Friday, October 23, 2015

Why You are the Problem with The Muppets

I love the Muppets. I’ve owned more Cookie Monster shirts in my adult life than I’ve owned dress shirts. I have the Electric Mayhem listed as one of my favorite bands on Facebook. I think Gonzo generally has a better grasp on what it means to be human than most people. For my  26th birthday I went to FAO Schwarz to make a Muppet of my own. My love for the felt critters runs deep.
That’s why it hurts to say this, but ABC’s “The Muppets” sucks. When ABC announced that they wanted to relaunch the Muppets for a more adult audience, people got scared. They asked, “How could these characters make crass jokes and say things like ‘hell’?” To which I asked, “I guess you’ve never seen 1981’s  'The Great Muppet Caper.'” The show isn’t even offensively bad. It’s not trying to be an “extreme” version of a kid’s show, like “Death to Smoochy” or “Meet the Feebles,” but inversely, it’s another safe, boring, by-the-numbers sitcom, and that’s really the worst thing you can do to the Muppets.
Since the 70s, the Muppets have been a cultural staple, and in the ensuing four decades, the ragtag band of rags have cultivated their own quirks and personalities; Piggy is brash and selfish, Fozzie is dense and optimistic, Gonzo is adventurous and artistic, and Kermit is the straight man trying to keep everyone in check. Even the secondary characters like Rowlf and Bunsen and Sam the Eagle are all recognized and known for their distinct personalities. So how, with all of this work that has gone into cultivating these puppets into fully realized characters, has the new show fallen so flat? Part of it is, I believe, the setting. The Muppets takes place backstage at a talk show. On its face, this is an excellent idea. After all, the classic “Muppet Show” had Kermit at the Muppet Theater trying to keep it all together and deal with the drama of the week while Peter Sellers or Julie Andrews or Mark Hamill scrambled around with our fuzzy friends and tried to put on a good show. So what changed?
The choice to shoot the show in documentary-style has severely neutered the personalities of the characters. When Kermit used to be the lens we saw the world through, we could see the Muppets for what they were, because we didn’t have to relate to them. We only had to relate to Kermit. As everyone ran around trying to electrocute their costars and shoot themselves out cannons, we rooted for Kermit, who tried to “get things started” week after week. The non-Kermit characters were allowed to be as crazy as they wanted, and through Kermit’s constant frustrations as they tried to steer things off the rails, we had comedy.
The Muppets, in all of their movies, also loved leaning on the fourth wall. Every movie has the troupe acknowledge the fact that they’re playing parts, or has a celebrity friend pop up, or, in the case of the Segel film, reference the fact that it’s really weird when people break into song every time there’s a musical number.
By removing the fourth wall and having the Muppets directly interact with the audience, we lose something. Gonzo isn’t allowed to be experimental and crazy anymore because we have to care about his online dating. Kermit can’t address an aside to the audience, because he has to wait for the next scene to explain his feelings directly to the cameraman. And the characters don’t have to talk to each other or interact anymore because they can talk directly to us, instead, to say what’s on their minds. When there is no fourth wall, there is no boundary to break, and when the Muppets are given no boundaries, there isn’t any anarchy for them to wreak.
Tina Fey’s 30 Rock had a similar setup and it worked because the characters had to live with each other and their decisions. There was no retreating to a room with the crew to express their frustrations. If Tracy was having a problem with Jenna, he’d go to Liz Lemon to complain, or come up with a crazy plan to address it himself. If Gonzo is having a problem with Piggy, he needs to plot with his fellow writers, Rizzo and Pepe, or go complain to a beleaguered Kermit. Instead, the newly boring Gonzo calmly tells the camera that Piggy is annoying and makes a snarky comment as we see Piggy do something funny in the background. The Muppets thrive in interplay and anarchy, not solitude and order. By removing the fourth wall and showing us that the Muppets are just like us, they’ve made them boring by making them just like us.
The throwaway gags are another huge letdown. An offhanded mention of Gonzo’s mother on vacation, or the Swedish Chef wanting an autograph signed “Meghan” exists only for a momentary chuckle, but the lines don’t even deliver that. They’re predictable sitcom fare. Fozzie’s relationship with a human was a hilarious setup that had no followup outside of one episode (so far.) Despite her participation in the marketing of the show, we haven’t seen Denise since episode one. Rowlf has been completely wasted in his one appearance. His one joke was one repeated from the reel used to pitch the show. The Electric Mayhem drug jokes, in particular, are the laziest kind of joke. And what’s more is that any of these jokes could be inserted into any other show and nobody would know the difference. Why bother using the Muppets at all if you’re not going to cater to your “actors”? There’s a whole history of television and film that can be drawn from, and we barely get more than a drug joke. Even Ron Swanson, himself, Nick Offerman, couldn’t escape lazy joke writing with his extended “I owe you one” sequence where he asks for a cappuccino machine, and then a boat. It’s not clever. It’s a joke a 10-year-old would roll his eyes at. It’s as if the crew of the show is playing it safe, but there’s no reason to. They’re the Muppets. They don’t need restraint. New viewers won’t watch because it’d bland, and old fans won’t watch because it’s not true to the Muppets franchise.
Speaking of celebrities, they’ve been used all wrong. That may be because each episode has been bursting at the seams with celebrities, not giving them a chance to breathe. Josh Groban was wonderful as Piggy’s boyfriend, and widened the scope of the show and made room for world-building. It felt more real, mostly because the characters were given time to interact, rather than retreat to the camera crew. Kermit’s reversal of the situation was the show’s best segment, as far as characterization goes, so far. Lawrence Fishburne had one of the greatest cameos I’ve seen, and I’d love to see him pop up to randomly antagonize Kermit more often. On the flip side, Christina Applegate and, again, Nick Offerman, were just there to be there. The fact that they’re celebrities isn’t enough of a joke. “The Muppet Show” usually only had one guest per episode, and that was a much longer running time. The guests should be treated like characters, used as cameos, or just omitted entirely.
There are a few shining spots, however. Sam the Eagle at S&P is brilliant. Scooter has thrived in his gofer role, having some great character moments with Elizabeth Banks and Kermit, himself. He seems to have become a willing participant in the chaos; knowing that something crazy is about to happen, but going along with it anyway. Bobo the bear cracks me up every time he’s on screen. Even the new I.T. guy, Chip, was worth a few laughs in his first appearance.
I had high hopes for The Muppets, and with every episode, I keep praying it’ll find its voice. The pieces are all there. We know these characters. Let them be their crazy selves. Unless they go whole hog (wocka wocka), The Muppets will be remembered the same was as the D.O.A. “Muppets Tonight,” and that’s not what they deserve. Embrace the felt. Let The Muppets do what they do best, and let Kermit worry about the consequences.

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