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Vanity Fair took a little flak earlier this week with a picture of the faces of late-night TV that was entirely male. The publication excluded Samantha Bee, whose show doesn’t premiere until January, but the portrait also was missing Miss Piggy, host of Up Late With Miss Piggy.
Granted, the fictional porcine host of a fictional late-night show, much less a hog prone to being voiced by men, wouldn’t do anything to improve the actual gender diversity on late-night TV, but taking Jim Henson‘s iconic felt creations seriously, perhaps much too seriously, is at the heart of ABC’s The Muppets. It’s a goal that has been assisted by media types who have approached “reports” of Miss Piggy and Kermit’s “breakup” like news and not like an overly honored plot summary.
The Miss Piggy-Kermit news that you read about was never even really news because it was always part of the proof-of-concept presentation that convinced ABC to order The Muppets, co-created by Bob Kushell and Bill Prady, in the first place — a presentation that ABC made available to the public. In that tight and often-funny tease, we learned that the Muppet gang was reuniting to work with Miss Piggy on a new talk show and that things were going to be awkward because Kermit already had moved on to a new girlfriend in Denise, the pig running ABC’s marketing department.
That original presentation has been absorbed into the first two Muppets episodes sent to critics — like a biologically weaker twin, only a biologically weaker twin that happened to be tighter and more efficiently funny. Several jokes from that presentation remain, but for both the recycling and the flabbier nature of the overall product, they don’t hit as hard. The polished nature of that presentation may have set a false expectation that The Muppets was ready to arrive fully formed, while the first two episodes are typical of most comedy pilots: more potential than achievement.
Structurally, The Muppets is simple: Miss Piggy is the star of a late-night show, Kermit is her executive producer, and some assortment of available Henson characters, both new and old, are working behind the scenes. In some cases, their jobs are carried over from past show-within-a-show Muppet joints, while other characters have been shunted off to an Up Late writers’ room populated by motley talking vermin and crustaceans. The whole thing is being filmed by an acknowledged documentary crew with ample access, but questionable focus.
Miss Piggy and Kermit get to be the A-story every week, which makes sense because they’re the money Muppets, but doesn’t always set the best of tones because frenzied Piggy and surly Kermit are not necessarily native incarnations of either character. More on that in a bit.
From there, the show is trying to give screen time to as many favorite characters as possible, which only works if you happen to have the same favorites as the writers. Fozzie is amply served with a B-story in both episodes, but with Bobo the bear also getting a storyline, fans of less represented classics like Gonzo or the entirely absent Rowlf will surely find the early going excessively ursine. A lot of this will be perception. If you think Beaker, for example, is a garbage Muppet, you won’t lament his mostly missing meeping, while if you’re a purist, you’ll cringe at every appearance of shrimp-come-lately Pepe. It’s both the blessing and curse of the deep Muppets library that you get to choose between dozens of predeveloped characters, but it’s the rare devotee who doesn’t play favorites. It’s practically a critics’ mandate to complain that, while Statler and Waldorf are present, they could be more central. Give me my “Statler and Waldorf Are Dead” episode with the two curmudgeons as heroes, and give it to me by midseason!
Making the proceeds even more diffuse is the necessity to weave in as many celebrity guests as possible and to do it without seeming like an in-house publicity machine for ABC. So far, that isn’t going so well. From Modern Family Emmy nominee Elizabeth Banks to Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron to an ABC comedy star whose cameo was one of my favorite moments, the show isn’t giving the impression that Hollywood’s A-list is beating down doors to appear. The most substantive of the cameos comes from Josh Groban, whose status as one of Hollywood’s go-to good sports never has been questioned. And if you didn’t know that you wanted to see Groban and Miss Piggy dueling on “If I Loved You” from Carousel, you were foolish to doubt.
Fears from certain paranoid quarters that The Muppets would yield an excessively adult, and therefore smutty, version of these beloved, family-friendly characters are, of course, unfounded. The Muppets have, in many of their incarnations, sustained a certain amount of double entendre, and this documentary-style glimpse behind the scenes doesn’t remove the gauzy filter in any way. Protective parents can rest assured that Sam Eagle, representing network standards and practices, is there to protect children from words like “crotchety.” The Muppets gets no raunchier than jokes about cuddling, a soft Fozzie reference to responses to listing himself as a bear in his dating profile and a fairly awesome comment about gender fluidity from Pepe. Parents are more likely to have to explain to their children the etiquette of talent booking than anything dirty, and if you’re not prepared to tell your kid about why it isn’t polite to cancel a late-night guest at the last minute, I guess I can’t speculate on what other conversations might prove difficult.
There are complications that come from a premise designed to show “different” sides of characters whom several generations have been raised on. The Muppets never have lacked for emotional nuance, but in exploring the reality of their lives, a demystifying occurs that isn’t always for the best when it comes to the Muppet legacy in your mind.
A spoiler-free example: The Miss Piggy-Kermit relationship always has worked because of how unfathomable it is, both in terms of species and temperament. These people don’t belong together, but somehow they’ve formed a decadeslong pairing, one that always felt buoyed by Miss Piggy’s stronger affections and a submissive aspect to Kermit. But discovering that Kermit is dating another pig now, perhaps a slightly more docile pig, inverts the whole dynamic of the relationship. Now Kermit just has a fetish, so has he always been playing hard to get with Piggy as part of some role-playing that we haven’t previously established? Once you open the window a crack, you’re gonna have to throw open the doors eventually. And within the same dynamic, Miss Piggy’s affections for Kermit, even affections tempered by occasional abuse, always have been a key softening factor for Miss Piggy. We tolerate her awfulness because of her love for Kermit and the love we believe Kermit has for her. Without that core, the risk of Miss Piggy spiraling into an untenable sty of callus words and consistent mistreatment of subordinates is all too real.
The Muppets always have relied on a suspension of disbelief to pre-empt this sort of intrusive reality-based questioning, but the premise of their new show seems to demand belief. The best way, then, to avoid practicalities of frog-pig sex, Scooter’s species (and whether or not Skeeter is canon in this universe) and Electric Mayhem’s drug consumption is with laughter. So far, there’s some laughter in the early episodes of The Muppets and a ton of built-in affection, but the wait for a great show continues.
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