[Review] - The Muppets, Season 1 Episode 1, "Pig Girls Don't Cry"

Courtesy of ABC Television Studios
Before I begin (I feel like I've been starting every review off this way lately), I want to take a moment to address some stupidity and derision that is taking place on the internet regarding The Muppets. Not specifically, but well illustrated by this piece posted on io9 the other day, that reads like a frothy indictment of the creators of this newest Muppet series as violators of a sacred heritage, a platonic ideal as envisioned by Jim Henson and passed down through the decades. That's bullshit. Complete and utter bottom gravy. And in the run up and aftermath of the premiere, I've been seeing a lot of it. The Muppets is being taken to task for assaulting the pristine memory of Henson's creation by infecting the bears and pigs and chickens and things with that most corruptive of elements: adult perspective humour. The faith and family values "action" group One Million Moms is boycotting the series as perverted, in what is likely an action taken based on reading a synopsis rather than actually tuning in. But I want to go to the heart of the matter, that the complaint that a Muppet show with mature humour is somehow transgressing something sacrosanct.

Which, as I've said, is bullshit. The modernized Muppets are actually acting exactly as Jim Henson intended for them to act when he created the Muppet Show to begin with. The outrage machine that the internet has turned into is breathing hot air into their own sails over a nostalgic and cherry picked memory of the Muppets rather than a historical perspective. As an amateur Muppetologist, allow me to give you some perspective. Jim Henson was a man constantly in search of a creative outlet for every facet of every idea that occurred to him. While his primary outlet was puppetry, he was a filmmaker first and foremost. And his ideas could get a little strange. Look no further than Tale of Sand or Time Piece for proof of that. When he created Rowlf and Kermit (his first of the traditional Muppet brood), they were to fulfill niches in whatever program he was developing at the time. And they moved from project to project, fulfilling any new niches that came up. Just because Jim Henson contributed (not created, that is an often claimed mistake) to Sesame Street, and just because he worked in puppetry does not mean that he was positioning himself as the next great hope for children's programming. He recognized a way for his creations to be used to the greatest good, but he was a firm believer that puppetry was as much an adult medium as a child's.

Hence, the Muppets. The Muppet Show was created purposefully as an antithesis to Sesame Street's children's programming. Always remember, the pilot pitch episode was titled Sex & Violence. Henson believed that he could tell adult jokes to an adult audience with puppets doing adult things, and he was right. The Muppet Show was hugely successful, not because kids were watching it, but because everyone was watching it. And because of the standards and cultural acceptances of the day, things had to be toned down. Toned down, not absent. Modern standards and cultural acceptances allow the new show to get away with being more overt. Had the same been true in the seventies, Henson would have done so. They still walked the line heavily, and frequently. So here are some things to remember about the original Muppet Show, to put the new Muppets in perspective: Gonzo is a lech to pretty much all the female guests, and when he isn't, someone else usually is; Animal is based on Who drummer Keith Moon in action and attitude (he regularly chased women around while grunting); Kermit regularly traded innuendo with guests, and flirted heavily with the women gracing his stage; the title of the hit song "Mahna Mahna" was taken from a Swedish sexplotation film that Henson and Frank Oz watched in a cinema near the Muppet Studios when they were playing hooky one day, because it was the seventies, and Henson was something of a hound when it came to ladies.

So why the outrage? Because people aren't remembering the Muppet Show, they are remembering a general sense of Muppets, a sense that has become rounded at the edges over time and their initial experience. As the Muppets became more successful and profitable, Henson smoothed things out in order to attract as broad an audience as possible. He also became more interested in technology than in cultural taboo. The movies were designed to appeal to whole families, a concept that kept getting whittled down until you reach the blahs of the early 2000s, which saw the Muppets appear in a series of terrible made for TV movies designed for kids, by Disney. Muppet Babies was entirely a merchandising move, designed to generate revenue. Fraggle Rock was again designed specially for an early learner audience. And study of his latter years finds that Henson grew less interested in his Muppets, having already used them to achieve his cultural subversion, than in exploring new projects, returning to Kermit and the gang only when he had to raise money for something else. So before people get angry that the new Muppet show is a butchery of the sacred memory of the Muppets, gain a little perspective and understand that this is likely something that Jim would have been all for. But he's also been dead for 25 years, and maybe we should stop asking ourselves if he would have done something and just do something.

And they have. And while it isn't great yet, it is still very good. And now... the review, with very special guests stars Tom Bergeron and Elizabeth Banks!

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that know it's time to get things started.

Can I, as a life long Muppet fan, separate the Muppets from the show? Yes, I do this all the time. I'm a fan or Jurassic Park and Star Trek, and being those things didn't stop me from stepping back from my fandom and recognizing that the last two additions to those franchises were horrid, ghastly things that deserve to be forgotten by time. Nor does my apathy for the MI franchise prevent me from recognizing that, despite its cliches and disinterest in doing anything new, Rogue Nation was a pretty solid flick. So, while on the surface, I am a bubbly lady-child tittering at the prospect of seeing Kermit and Gonzo and Fozzie on a weekly basis, as a student of analysis and a champion of story telling, I am able to divorce myself from the subject, and view the subject matter with unbiased vision.

The Muppets isn't great. But, I wasn't expecting it would be. It's a pilot episode. Go and look at literally any pilot, and chances are it more closely resembles trash than the series that came after it. TV shows are living things, and writers and producers (good ones anyway) recognize when something is working, when something isn't, and what needs to change. Very few series are born perfect. And Joss Whedon's belief that the first six episodes are the true pilot, and that after six the writers finally get some perspective on what it is they are creating tends to hold true. If judged on their pilots alone, some great series would never have existed. Pilots are all about potential. What a series at large could look like, before the series exists at all. An example I use a lot if 30 Rock. 7 fantastic seasons, even if NBC didn't care for the show. But go back and watch that first episode. It's a hot mess. It has no idea what it wants to be. And it took until episode 3 for the writers to find the spark, and arguably until episode 6 (hey, look at that) before they fell into the groove that would define the show for the next seven years.

So, The Muppets isn't great. But it was occasionally very good. So long as the writers allow the experience to guide them rather than keeping to a ridged preconceived idea, then things will continue getting better. Perhaps the great folly of the pilot is that the writers opted to recycle the material they used in their pitch presentation. That ten minutes of footage made far better use of the same jokes, if only because those jokes were built mostly to be faced paced one liners, and didn't have the legs to support a humorous arc themselves. Case in point, Fozzie meeting the parents of his human girlfriend. In the pitch, that scenario generated a couple really solid laughs from some very solid jokes. But stretching that out as the B-plot of an entire episode took the joke beyond it's natural limits. I was laughing more because the father was played by former Wynn Duffy Jere Burns than because the situations were funny. They weren't. This was the case with most of the recycled material. Everything seemed to have more life in the pitch than in the episode (Beaker getting tased was another bit that crackled in the pitch but seemed hollow in execution).

Where the episode did work was in flushing out the design of the show. Setting in backstage of a late night talk show, a la Larry Saunders, is a brilliant format, not only because it is the natural evolution of their careers as performers, but because it naturally affords them the ability to access modernized versions of familiar roles. Executive producer Kermit rather than Stage Manager, Statler and Waldorf in the studio audience rather than the balcony, etc. Even musical performances get a hip check in the form of whatever band is the guest that week. It also allows for celebrities to drop by, and have reason to interact with the main cast beyond their interview segment (the "on air" material was pretty terrible here). As much as the show is being touted as an examination of the Muppets private lives, the stuff that clearly had more promise was the stuff happening around the show. The Fozzie storyline was torpid, and it meant that Gonzo, Rizzo and Pepe had less time as the writers, a gag that didn't land, but had more potential as an on going bit.

The biggest laughs of the night came from, as in perfect Muppet tradition, seeing them interact with humans, and having the humans fall victim to their insanity. Scooter and Elizabeth Bank's fight on the golf cart was inspired, but the best line of the night (in fact, the best set up and execution of the episode) went to Tom Bergeron - who has known the gang since he hosted Hollywood Squares - as the sad sack fill-in guest. A part of me really wants Tom Bergeron to become a running gag, constantly being abused and disappointed by the Muppets mismanagement. And right off the bat, that is what is clearly missing from the show: a Jerry, or Zeppo. The show needs someone to suffer the Muppets. In the old show, that someone was Kermit, but as much as he may be above they rest in terms of sanity, he's still the big cog turning the gears. There needs to someone, a PA or intern, who is separate from the Muppets, to suffer and report on their abuse, as an audience surrogate.

The show also lacks a foil. The conflict in the premiere was entirely between Kermit and Piggy, but that horse is going to die pretty quick if flogged too many times. the easiest solution would be to have a Jack Donaghy figure, not necessarily a superior, but a Network Rep seems like an easy way to work that in. The old show had one, in the form of theater owner J.P. Grosse, who was constantly threatening the Muppets with eviction. I don't see why J.P. can't be brought in for much the same role here, though having a regular human in the cast would be a change from the standard, and potentially a welcome one. I think here, for whatever reason, of Jeffry Tambour being the standout performance of Muppets in Space. But again, these are issues that will reveal and hopefully resolve themselves over time. Striking the balance between the emotional material and the plot is just something they are going to have to discover.

This episode was all about establishing the emotional rift that has formed between Kermit and Piggy in the wake of their break-up. Which I am all for, by the way. After decades of being in a physically and emotionally abusive and dependent relationship, its about time he grew a backbone and broke up with her, though I get the feeling that the writers are going to Sam-and-Diane the pig and frog on us. I wish they hadn't started the show with Kermit already in a rebound relationship with Denise, but had that flirtation develop over the early parts of the show, and become an increasing distraction on Piggy's mental state. Also, Denise's voice is one that I'm not entirely convinced is a natural fit. It doesn't usually take me time to adjust to a Muppet voice - they open their mouths, and talk. But Denise's seemed obviously like voice work. So, that needs work, because we've already suspended belief that we're watching a frog run a TV series (everyone knows, frogs can't make it on network; they are strictly cable). We don't need to be taken out of that every time one of the pigs open's their mouths.

Oh, and one last thing: all the weird shots at the show for being misogynistic by firing fat jokes at Piggy? First off, there are only two cliched pig jokes that every pig-related piece makes, and I don't think the Muppets are going to have her rolling around in shit anytime soon. And second, this is nothing new. Much like how her being a manipulative, arrogant, egotistical, abusive, domineering diva is nothing new. It is literally the whole point of the character. She's a monster who fails to recognize that she is one. She thinks she's the swan, when really she's a mean, pissed off goose with mange. That is her role. And the other character recognize that, and suffer her. They don't like her, they tolerate her, because that level of self-obliviousness and psychopathy has led to greater success. The challenge the writers now have is developing that character into someone we can sympathize with. But it's not misogyny, and its not shaming, and its not bullying. It's calling a pig a pig. So calm down.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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