'The Muppets' Get Good Help From The Live Humans
What's most striking about the first two episodes of ABC's new The Muppets, premiering Tuesday night, is that the live celebrities seem to have a better idea of what a Muppet-centered show should feel like than the Muppet characters do.
Framed as a mock documentary following the behind-the-scenes happenings at Miss Piggy's late-night talk show, The Muppets tries to build on the joke that the Muppets have the same personal problems as other celebrities: Fozzie can't get the approval of the father of his girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), while Kermit and Piggy have broken up but still have to work together, since he's her producer.
What's missing from the show in the early going – and this is a great example of a show that's legitimately different enough and presents enough logistical challenges that an awful lot could happen between the first two episodes I saw and, say, ten episodes from now – is the tightly controlled, confidently knowing tone that marked the old Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. There's at least one scene in the pilot that seems designed to be actually dramatic and just ... struggles to get there.
There's also not quite enough affection in the writing for some of the characters – particularly Miss Piggy, whose fundamentally performative, mock-European vanity has been transformed here into her being a genuinely sour, mercurial jerk. In the quest to make the show feel more "adult," they seem to have spun the dial a little too far in the direction of every "cowering employees working for monstrous boss" story.
Where you do see a promising playful tone emerge, perhaps oddly, is when the live-action celebrities show up. Both Elizabeth Banks and Tom Bergeron have just the right silly, completely committed approach to acting in a Muppet project (as Jason Segel did in the movie he made). Bergeron's exit line, in particular, really gives you a sense of what this show could potentially be – it's lightly goofy, self-deprecating, simple nad funny. Banks, too, looks like she's been around Muppets her whole life and knows exactly how to exist in their world. And the second episode features Josh Groban, a guy who has proved to be very game again and again and is the same way in this environment.
There are elements of a good show here: Sam the Eagle making declarations about what you can't say and do on television is always welcome, there's a particular monster on the staff with a great mouth that makes me laugh, and there are flickers of good satire in places, like an unexpected Piggy theory about libraries in the second episode. Both of the first two episodes have a handful of good jokes. It still needs a little time to develop, but I find myself cautiously optimistic.
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