Miss Piggy, but she has her Banks-related blow-up right as she’s supposed to meet them. Then their attention is diverted, and you’re left with the people who like you for the right reasons.” For the Muppets, that didn’t exactly leave the room empty. They’ve serviced several generations of preschoolers what way, which is why the Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Bert and Ernie are part of the American vocabulary – a kind of universal language among people who grew up anywhere near a TV set.

But “Pig Girls” gives some more of a spotlight to Sam the Eagle, enforcing network’s standards and practices — don’t say crotchety, twiddle, or gesticulate on air. Whether the guest star was Lynn Redgrave or Johnny Cash, Debbie Harry or Charles Aznavour, it didn’t matter — they scanned as representatives of adult authority who’d somehow been booked into a demented corner of the world run by pigs and frogs and bears and whatever Sweetums was supposed to be. Now “Sesame Street” and the Muppets weren’t the first to combine entertainment with learning for kids. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Howdy Doody,” and dozens of local shows did it. Nearly 30 years ago, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns made Batman over as a grizzled and haunted alcoholic vigilante who feels young again only when he’s pulverizing muggers’ bones. Like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which premiered as a limited series that same year, Dark Knight was a critique of certain core aspects of the superhero narrative, but when both books proved to be hits, comics publishers seized upon the “gritty reboot” as a marketing ploy.

Do you agree with EW’s Jeff Jensen, who in his B- review said “the show stumbles out of the gate, subverted by a strategy for relevancy that’s not only a few steps behind the moment but misguided”? FOZZIE BEAR: It entails warming up the audience before the show, then throwing in a joke when we’re on the air, and ducking when Miss Piggy throws the joke back. Psychologists could probably list all the things the Muppets did right – things that looked easy, but would never have worked as they did without Henson’s own instinct, which time after time proved true and good. So he lent his “Creature Shop” to the creation or big-screen Turtles played by real actors, and the result was that parents poked their heads in to see what the kids were watching and stayed for the show. With Henson’s work, as with Walt Disney’s, it will be extraordinary if even his closest disciples can carry it on at the level he’s established. “People?” he said, laughing. “No.

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