The Muppets Reboot Ruined Miss Piggy

21 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Find Out Which A-Lister Inspires Miss Piggy’s Latest Diva Meltdown on The Muppets Premiere.

In an exclusive clip from Tuesday’s premiere episode of ABC’s new faux reality series The Muppets, the showbiz diva gives ex Kermit the Frog a list of outlandish demands for her late-night talk show Up Late with Miss Piggy – even striking out at one A-list star. Last spring, when Paul Lee, the president of ABC Entertainment, announced that the network’s new version of the Muppet franchise would be “more adult,” my inner Statler and Waldorf stirred in the balcony.I know where I’ll be: sitting in my family room, laughing and smiling along with the colorful creatures on the screen, just as I was nearly 40 years ago when the original Muppet Show aired (1976-1981). Miss Piggy is the host of Up Late, and Kermit the executive producer, a role he took on before the couple’s shocking split this past August after 40 years as a couple.

The canny publicity campaign for their latest venture, ABC’s sitcom The Muppets, “leaked” “news” to the tabloids that Kermit and Miss Piggy had broken up, and Kermit had taken up with a pig named Denise, drumming up attention and ire in nearly equal measure. In the clip, Miss Piggy scolds her assistant before hammering her amphibian former love with orders: “I’m not happy with the janitor knowing what I throw away, can you have someone put a layer of generic trash over my private trash,” she insists. Rebecca Traister, in a piece last week headlined “The Muppets should not be having sex, people,” ably captured the sentiment that the Muppets, perfect and lovely (and, sure, fictional), should not be besmirched by tawdry gossip and innuendo. “Please stop talking, writing, and otherwise promoting the upcoming Muppets television reboot by alluding to them actually fucking,” she wrote. “They are Muppets.” But the new show spends far less time than the (highly effective) promotional materials on the unseemly prospect of Muppet boinking, committing instead a less salacious form of Muppet blasphemy: turning the Muppets into neurotic adults. Kermit has already moved on from the demanding diva, and is reportedly dating a head of marketing at ABC named Denise, who, coincidentally, is also a pig. The show, co-created by Bill Prady, a muppeteer from wayback, finds Kermit and his pals plagued by work stress, day-to-day irritations and relationship problems.

Which leads to the more important assumption ABC and creators Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) and Bob Kushell (Anger Management) are making: That you have long harbored some interest in what the Muppets do in their down time. It melds the backstage set-up of The Larry Sanders Show or 30 Rock (fans of which will recall that Kenneth the Page already thought everyone on that show was a Muppet) with the mockumentary tricks of The Office: the talking head interviews, the glances at the camera.

They belonged to all of us, always. “The Muppet Show” from the 1970s was kid-friendly but also a grown-up showbiz sendup, slapstick and sophisticated, anarchic and droll. They’ve either been too cute (The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz), too knowing (Muppets Most Wanted) or too bizarrely in thrall to whatever the zeitgeist happens to be (Lady Gaga and the Muppets’ Holiday Spectacular) to work.

And it is the cast that has drawn generations of children and adults into the Muppet family, characters that are loving but not without fault, irreverent but not without kindness, hilarious but not without sincerity, and struggling but not without hope. The resulting comedy is knowing, self-referential, low-energy, and a little jaded, perfectly promising qualities in a new sitcom, unless that new sitcom stars a green frog beloved for self-identifying as a “lover and dreamer.” The Muppets turns the rainbow connection grey. The Muppets, historically, have been an ebullient and silly group who love to entertain people, not in some crass or soulless way, but in a generous and good-spirited one.

It’s a spoof documentary full of cutaway character interviews, which would have been a sophisticated touch had this been made in 2005, but now just comes off as grimly rote. And anybody who has grown up with it, as we all did, will have that nostalgic feel but also have their minds blown by the new way we’re doing the show.” And it’s got jokes the kids won’t get. Henson was a childhood hero of mine and an icon in our family, an inspiration of creativity, hopefulness, and kindness, someone whose ambition in life, as he once stated, was to “leave the world a better place than when I got here.” When he did abruptly leave the world in 1990 at the age of 53, he most certainly had achieved that goal. Muppets may offer a slightly more adult take than you’ve seen in other incarnations, but it is not the R-rated puppet show some feared (or some, who remember the delights of Avenue Q, may have hoped for). In The Muppets, though, anxiety and overwork creep in. (The mockumentary format is also not a great fit for Muppets, who have many skills, but immobile eyes.

This is a version of “The Muppets” in which Miss Piggy not only deep-kisses Josh Groban but gestures to her bosom and says she’s “had these hiked.” (All 12?) In which the Electric Mayhem sax player Zoot suggests he’s in recovery. Like, when one of the band members — upon learning that he’s in a production meeting — mistakenly believes he’s in an AA meeting. (A Muppet alcoholic!) Or when, in Episode 2, Pepe the Prawn explains his admiration for hunky Josh Groban.

Shortly after his death, while sitting with my family on my childhood back porch and discussing Henson, I remember looking out the backyard toward our garage. There are a few mild sexual allusions — a joke about bears and Internet dating sites, a quip about gender fluidity — but nothing that’s going to rob any innocents of their innocence. Moving lids and irises are required for the deadpan glances to camera so necessary to this format.) There is still the occasional bolt of pure Muppet-y sweetness, like a series of jokes that rely on staff writer Pepe the King Prawn’s multiple claws, but the first two episodes largely focus on the bummers and indignities of workaday life. I wondered aloud: “Wouldn’t it be great to paint a mural of the Muppets all along the side of the garage?” To which my father, always one to prod, nudge, and support the dreams of his children, replied: “You can’t paint one on the garage, but you can in your bedroom.” That was all we needed to hear.

Fozzie Bear is a dating a human woman (Riki Lindhome), a premise mined for anxiety and adult content (“When your online profile says passionate bear looking for love, you get a lot of wrong responses”). In the ensuing months, my brothers and I — with the much-needed assistance of a future sister-in-law who happened to be an artist — sketched and painted the Muppets on my bedroom wall. While he’s willing to produce Piggy’s show, romantically he’s moved on to a sweeter, more-soft-spoken porker called Denise. (“What can I say,” Kermit confesses in one of those mockumentary asides, “I’m attracted to pigs.”) There’s fun to be had in Miss Piggy’s tantrums and outbursts (“I look like a half-naked Hawaiian just dug me up at a luau”) and in some of the mild jabs at show business — some of them built around guests Elizabeth Banks, Josh Groban and Tom Bergeron. Bobo the Bear sells his daughter’s Girl Scout Cookies around the office, but after having little luck he mourns that he’s teaching his daughter “that she can’t rely on her father.” Gonzo struggles to come up with bits that please Kermit.

Episodes are full of clawing and backbiting and Hollywood egotism and godawful musical performances by real-life bands that exist as nothing other than flabby filler. We’ll leave it to those better versed in the canon to judge whether all the Muppets get their fair due or whether the shift in the Piggy/Kermit relationship damages our connections to the characters. And everyone is working overtime for a nightmare boss, an egomaniac with a horrible temper, unpredictable whims, and a hatred of direct eye contact: Miss Piggy. The whole thing so desperately wants to mimic the edginess of Sanders, but this is achieved at the cost of everything you ever loved about the Muppets. What matters, for the moment, is that the show is relying too heavily on our built-in affection for those characters and expecting us to do too much of the heavy lifting.

On paper the concept, from Bill Prady, the creator of the “The Big Bang Theory” who began his career as a production assistant for Jim Henson, makes perfect sense. Even at her worst—hitting Kermit all the time, for example—she was the sour powder slathered onto the Muppet gummy bears: the lip-puckering tang that made them taste so good. In recent years, Piggy has even become a kind of feminist icon, authoring a piece for Time, “Why I am a feminist pig.” On The Muppets she is, it’s true, a woman with a late-night show, but otherwise she’s a real boor. They have relationship issues. (Fozzie Bear is interspecies-dating a human, played by Riki Lindhome of Garfunkel and Oates.) They wrestle with their sexual identities. (“Gender is fluid!” cries the crustacean Pepe. I was reminded just how special that wall was — or rather, how special my parents were for allowing us to paint it — when Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch gave his famed “Last Lecture” in September 2007.

In the second, she’s been in a hellacious mood for days—the crew hides beneath their desks, rather than risk eye contact—because she doesn’t have a date to an awards show, and only a famous person will appease Piggy’s ego. Eventually Kermit hooks her up with Josh Groban, whom she tries to impress by forsaking her own tastes and going highbrow, pushing to interview some authors even though she’s never read a book. During his lecture, Pausch reflected on his own childhood and recalled asking his parents’ permission to paint on his bedroom wall when he was a teenager. “I want to paint things on my walls,” he said, “things that matter to me.” So it was that he set to work painting the things that mattered to him: a quadratic equation, chess pieces, a rocket ship, a submarine, and Pandora’s Box. Bossy, shrill, hysterical, irrational, moody, and all the other condescending words that are disproportionately used to describe and police women’s behavior, all truly apply to this iteration of Miss Piggy. (Except frumpy. A handful of asides manage to capture the spirit of old, and Laurence Fishburne pops up in a second-episode cameo so unstoppably game it manages to single-handedly overshadow everything that came before it.

Welcome to the TV-business model of 2015, Muppets.) Oddly enough, in a year when TV is ransacking its junk drawers for reboots — like NBC’s “Heroes Reborn,” better named “Heroes Redundant” — “The Muppets” is one revival that actually makes sense. Making Missy Piggy so awful has dour ramifications for the rest of the Muppets: Why are they working so hard for this pig, who can’t even deign to remember Fozzie Bear’s name? The characters are timeless, and malleable in the right hands. (The 2011 fan-letter-cum-movie by Jason Segel rethought the franchise’s universe but maintained its spirit.) After the end of “Parks and Recreation,” TV could use a raucously good-hearted workplace comedy. This reinvention just feels a little overthought. “The Muppets” does not need to be snarky to be smart, and there’s nothing antiquated about joy.

The Muppet who comes off worst is Kermit, who spends his days sneakily managing Piggy’s moods, working up the nerve to disobey her, a mild-mannered middle manager.

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