Saturday, September 26, 2015

Is "The Muppets" the Muppets?

This week, the first episode of the 2015 Muppets television reboot aired to mixed reviews.  Being branded as a more self-aware and edgy take on the franchise, The Muppets provides a modern context for these classic characters to continue their schticks, while also promising a deeper look into their personalities and lifestyles.  Some like the new fresh take while others are clamoring for the random charm of The Muppet Show and it's variety set-up.

In the months (years) leading up to the new show's premiere, I have tracked the progress of the Muppets in this next chapter of their lives.  Beginning with the movie of the same name in 2011, the resurgence of the Muppets seemed to be driven by nostalgia.  So it's bizarre that the choice was made to not present us with a The Muppet Show: Part 2, but rather a completely new idea based of the modern mockumentary style sitcoms.

Right down to the mundane title screen.

However, I would argue that this lack of consistency is completely in keeping with the Muppets' oeuvre.  Each television show, special and movie appears to reintroduce the Muppets in a new setting with the thematic glue being that these are characters attempting to "put on a show."  Only three works of Muppets lore actually attempt to provide a connective tissue to the true Muppets history and those are The Muppet Movie (which admits that it is a fabricated story that only approximately covers the "truth") and surprisingly 2004's A Very Muppet Christmas Movie and 2011's The Muppets (which both have direct references to earlier works).

My point is, I'm not going to use the new premise of 2015's The Muppets to affect my take on it.  We have to now assume that the Muppet crew runs a late-night talk show called "Up Late with Miss Piggy."  This allows for each Muppet to find a role that fits them based on the roles that were established on The Muppet Show.  Kermit is still in charge as executive producer, trying to keep everything afloat.  Miss Piggy gets to be the star of the show.  Fozzie is now the warm-up comedian and comic sidekick for the host.  The Electric Mayhem is the house band.  Scooter is the production assistant.  Sam the Eagle is the show's censor, working on behalf of the FCC.  And Gonzo is in charge of the show's variety entertainment.  Each character is in a position where they can be true to themselves and that's what we come to watch.

The gang's all here! Even if "here" is new and unusual.

But the mockumentary format also brings a few differences along with it which have the potential to be the show's strength or detriment.  For one, it makes episodes a little more muddled in handling it's guest stars.  Just using the original Muppet Show as an example, there was a nice formula to the show that allowed each episode to be accessible to a new audience, no matter which episode they began with.  Each episode had only one main guest star, who would perform in about 3 of the 10 sketches/songs for that show, as well as the intro and outro.  This "one star" per episode tradition continued in the two follow-ups to the series, MuppeTelevision and Muppets Tonight, and every episode was now easily identifiable.  You can remember "the Steve Martin episode" or "the Alice Cooper episode" based on their signature performances alone.

Yet here we are with our first episode "Pig Girls Don't Cry" and I'm wondering, would this ever be considered the "Elizabeth Banks" episode?  She wasn't the only guest star.  And her role in the plot was easily interchangeable and could have worked for any modern celebrity.  At least Tom Bergeron's role in the episode would only work for Tom Bergeron.  I could chalk that up to it being the first episode not having enough time to come up with a celebrity specific plotline, but I hope future guest stars are a little better integrated.

That being said, Elizabeth Banks had some great lines to work with, aside from the Hunger Games puns.

In addition to the main guest stars, we also had appearances by guest stars not playing themselves.  In Fozzie's plotline (which I'll discuss later), we have three characters played by people who I've recognized in earlier roles.  And we have multiple humans working in the background of the production studios.  This isn't out of the ordinary for a Muppet movie, but it's a bit strange to see multiple humans working alongside the Muppets.  It subtly conveys the idea that the network doesn't trust the Muppets to carry a television show by themselves (both in-universe and in real life).

Now, all of that aside, I found myself enjoying this format for one main reason.  We actually get a chance to personally connect with the characters.  If you've followed this blog in the past, you may have noticed that I really appreciate it when the Muppet characters are able to step beyond their jokes and show some humanity.  The Muppet Movie really made you feel for the dreams of Kermit the Frog, and it established that Jim Henson wanted us to care about these characters as people.  So whenever a moment occurs in our post-Henson world that reveals the true layers of these puppets, I take notice.  From Miss Piggy's meltdown on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee to Fozzie losing the money to save the Muppet Theater in A Very Muppet Christmas Movie to Gonzo patiently coaching the Cowardly Lion to overcome his fears in The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, sincerity is my favorite attribute of modern day Muppets.  It's rare, but it's there.

In my review of the final episode of Muppets Tonight, I applauded the show from breaking away from the forced guest star storylines to focus on a personal journey for one of the new Muppets, Johnny Fiama.  I said that had the show continued, it may have found and audience willing to watch these more introspective pieces.  And in my review of Muppets from Space, I wished it had succeeded in it's original efforts of just being a character study of Gonzo to make way for similar movies focusing on the other characters.  It appears that we are finally getting that opportunity to see that play out.

Even the depths of Big Mean Carl are explored with the talking-head format.

We get two storylines about relationships in "Pig Girls Don't Cry."  The overly-hyped one about Kermit and Piggy splitting up which many people were upset about (which never made sense to be at all because if you understand the Muppets at all, you know that Kermit is a very reluctant participant in that "relationship").  I was afraid this would be played for stupid jokes, but I was curious to see where they were going with it.  And the way it was presented in this first episode was surprisingly realistic, with Kermit dealing with the breakup that he initiated in a very human fashion (rebounding with a similar looking girlfriend, overeating, and becoming more hot-tempered).

I could see people being upset at this version of Kermit being too mean, but I thought it was a strong choice to present us with Kermit at his absolute lowest.  We're all so used to the character being the level-headed (and constantly frustrated) voice of reason, so to see his emotions get the better of him was startling.  It wasn't out of character for me.  It was a new dynamic.  Dan Caffrey of the A.V. Club said that hearing Kermit the Frog condescendingly snap at Animal with "Animal have a better idea?!" made his heart hurt.  Good.  It made mine hurt too.  That's what powerful emotions can do.

As first episodes go, this one had some very poignant scenes.

The other storyline was a little more lighthearted, despite being grounded in a very real issue.  Fozzie starts dating a human woman and has to meet her racist parents who hate everything about him.  Fozzie is at his best when failure just gets dumped on him.  And the awkward dinner scene was a highlight of the episode.  It struck me as I was watching it that we are literally seeing the Muppets as citizens of the real world.  They are not just going to struggle with the absurd problems of the Muppet Theater anymore.  They are going to have to navigate real life as well.  I loved all the little touches of this storyline, from Fozzie wearing his "going-out" bow-tie to him just looking so visually out of place in his girlfriend's home.  It was absurd and delightful.

Aww, he thinks he's people.

So that brings me to my initial question.  Is this new show going to fit with our pre-conceived notion of what a Muppet show should be?  I say yes.  For all the new camera angles and production changes, at the heart of it, the Muppets are still who we've always known them to be.  Sure, there were some jokes that fell flat, and some lines came a little too close to being to out of character (it's weird hearing Kermit say the word "girlfriend" in reference to Piggy).  But even when something felt unusual, we'd have that old Muppet sense of humor to fall back on (Bunsen shocking Beaker came off as a bit too sociopathic for him, but the moment was saved when he expressed that he was being safe by wearing rubber gloves).  We have to be comfortable with the fact that new writers are handling our beloved characters, and they are trying to present us with something we've never seen before.

Reviewers may complain that the Muppets aren't as funny as before or the realism is too depressing.  Those reviewers are missing the point.  The Muppets have succeeded for decades precisely because we have accepted them as three dimensional beings.  Enough craft and creativity has gone into keeping them alive as real life individuals.  To this day, many people dream about meeting Kermit.  Not Steve Whitmire (although I'd love to meet him too), but Kermit the Frog himself.  We are now being given the opportunity to see new sides to these characters that remain true to them.  This is not a reboot.  It's a continuation.

Puppets have feelings too!  They can be injured just like the rest of us!

I am looking forward to the rest of the series.  If it has more moments like Piggy and Kermit's surprisingly subdued break-up outside of a movie theater or sad-sack Tom Bergeron always being within earshot of people insulting his "celebrity" status, I'll be happy.  This 30 Rock/The Office vibe is not yet a perfect fit, but it's something The Muppets can grow into.

And I can't wait to see what they do with the inevitable Gonzo episode.

He only had 7 lines and he's already the MVP of the series.