I grew up on Muppet movies. Muppet Treasure Island was my favorite. It was silly, reveled in the absurd, had great songs as well as a thrilling score by Hans Zimmer, and Tim Curry played the villain. And it heavily featured Rizzo the Rat, indisputably the best Muppet.
One of the great sources of drama in Muppet Treasure Island is that old Muppet staple, the relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy. In the movie, Kermit plays Captain Smollett, and Piggy plays “Benjamina Gunn,” a maroonee on the titular treasure island. Piggy’s character was marooned by her rebound after Kermit’s character left her at the altar. She throws a magnificent tantrum, but in the end we get to watch as the two are inevitably drawn together. They have a love that was meant to be, and meant to be fraught.
Yeah, I know I’m talking about puppets. But this is important.
When I first heard that, in ABC’s new show The Muppets, Kermit and Piggy were broken up, I was incensed. My boyfriend had to talk me down after delivering the news. My mother commented, “they can’t be together.” I told her that was the point. No matter what, everybody I talked to had an opinion.
Really, it was a good marketing ploy. To separate the Antony and Cleopatra of the Muppet world–that was bound to lead to some talk. But in some ways it backfired. Just look at the reviews. The New York Post‘s is titled, “ABC’s sordid prostitution of the once-sweet Muppets.” Fortune offers an article on how “One Million Moms slam new Muppets show as ‘perverted.'” It would seem that nobody’s happy here.
Allow me, as always, to disagree. No, I didn’t particularly like the show. I’ll get to that. But first, I want to question why anyone remembers the original Muppets as “sweet.”
I’m not just talking about the fact that the Muppets were originally created for the first season of Saturday Night Live. Let’s think about the Muppet Show. Sure, it’s full of running gags and silly jokes, but that’s not all that’s there. The human guest stars are sophisticated; Joel Gray appeared in his broadway prime and offered the Muppet Show audience songs from both Chicago and Cabaret. And Kermit kisses every single female guest star for the run of the show. This tradition was even carried on to the odd and disturbing (though fun) Lady Gaga Christmas special a few years ago. Sure, this train wreck is fun to watch, but I certainly wouldn’t call it innocent fun.
Think about the main conflict of the Muppet Movie: the proprietor of a chain of frog leg restaurants wants Kermit to be the spokesperson for a restaurant that sells dead frogs as food, and when he won’t do it, the villain attempts to give him what is basically an electric lobotomy. And in Muppet Treasure Island, there is a scene where Tim Curry’s character cynically uses the Bible to control his pirate minions, even placing himself in the position of God: a moment that One Million Moms, if they were actually paying attention, would find quite subversive.
I’m not complaining about adult content or “sordid” themes in The Muppets, because those things have always been there. For me, what’s missing from the show is the sly sense of fun that accompanies the darker elements.
There are effervescent moments. Fozzie Bear meets his girlfriend’s parents and encounters anti-bear racism from them. This is a classic Muppet moment, facing the challenges of human life with an out-of-this-world absurdity that is both funny and poignant. For the rest, though, the show is lackluster. It mimics the documentary comedy style popularized by The Office, and this is a poor choice. The Muppets don’t thrive when given space for self-reflection: witness the 2011 movie The Muppets, which, though it begins with a good concept, spends so much time dwelling on the legacy of the Muppets that it becomes a maudlin reflection on fame and aging. The Muppets shouldn’t have needed a comeback story. The point is that they’re always there, and they’re always busy. To be a Muppet is chaos: to be running around doing so many things at once that you trip, make silly mistakes, confuse words, and make announcements like “My pants are full of starfish!” without a second thought.
So my question about the new show is not whether it will be “sweet”– I sure hope not — but whether it will be silly. When Kermit and Piggy are inevitably drawn back together, will it be in one of the grand, dramatic, hopelessly idealistic moments that characterize the former highs of their relationship? Or will it be a human moment, adult and compromising and bittersweet? That would be a true piece of sordidness.