The Show Must Go On
“Muppets Now” on Disney+
In these confusing, contentious and potentially contagious times, we all need a simple, soothing balm for our troubled souls. Thankfully, the Muppets have arrived just in time to send us on a guileless, guilt-free trip back to our collective childhood. Disney+ has revived and reinvented Jim Henson’s iconic, felt-covered creations for the umpteenth time with the timely weekly series “Muppets Now.”
The last televised iteration of The Muppets came in September of 2011, when ABC’s “The Muppets” recast the popular puppets in a mockumentary series following the behind-the-scenes antics of Miss Piggy’s fictional late night talk show “Up Late With Miss Piggy.” The show only lasted until March of the next year, pumping out 16 decreasingly popular episodes. It was sharply written, placing the characters in a slightly more grown-up setting, but it failed to attract an audience. The cutthroat world of network television (as opposed to the moribund world of vaudeville theater, the backdrop of their classic 1976 to ’81 series “The Muppet Show”) seemed like an inspired idea. But it made the Muppets more like real-life working stiffs, just like those populating a thousand other workplace sitcoms. The situation robbed them of some of their outrageous and imaginative slapstick appeal.
“Muppets Now” doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzy Bear and the rest of the gang are still would-be entertainers. Only now they’re stuck working at home (like so many of their audience), communicating through a computer desktop and trying to download episodes of various, shot-on-the-fly segments for digital streaming. Poor perpetual stagehand Scooter is tasked with juggling a myriad of Muppet personalities, their various demands and their technical inabilities—most of which are moot as the show needs to be uploaded, like, right now, and there’s no time for corrections. The result is a welter of diverse segments spotlighting a wide variety of Muppet faves.
The individual segments are pretty much what you’d expect: Miss Piggy hosts a lifestyle show, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker attempt their usual science experiments. Kermit interviews celebrities, “Actor’s Studio with James Lipton”-style. The Swedish Chef, of course, has a cooking segment. It’s funny, how, after more than 40 years on the air, the Muppets still seem so current. What is Miss Piggy but a template for vain reality show stars like Kim Kardashian? Dr. Honeydew and Beaker have a direct line of lineage to TV experimenters such as “Mythbusters.” While The Swedish Chef was conceived of as a parody of Julia Child and the like, we have entire networks dedicated to cooking, both amateur and professional, these days. Tell me Statler and Waldorf weren’t made for Yelp. And while we’re making comparisons, why hasn’t Gonzo been restyled as a “Jackass”-like video prankster?
Clearly shot in the puppeteers’ own homes and filled with a bit more improvisation than previous iterations, “Muppets Now” is mostly hit and miss. The best bit so far is probably the Swedish Chef’s “Ookey Dookey Cooking”—mostly because it revels in pure Muppet silliness. All of the Chef’s slapstick cooking “skills” are on display and amped up in “competition” with a real chef, a la “Beat Bobby Flay.” Other segments featuring “guest stars” (appearing mostly via Zoom) lack the zest of “The Muppet Show” segments—which forced the guests to perform often ridiculous variety acts. Simply chiming on a laptop computer isn’t nearly as funny. But it’s what we’re stuck with these days.
Disney+ is only releasing one episode per week, so there will be a long settling-in period in which we get to see what works and what doesn’t with “Muppets Now.” The streaming internet segment format is a solid base from which to launch. It affords a great deal of latitude and allows The Muppets to be their own, scruffy selves (something the last ABC show kind of lost). At the end of the day, The Muppets are beloved characters no matter what they’re doing. If the writers, producers and performers can find a way to break through the formulaic segments and embrace a bit more of the original show’s manic and anarchic spirit, “Muppets Now” will make for a joyful weekly treat.