Though it lives up to its “adult themes” advertising, the new Muppets show, modeled after documentary-style shows such as The Office and Parks and Recreation, significantly misses the mark in a number of areas. Its treatment of its three main characters in particular demonstrates how the current showrunners don’t know the characters or the fanbase, focusing so much on the adult-ness of it that the show sucks the joy and therefore the life out of its furry, beloved cast.
When ABC/Disney announced they were bringing The Muppets back to the small screen for the 2015 fall schedule, I was pretty excited. I am a lifelong Muppets fan, as I know many people are, and I grew up watching them every week, even in syndication. That the new showrunners wanted to steer them in a more “adult” direction didn’t bother me in particular, nor did the format; the Muppets were traditionally a little bit more winkwinknudgenudge than they have been in more recent films, and the Office-esque style could work really well for the characters, as they shine brightest in “bits” as it were rather than in long (movie) form.
Four episodes in, I find myself incredibly disappointed. Not only is the new show only mildly funny at best, at worst it is sexist, offensive, and (perhaps most frustrating as a longtime fan) it gets the essence of the characters wrong. Let’s look a little closer at the three main stars of the show and where it misses the mark in relationship to each of them.
Fozzie the Bear
In this show, Fozzie the Bear is the opening comedian and “sidekick at the podium” guy for Miss Piggy’s new late night talk show, Up Late with Miss Piggy. His jokes are predictably bad, and he gets into awkward situations, but that’s all normal Fozzie stuff. Where this gets off course is the way Fozzie is painted again and again as a tragic character. He is constantly on the receiving end of abuse which, while mildly funny from hecklers Statler and Woldorf, is uncomfortable (to say the least) from the people he encounters in “real” life. Even Statler takes the Fozzie-abuse pretty far when Fozzie accidentally injurs him during the show and turns up at the hospital to make amends. Fozzie doesn’t attempt to tell a single joke, and yet is pranked in a long and expensive way by the critic, simply for being himself.
Fozzie is presented as being so sad and pathetic a character that it’s nearly impossible to laugh when he’s on screen. I take that back– you can laugh, if you’re willing to laugh at him instead of with him. Yes, he is traditionally horrible at jokes, but horrible jokes are his thing. By taking away any element of actual humor from him, Fozzie has turned into a pitiful and awkward character, and the situations he finds himself in are uncomfortable and distinctly unfunny. Adult situations would be fine as long as Fozzie could still crack a decent corny joke about them. The happy optimism has been removed from him, and without optimism, he just isn’t Fozzie.
Kermit the Frog
Next let’s talk about the head hopper himself, Kermit the Frog, who for the purposes of this show is the executive producer of Miss Piggy’s late night talk show. As we all know from the publicity campaign leading up to the premiere, Kermit and Piggy finally broke up after a decades-long romance. And honestly, that doesn’t particularly bother me. They have a history of some rocky stuff (including Piggy trying to trick Kermit into a real wedding ceremony by having it “on stage” in The Muppets Take Manhattan), so them breaking it off isn’t a big deal. What seems wrong about Kermit is his reaction to and treatment of Piggy ever since.
In the show, Kermit is not only dating a seemingly “younger, skinnier” pig, but he is outright vindictive and manipulative toward Piggy. He is blatantly oblivious to her feelings (such as booking a guest, despite her objections, who directly reminds her of their breakup), but even that’s forgivable to a point. What steps over the line is how he uses his knowledge of her insecurities to make her do what he wants. When she is upset about not having a date to an awards show, he sets her up with the “perfect” boyfriend, Josh Groban. When he doesn’t like that it’s going too well for Piggy and Groban, and that Groban is starting to influence the show, Kermit uses Piggy’s self-declared feminism against her: he adds Josh Groban’s name to the show’s marquee since Piggy “can’t do it without a man.” He knows this will rile her and, as he expected, she breaks up with Groban and Kermit gets the show back the way he likes it.
This seems like the exact antithesis to the frog who sang about the rainbow connection, and whose signature moment in every movie is a shooting star. While I know we’re supposed to be getting the “real” look at what goes on behind the scenes, this is so against everything that Kermit (albeit a fictional character) stands for, and it seems just plain wrong. Kermit is the kind one, the straight man if you will to all of the zaniness around him. This show has reduced him to a conniving jerk.
Finally we get to the “star” of the show, Miss Piggy. The way Piggy is presented is where the show moves from simply missing the mark to being outright offensive. Sure, we all know that Piggy is self-centered and loves to be the center of attention (and watch out for her right cross if you make her mad!), but this show takes those characteristics and uses them against her. In this show, she has become the punch line to every single episode. Not only is Kermit dating another pig, but he says a lot of things about her on camera, and Piggy never once gets a chance to defend herself. She isn’t usually featured in the “interviews” the way the other characters are, and is often only on screen in the background, or with only part of her body showing as the others hide from her.
She is made out to be shallow and easily manipulated, her feminism simply a tool to use against her, and her drive and success turned into criticism of her being essentially impossible to work with. The rest of the characters avoid her and lie to her, and when she finally finds a way to spend time with them and everyone ends up enjoying it, Kermit manipulates her into separating herself from them again. She is presented as a stereotypical diva, catty and self-centered. And while one could argue that this perfectly describes Miss Piggy, the difference is that in the past Piggy has always been in on the joke. She has always been part of the action, in with the whole group for whatever might be happening. In this, she’s the butt of the joke with no chance to stick up for herself. The show has taken the worst sexist stereotypes about successful women and dumped them all onto Piggy.
On top of that, the only other female characters in the cast are Janice (in the band), Yolanda (Kermit’s assistant), and Denise (the other pig Kermit is dating). Janice is the only one with any real role in the show, the other two are just trappings; Denise hasn’t been on camera that I can recall since the first episode. Without Piggy’s voice in the mix, there isn’t another female character to balance the sexist and demeaning direction the show has gone.
Overall the show could still do well if they change the dynamics of the characters. As previously stated, adult themes and the Muppets aren’t mutually exclusive. However, by turning the characters’ personalities on end, the essence of the Muppets is lost, and so is the humor and the charm. Modern audiences are fed so much snark and sarcasm in every comedy on the air these days, the straightforwardness of the Muppets could be a bright spot. Instead it is an uncomfortable blight on ABC.