We had no idea how serious of a warning that would be.
As you may have heard, the new sitcom version of the beloved Jim Henson gang features Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in more “adult” situations than we’re used to seeing them in. In theory, it’s an enticing idea.
Written and executive produced by The Big Bang Theory mastermind Bill Prady, The Muppets is shot mockumentary-style, like The Office. The famous characters all work for a late-night show hosted by Miss Piggy and executive-produced by Kermit, and the cameras follow them outside the soundstage and into their personal lives. (Fozzie is dating a human girl whose parents don’t approve of the fact that he’s a bear, for example.)
There will be people who think it’s a hoot to live in this conceit, where the Muppets are grown-up sitcom characters and not as schticky as we’re used to seeing them. And there will be people who will feel like their childhood innocence is being marauded by the man who brought us Bazinga.
Because the truth is, bold as this creative decision was—and executed quite successfully, too—it’s jarring, at best. At worst, it’s a bastardization.
This is a world where Fozzie knows what Grindr is. Where Kermit’s new girlfriend (more on that later) makes sexual innuendos. Where Zoot is an alcoholic and there are jokes about Miss Piggy’s pubic hair. Wocka wocka!
Prady is as much of a scholar on the Muppets as there comes. He has written for seven different Muppets shows or specials and worked on a different potential Muppet TV show in 2007 that never started the music or lit the lights. And it’s his love and affinity for—and supreme knowledge of—these characters that makes this work as well as it does.
Every “grown up” plot point, whether a work woe or a relationship drama, makes perfect sense in the greater Muppet universe. It’s just that some of us don’t want to live in a universe where Fozzie Bear knows what kind of fetish he would be on a gay sex hookup app.
All of that said, in a perverse way, this maturation of the franchise may be exactly what was needed if The Muppets has any hope of being the same lightning rod or have the same longevity as the original Muppet Show, which ran from 1976 to 1981.
The Muppets really struggled to stage their pop culture comeback following Jim Henson’s death in 1990. The vaudevillian nature at the heart of their humor was a dying comedy genre and the beating heart behind these characters’ humanity was no longer around to give it a pulse.
A short-lived attempt to reboot them with ABC’s Muppets Tonight in 1996 was proof of their waning appeal. They seemed fated to be cultural relics.
But 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz was delightful, as was the 2011 movie The Muppets and its sequel, last year’s Muppets Most Wanted. Given the success of those projects, both creatively and commercially, it certainly makes sense that ABC would want to give another go at a TV show. Strike while the puppet fabric’s hot.
Despite the fact that it should prove polarizing to purists, making the gang more “adult” is the smartest way to bring them back. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out in Vulture, what ended up dooming Muppets Tonight, ultimately, was too much faithfulness to the original TV show.
The Muppets Show was very much an homage to the classic variety hour, a format forever married to an antique sense of humor that—as Neil Patrick Harris could certainly tell you—has struggled to modernize without feeling cheesy or dated.
This Muppets, however, embraces the very trendy entertainment that threatened the franchise’s relevance all these years: more mature, less earnest humor; the rise of the single-camera comedy; and the reality-TV conceit that the show spoofs.
But really, dipping its toes into these “new” trends in entertainment is actually the most classically “Muppet-esque” thing about The Muppets. For all the attention there will undoubtedly be on the PG-13 jokes and the fact that Miss Piggy and Kermit have broken up in Tuesday night’s premiere, the show’s best humor is right in line with what the franchise has always done so well, which is both deconstruct and mock and pay loving tribute to show business and the very process of putting on a show.
So while there’s perhaps an overabundance of hammy jokes (that’s not a Miss Piggy pun, though one would be in the style of the show’s humor) to aggressively drive home the point that this is “not your grandmother’s Muppets”—none of which are really that laugh-out-loud funny, to be honest—the appeal of The Muppets is really in the cleverness with which it mocks late-night TV, Hollywood, and even the legacies of the characters themselves.
That’s its blessing and its curse, though. When it comes to franchises as beloved as the Muppets, many fans don’t want to see those legacies messed with. They don’t consider it a “freshening up.” They consider it “ruining.”
It’s why there’s been such uproar over the decision to split up Kermit and Miss Piggy, a creative decision presumably to add more hijinks to the series but, truthfully, seemed unnecessary—at least from just a viewing of the pilot. And a marketing campaign that hinted at the more ribald humor the show would lean into rubbed many fans the wrong way, too. Miss Piggy wants to pork Nathan Fillion? Gross.
The fictional narrative that’s played out in the press treating Kermit and Miss Piggy as actual humans has verged on insufferable, too, but that shouldn’t count against what’s ultimately an adventurous attempt to capitalize on—rather than simply exploit—a storied pop culture franchise while the buzz around it is hot.
Not your grandmother’s Muppets? I actually think my grandmother would find this series quite amusing. So start the g-----n music and light the f-----g lights.