Post by Nathan Blake
Nathan Blake reviews the pilot episode for ABC’s The Muppets.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Muppets are back on network television, this time with a TV-PG rating. Though the promos for the show played up the more adult tone of the new series, the naughty jokes are still mild in comparison most other shows, even those on network television. The main arc of the pilot focuses on Kermit the Frog struggling to keep the show “Up Late with Miss Piggy” running semi-smoothly in the aftermath of his break-up with the show’s star. At one point, an exasperated Kermit comments that his life has become “a bacon wrapped hell on earth”, and, as you would expect, Sam the Eagle appears to warn Kermit “You can’t say hell.” That should give you an idea of the more adult nature of the comedy here. The writers have fun sprinkling very minor profanities and less than graphic jokes about adultery, groupies, alcoholism, dating websites, birth control and plastic surgery into what has been perceived (wrongly, in my opinion) by many as a wholesome, family friendly setting.
The Muppet Show, as well as its much shorter lived 90s revision Muppets Tonight, always featured crude humor. The Wig Trainer sketch from the original series included a joke about using “real poo” instead of “shampoo.” Such humor would have been deemed inappropriate by censors 10-20 years earlier, but in comparison to the content of shows such as All in the Family and Three’s Company, the content of The Muppet Show seemed mild. Muppets Tonight featured parodies of ER, Baywatch and The Real World, pop culture references aimed more at teens and adults than children. The Muppets functions the same way in both respects. It has enough adult humor and pop culture references for older viewers (the format alone is a take-off on The Office and 30 Rock) while still being tame compared to most other network comedies, including co-producer Bill Prady’s other series, a show called The Big Bang Theory.
It’s fun to see all these characters back on the small screen again. The main arc of the pilot may center around Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it’s the supporting characters who get the biggest laughs. Fozzie endures an awkward “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” style date with his human girlfriend. The steady line of bear stereotype jokes that come out of the scene are a highlight, even though parodies of the aforementioned film have been done to death. Imagine Dragons also make a brief appearance in the episode, and their interaction with Electric Mayhem leads to an amusing revelation as to why Animal can no longer be out on the road. Other bits fall terribly flat. One pointless scene involves Scooter forcing Elizabeth Banks to take a tour of the lot with him. It’s not funny at all and just leads to a lot of miscalculated physical humor.
For all the updates in this version, a surprising amount of this show feels the same. Some of that is a relief. At least in this episode, the writers go far enough with their makeover without going too far. Fozzie still tells horrible jokes, Statler and Waldorf eagerly heckle him, and Sam the Eagle remains over-sensitive about the offensive content in the show. But some things that aren’t updated probably should be. Fat jokes about Miss Piggy are too frequent to count. One problem with this show, even though it is commenting about real issues in show business, is how it allows distancing from offensive jokes because its characters are animals. It must surely be okay to make fun of Miss Piggy’s weight because, after all, she’s a pig. But if the series really is commenting on show business, then the writers need to learn to handle that Miss Piggy differently considering the very real double standards actresses face about their weight compared to their male counterparts. The fat jokes do not come off as reflecting poorly on the people who tell them the way Michael Scott’s inappropriate humor made him look like a jerk. Instead, they are just cheap laughs similar to the worst jokes on The Big Bang Theory; shallow, mean spirited and stereotypical. I am simultaneously encouraged by Bill Prady’s involvement in the show (that it will be funny) and yet apprehensive about his presence (that when it is not funny, it will also be offensive). Clearly it will take a couple episodes to really see where this thing is going. After the first episode I am left overall with a good impression. Pilots are often clunky and awkward. If the show gets better from here, ABC will have something to be proud of.