What’s even more puzzling about the show is how close they seem to have come to figuring it out. The original Muppet Show was set backstage and onstage at a variety show, a fairly ubiquitous format in that show’s late-‘70s timeframe that has since fallen on hard times (to put it mildly); updating its setting to that of the similarly inescapable late night talk show is a smart one (aside from having said talk show hosted by Miss Piggy, since we all know ladies aren’t allowed to host those programs). And the Muppet characters slide fairly effortlessly into the roles of such a talker: Fozzie as the announcer/warm-up comic, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem as the house band, Gonzo as the head writer, and Kermit as the harried producer.
So what you’ve basically got here is a cross between The Muppet Show and The Larry Sanders Show (in single-camera style, including doc-style handheld, coupled with Office-esque interview inserts). It could be funny — if creators Bob Kushell and Bill Prady and their writers had worked up any jokes. The pilot has exactly one funny bit, in which Fozzie meets his new girlfriend’s parents, and even that’s hobbled by the inexplicable decision to cast Ricki Lindholme and then give her nothing funny to do. Aside from that, the first episode is all toothless inside-showbiz stuff, ABC cross-promotion (one of the guest stars is Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron), and, basically, “bitches be crazy” jokes.
This isn’t much of an exaggeration. Yes, I know, thanks to a certain hilariously tone-deaf New Republic piece, it’s tricky to talk gender politics and Muppets without sounding like a schmuck. But The Muppets’ primary conflict is between producer Kermit and star Piggy, whose recent break-up has put a strain on their relationship, and that conflict is mostly dramatized by Piggy being an unreasonable, egotistical maniac/monster. “If you take dating out of the equation, she’s just a lunatic!” Kermit despairs to the camera, which is probably as close to “bitches be crazy” as Disney would let Kushell and Prady (whose collected credits include Anger Management, The Big Bang Theory, and American Dad) get.
Turns out the Kermit/Piggy break-up nonsense we’ve all been trying to ignore for the past couple of months wasn’t just what it seemed like — a desperate publicity stunt — but, in fact, set-up for the show’s central premise. And that lands us at the central ickiness of the show, which The Cut’s Rebecca Traister eloquently summed up as follows: “I love the Muppets. I love Kermit. I do not need to imagine his felted member encased by hog flesh.” Come to find out, Traister wasn’t engaging in humorous hyperbole; the pilot “fleshes” out Kermit’s already reported rebound relationship with honey-voiced colleague Denise, the “younger model” pig he’s apparently traded Piggy in for, like some kind of middle-aged, Jag-driving divorcee. “What can I say, I’m attracted to pigs!” Kermit confesses, but that’s not the most cringe-worthy imagine-Muppets-banging moment of the episode. That’d be his description of how he and Denise began, erm, dating: “We were at a cross-promoting synergy meeting, and we ended up… cross-promoting.”
Stop it, The Muppets. I mean it. No one’s disputing the fact that this franchise, whether on television or on film, has always stuffed itself with winking little jokes for the parents in the audience, or even that those gags haven’t occasionally verged on blue (I direct you to the exact manner in which Piggy apprehends Jack Black in the 2011 film). But the Muppet sex alluded to so frequently in The Muppets pilot is only the symptom; the problem is that the show is apparently, from publicity tour to execution, primarily preoccupied with the Kermit/Piggy relationship. It’s always been an element of the shows and movies, but wallpaper at most; The Muppets turns the whole damn thing over to it, like the frog and the pig are post-“We were on a break!” Ross and Rachel or something, up to and including an actual dramatic pathos moment flashing back to their break-up.
Maybe such a moment will move you, but I doubt it. Here, it comes at the conclusion of a wilted, grotesque slog that manages, in 21 minutes and change, to undo years of goodwill accumulated by Segel, director James Bobin, writer Nicholas Stoller, and everyone else who worked so carefully to preserve the warmth, humor, and good cheer of these characters for Muppets 2.0. Their The Muppets was a bouncy reminder of everything that was great about Henson’s creation. This The Muppets is a shrill, sour, bad joke.
The Muppets premieres tonight on ABC.