Friday, September 25, 2015

So Much Pun: The Muppets on ABC

The cast of The Muppets, now airing on Tuesday nights on ABC.

When your online profile says 'passionate bear looking for love,' you get a lot of wrong responses. Well, not wrong… just wrong for me.
– Fozzie Bear, The Muppets on ABC.
Reboots of beloved shows are often approached with deep ambivalence by their most fervent fans: as eager as we are to see favourite characters in new situations, the risks make us wary of the rewards. Can our cherished memories survive in the bright light of contemporary sensibilities? Will the new creative voices share our love for the source material, and if they do, will we agree on the reasons for that affection? Like many 70s kids, I grew up on the Muppets. I've never felt especially addressed by most popular characterizations of so-called Generation X, but had Douglas Coupland titled his landmark 1991 novel "Generation Muppet" even a unrelenting non-joiner like myself would have had to jump on board. The Muppet Show wasn't just my first favourite television show, it was my entry into 70s culture. Kermit and company introduced me to Ethel Merman, Elton John, Harry Belafonte, and Johnny Cash (the latter of which, fed by way of father's old LP collection and later by Rick Rubin, has turned into a lifelong love), and to this day I cannot hear Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" without thinking, poignantly, of defenceless woodland creatures.

On Tuesday, ABC premiered The Muppets, bringing Jim Henson's beloved felt characters back to prime time – almost twenty years after ABC's Muppets Tonight bowed out, and almost four decades after The Muppet Show premiered back in 1976. In the meanwhile, of course, it isn't like we've been experiencing any Kermit-related drought. There was CBS's long-running Saturday morning cartoon Muppet Babies, as well as no fewer than eight theatrical films – including 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol (which I will here proclaim, without irony, as one of the finest film adaptations of Dickens' tale ever produced) and Jason Segel's 2011 hit The Muppets. Our favourite characters – Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal, and dozens of others – have had careers that any Hollywood actor would envy, starring in content of varying quality but also of remarkable breadth in tone and content. All of this to say that even though the new ABC series easily made my "Most Anticipated" list for the new fall season, I could approach the series premiere with very little anxiety. The Muppets certainly marks a new chapter in the Muppet corpus, but whether it succeeds or fails, The Muppets aren't going to disappear any time soon.

The new series – the brainchild of The Big Bang Theory's co-creator Bill Prady and Bob Kushell (Anger Management, 3rd Rock from the Sun) – is certainly a product of our era. (Prady is no stranger to the Muppets, having cut his television-writing teeth working for Jim Henson in the 80s , on The Jim Henson Hour and Fraggle Rock.) Just as the original series parodied the variety shows of its time (and later Muppets Tonight would move the scene to backstage of a television station), the ABC series is set behind the scenes of one of our current obsessions: the late-night talk show. (And talking frogs and pigs aside, the late-night chat show is certainly ripe for parody.) Familiar faces return, but with new roles to play: Miss Piggy is the host/diva of the show-within-the-show Up Late With Miss Piggy, Kermit is the show's overworked executive producer, Gonzo is its head writer, the Swedish Chef runs craft services, Scooter returns as Kermit's put-upon Boy Friday (trading in his signature clipboard for a smartphone) as the show's talent booker, Dr. Teeth is the leader of the house band, and Fozzie Bear has the still thankless job of warm-up comedian (along with Statler and Waldorf, always eager to heckle his every joke). The premiere episode boasts more than a dozen additional Muppet characters, major and minor, including the still gross looking Pepe the King Prawn, first introduced on Muppets Tonight. The new series also takes aim at the single-camera mockumentary comedy – first popularized by The Office but refined later by Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation, and still used with great success by ABC's own Modern Family. The conceit widens the story's scope from the professional to the personal, with the one-on-one interviews giving us insight into the characters' inner lives. (Kermit and Piggy have recently broken up, and their struggle to define their post-romantic relationship promises to be one of the central storylines of the season. Along with some moments of walking-and-talking, it all gives the show a bit of an early Aaron Sorkin feel.) The show also borrows from the Muppet films, embedding the puppets in a wider human world – including a subplot involving Fozzie's budding romance with a human woman (played by Another Period's Riki Lindhome, who despite the last summer's cancellation of Garfunkel and Oates is having a stellar year) that even implies an undercurrent of widespread social prejudice against those whom Greg the Bunny once artfully called "fabricated Americans."

Fozzie and Riki Lindhome meet the parents, on The Muppets.

The risks Prady and Kushell entertain, ironically, are precisely the reverse of the ones run over a decade ago by Greg the Bunny, Fox's short-lived comedy set behind the scenes of a struggling Sesame Street-esque children's show. Though I remain a fervent fan of the failed series (its cast included Seth Green, Eugene Levy, and a not-yet-established Sarah Silverman alongside a full complement of jaded, morally questionable puppets), diehard fans never quite forgave the show for adapting the characters – born of the lawless realm of public access television and the Independent Film Channel – to the more genteel norms of prime time network comedy. (If your appetite for raunchy, drug-using puppets remains unsated, you should try out MTV's Greg spinoff Warren the Ape, or far better yet, Israel's award-winning Red Band.) The Muppets ventures into precisely that same middle ground staked out by Greg the Bunny, but from the opposite direction. The darker, more mature tone (complete with borderline off-colour jokes referencing sex and drug addiction – reminding me more than once of Robot Chicken's classic Behind the Music take on Electric Mayhem – and an especially hilarious aside about Fozzie's online dating profile quoted at the top) will certainly be the most heated point of debate about the series, but it also gives it a kind of a fan-fiction feel that – if not completely original – is energizing.

The Muppets, in addition to providing the uniquely unsettling thrill of hearing Kermit the Frog use the word "sexy" in a sentence, is still firmly set with its established universe. For all its soft pushing of the envelope, some of the funniest moments from the premiere were call backs to the admixture of raucous absurdity, corny puns, subversive irreverence of The Muppet Show in its prime. (Witness Gonzo pitching a "Dancing with the Tsars" sketch for possible guest Tom Bergeron, or this laugh-out-loud Borscht Belt exchange between band members Floyd and Janice about the guest musical act – Floyd: “So, you know these guys, huh?” Janice: “Oh yeah! You know the original name of the band was Imagine Dragons?” Floyd: “Umm… That is their name.” Janice: “I know. They kept it.”) For this bred in the bone member of Generation Muppet, they had me at Beaker's first anguished scream.

The Muppets airs on Tuesday on ABC, and on Mondays on CityTV in Canada. Its second episode airs next week.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.           

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