The most wonderful thing about Muppets is that they can go anywhere and do anything. Over the years, Jim Henson’s felt creations have committed elaborate capers, hobnobbed with the biggest and most obscure of celebrities, become embedded in classic works of literature and even gone into space.
Why, then, have the past 20 years been a saga of The Muppets Studio struggling to figure out how to use characters who already proved they can be used in almost any capacity? And why does nobody realize that the sui generis The Muppet Show was already a perfect format that made use of every stitch of their versatility and required almost no alterations?
After the colossal 2015 disappointment of ABC’s The Muppets, a show that tried and failed to impose adult relationships and psychology on these characters, Disney+’s Muppets Now is a significant improvement. Described as The Muppet Studio’s first “unscripted” series, Muppets Now has a healthy number of laughs, reasonable all-ages appeal and a handful of memorable moments through the four half-hour episodes sent to critics. Still, Muppets Now feels like it’s using maybe a tenth of the brand’s potential, failing to capitalize on what ought to be TV’s deepest ensemble of scene-stealers.
The premise of Muppets Now is pretty clean: The Muppets are doing a digital series of unscripted segments and Scooter, as something of an editor-producer, is entrusted with uploading said segments on a tight deadline, while facing regular distractions.
You would think that with all of the available characters, and the endless range of unscripted formats, repetition would be easily avoidable. Instead, with four sketches per episode, each of the episodes I’ve seen features “Lifesty With Miss Piggy,” a self-improvement show she insists should be “Lifestyle,” and a cooking competition in which the Swedish Chef goes head-to-head with a celebrity chef making the same dish. Three episodes include a “Muppet Labs Field Test” segment with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker destroying things in the process of exploring a single scientific concept, while there are multiple “Mup Close and Personal” interviews and several installments of a game show hosted by Pepe the Prawn.
Leaving aside the reality deficit here — no correspondent-driven show of this sort would be able to maintain a production schedule having so few different types of segments — the result is the world of the Muppets feeling small and insular, which should never be the case.
There’s a temptation to wonder if the recent COVID-19 quarantine is behind the decision to avoid packing the frame with multiple Muppets. But apparently, the sketches were all shot well before the quarantine, so that head-scratching limitation can’t be so easily excused away.
The sketches themselves, even in repetition, aren’t bad. “Muppet Labs Field Test” actually may be a workable tool to teach concepts like gravity and velocity. Plus it captures the anarchy in which the Muppets thrive, a chaos too frequently lacking in a show that rarely features more than two or three Muppets on-screen at the same time. The Swedish Chef’s cooking show is often able to capture that spirit as well, though it’s somewhat dependent on the participation of the celebrity guest, with Danny Trejo and Roy Choi shining in their respective episodes.
The mark of a good Muppet celebrity is a willingness to get down-and-dirty with the synthetic stars, while middling guests mostly tend to just smile and nod. I’d put Taye Diggs in the latter category, which is a problem since everybody’s favorite Star Who Follows You on Twitter is in all four “Lifesty with Miss Piggy” segments (as is Linda Cardellini, a somewhat more engaged participant). The interviews bring out better celebrity collaboration, with RuPaul unsurprisingly exhibiting natural comfort opposite Kermit and Aubrey Plaza delivering expert awkwardness opposite Miss Piggy.
First among equals in the cast, Miss Piggy and Kermit — their ABC-featured breakup remains a thing — get to double dip and appear in multiple sketches, but the number of Muppet favorites gathering dust in somebody’s sock drawer is way too high. Fozzie, Animal and Statler and Waldorf are wasted as episodic annoyances to Scooter’s production process. Those bridge segments — which I’ve been led to believe actually were shot in recent months — are the most frustrating part of the show because of how reliably they squander beloved characters as a superficial framing device.
Other Muppet all-stars like Rizzo, Sweetums and Rowlf the Dog — so frequently wasted in recent incarnations that I wonder if Rowlf has a history of problematic Tweets nobody wants to let become public — make only token appearances or aren’t seen at all. And it isn’t like it’s only legacy Muppets being pushed aside for newer figures. Walter, the polarizing star of the 2011 movie, is only in one sketch. There’s almost none of the Electric Mayhem and, in fact, really no music in the series — a major miss.
Obviously with more episodes, there will be the opportunity to get more Muppet involvement. It’s perplexing that in only a six-episode season, the four episodes I’ve seen already settle into a sense of sameness. Good thing there’s a lot to work with here.
Muppet Performers: Dave Goelz, Matt Vogel, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz
Executive Producers: Andrew Williams, Bill Barretta, Sabrina Wind
Episodes premiere Fridays on Disney+ starting on July 31.