Oh Muppets, where are’t thou (UPDATED)

TheMuppetsGroupshot2011

Yesterday, Deadline: Hollywood announced that Bob Kushell, co-creator and showrunner for The Muppets, would be leaving the fledgling show while Bill Prady and a new showrunner (possibly Kristin Newman) would work on retooling the ABC series that has garnered vast quantities of media and social media coverage.

As the Deadline article suggested:

“But after a highly-rated premiere, ratings dropped. The Muppets has done an OK job opening Tuesday night for ABC at 8 PM, with its numbers on par with lead-out Fresh Off The Boat, but because of its marquee title, The Muppets has been held to a different standard, so its performance has been  considered somewhat disappointing, and there has been a concern about its creative direction.”

I am part of that ratings drop, for reasons I will discuss shortly, but I have several friends and associates within the puppetry community who have struggled mightily to stem the tide, lauding the show’s freshness and energy and chastising its critics. I feel bad that I have let these people down, but I feel it is for good reason.

Briefly stated: The Muppets (the TV series) is a pale, anemic shadow of the Muppets (the icons).

My biggest concern about The Muppets is that the Muppets aren’t leading the way…they are following someone else’s formula. This feels like total anathema to all of what Jim Henson was.

The current incarnation is little more than The Office but with felt-fleshed characters. Look no further than the show’s logo which is presented in the same manner as that of The Office and with an almost identical typeface. And the setting within a late-night talk show makes it a pale imitation of The Larry Sanders Show.

the Muppice

Although parody has long been a staple of the Henson way—consider “Veterinarian’s Hospital” and “Pigs In Space”—The Muppets is not a parody but rather is being sold as original. And ironically, while the new content is supposedly more adult, I would offer that it is not nearly as edgy as it used to be. The humour isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it was in times past. (I appreciate that it is now property of Disney.)

Case in point: References by members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem to illicit drugs and rehab have become much more overt in the new series whereas they were only really implied previously. It is as though the showrunners don’t have faith in the audience “getting” the jokes.

“Oh, my God! Did Floyd say rehab? That’s edgy.” No. No, it’s not.

But back to the leadership discussion.

Henson and his gang were innovators. They took an ancient format—the puppet show—and brought it to heights never before imagined. They didn’t pander to their audience but rather challenged them to follow along or be left behind.

Fraggle-crystal

Sometimes that became wildly popular: The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock.

Sometimes it never found a wide audience: The Dark Crystal, Muppets Tonight.

[NOTE: Dear purists, I know that Muppets are Muppets and the others are not…I am trying to make a point about innovation here, so please bear with me.]

And, as I understand it, even the now idolized The Muppet Show almost never existed for lack of interest by American networks that couldn’t see the vision and felt variety shows were on their way out—in 1976, only The Carol Burnett Show remained, Sonny & Cher and Tony Orlando & Dawn having ended a year earlier. That’s why the show was created in the U.K. under the financial benevolence of Lew Grade.

From a mechanical perspective, the artists working on The Muppets are doing an admirable job. These are incredibly skilled men and women performing a technically challenging art form that combines the illusory world of puppets and the frailties of human flesh.

But all that skill and effort is for naught without a heart and soul. And these, in my opinion, are what the current show is lacking.

Ironically, when I watch The Muppets, all I see are puppets, characters trying to entertain an audience. I don’t sense the humanity within the puppets, and it was that humanity that made the Muppets so special in the first place.

Perhaps this is just a case of old-man-itis on my part—“when I was a boy…”—but sadly, I am putting down the empty toys that The Muppets represent and mourn the (hopefully temporary) loss of old friends—the Muppets.

I wish everyone the best of luck with the reboot.

PS I love the work of Bob Kushell and Bill Prady, and place no specific criticism on anyone’s shoulders for my concerns about The Muppets. Not saying this is the case here, but sometimes talent and creativity is not enough to overcome a bad match between artist and vehicle.

See also:

Breitbart‘s “The Muppets’ Reboot: What Hollywood gets wrong about family entertainment”

Although I think the writer (Melissa Henson) has made some valid arguments about the writing of The Muppets, I think her overarching belief that this was intended as family viewing is wrong. Although these are beloved characters from film and television, this show was very much centred on an adult audience. To repeat an earlier point, calling this family entertainment would be to ascribe the same to The Office.

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