[Review] – The Muppets, Season 1 Episodes 11-16

In which a renewed sense of purpose is derived from the return of nephews and chickens.

I’ve been a vocal advocate of the Muppets revival since day one. Since before day one, actually. But as I’ve implied many times, just because you philosophically agree with a concept does not mean you are duty bound to promote every single tenet of the product. This is a distinction that politics is sorely in need of reminding. Throughout the first ten episodes of The Muppets, I made what I thought were very reasonable suggestions for how things should evolve, to make it a better product. In my first episode review, for instance, I suggested a human foil to give the Muppets, and by extension the audience, to root and work against. Because in its then current form, that foil was Ms. Piggy, and that led to a lot of mean-spiritedness. Spoilers hence forth.

So it was a little heartening that many of the suggestions I made turned out to be in-line with the new direction that Kristin Newman intended to make when she came on-board as executive producer and showrunner for the final five episodes. More joy, she declared. More zaniness. And immediately, her new direction was obvious. A facelift in tone to the opening credits, for instance, takes Kermit from being a beleaguered and pessimistic character to a supported and hopeful one. The reappearance of a wider and more varied population of Muppets including chickens, babies, talking vegetables and backbenchers like Lew Zealand were welcome. The pushing aside of the romantic stories, essentially nuking from orbit the entire plot points on which the series was sold, helped move the story back to a self-reflective Muppet story rather than an outwardly reactive one.

But it seems like for every step in the right direction, a step was taken back in the wrong one. So, while we no longer had episodes devoted to Fozzie’s ineptitude, instead every episode became about Kermit and Piggy’s relationship. Good for the occasional check-in, but not weekly fair. Happily though, the show became much better at balancing A and B plots. While the A plots might have been all pig and frog, the writers made the wise decision to focus most of those B plots on Rizzo, Pepe and Gonzo. While the chemistry between Gonzo and Rizzo was well established, the addition of Pepe created a warped trio of self-indulgence and cluelessness that was the highlight of every episode. All that being said though, the Muppets are a cast of dozens, and just as was the case with Fozzie in the first half, too much of any one character is a wasted opportunity.

Part of the charm of an ensemble cast is that it is meant to lead to diversity in interaction. I would look to the fantastic work done on Parks and Rec or Brooklyn Nine-Nine for examples of how a wide ranging cast can create a playground of combinations. Just as one episode might highlight Leslie and Ron, or Jake and Holt, another might pair Leslie with April while Ron spends time with Anne, or Holt with Gina while Jake and Rosa take a case. That is the diversity I’m still looking for in The Muppets. Something they were trying in the earlier episodes, seeing Scooter spend time with the band, and Gonzo with Kermit. Where are episodes seeing Kermit and Sam square off on a network censorship issue, or Rizzo getting stuck in an elevator with Waldorf? Part of the inherent charm of the Muppets is that they are ultimately a family, but in this version, it’s become the sort of family where mom and dad only talk to one another, while the kids destroy the basement and grandpa sleeps on the porch.

Perhaps the place where the creative overhaul did the most damage was in the celebrity arena, the guest appearances drying up faster than a tear in the Atacama. Maybe they stopped getting offers once the show started to air (though I doubt it), but how did they go from getting Jason Bateman and Liam Hemsworth to Ian Zering and RuPaul? Did the show become Hollywood Squares that quickly? The quick shot cameos that this back half favoured were precisely the kinds I derided in the first half, preferring the more substantial long form guest roles. It gave the guest something to do, at the very least, and didn’t seem like meaningless “hey look everybody, it’s _____!” Back in the old days, a very special guest was very special indeed. Now, it smacks of getting whomever is managed by the same agent. I’m all for Willie Nelson and Joan Jett, but could they not snag someone who had been nominated for a Grammy in the last decade?

Meanwhile, the addition of a human foil in the form of Pizza, the network rebranding guru was a vacant storyline that went nowhere. Where it could have been the sort of regular push against the Muppet’s antics, keeping Kermit as the only sane man, the plot failed for two reasons. First, it was truncated down so that Pizza only showed up twice, once to threaten damage and once to get scared away. And second, what Pizza was suggesting was crazier than anything the Muppets could come up with, making them seem the sane and respectable ones! The first episode back after the re-haul was extremely Meta in using the complaints about the show in the show, but missed the point. The complaints weren’t that the show was eschewing nostalgia in place of trying something new – that was entirely and laudably the point – it was that it was doing this new thing poorly. So, as a focal point of the re-haul became more about leaning into the nostalgia, and falling back on old forms, it was like shooting themselves in the hand to avoid shooting themselves in the foot: you’ve still shot yourself.

This first season was very uneven, the second half no less, just differently. To the network’s credit, they didn’t cancel it, but tried to make changes to get it right. That showed some degree of confidence, and it was confidence well placed. Because for all the show’s weaknesses, it was hilarious at times. And there was enough in each episode that really worked to show that, with time and the right direction, it could work. The MVP’s turned out to be the tertiary characters: Yolanda, Chip, Bobo and especially Uncle Deadly, all of whom proved more engaging than the primary cast. And I will admit, six episodes is not enough for Newman’s new direction to be fully implemented. I still think the show needs work. And when viewed as two halves, neither stands out as a clear victor. I do hope that the show gets a renewal, partly because I love the Muppets in ways a grown man is discouraged to admit in public, but mostly because I want to see if they can make it work like it can and should. With the change in leadership at ABC, it’ll be interesting to see if the value of the IP outweighs the value of the timeslot. I sincerely hope so, if only for a half season more.

I mean, they are giving Agents of SHIELD another season and a spin-off. So clearly, they have time on the schedule to burn.
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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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