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Jim Henson‘s creations have finally returned to their television roots thanks to a revival in popularity following 2011’s great Muppets movie, and its lesser (but still fine) sequel, 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted. The Muppets movie was a callback to the original film, 1979’s The Muppet Movie (yes these titles get a little hard to distinguish), focusing on Kermit the Frog getting the gang together despite a host of setbacks. Similarly, ABC’s The Muppets rightfully calls back to The Muppet Show, a show-within-a-show that had celebrity guests, a variety setup, and lots of meta humor.
Of course, the show-within-a-show idea mixed with meta humor has now become TV’s default comedic trope, and though the Muppets are self-aware about that — regarding the new series’ mockumentary style and tired one-on-one interviews — it’s not a far cry from what the group has always done.
Saying that, The Muppets (developed by The Big Bang Theory‘s Bill Prady and Bob Kushall) had the opportunity with this new series to do something a little different. But there’s also a good argument to be made that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While The Muppets’ somewhat stale setup feels a lot like a mix of 30 Rock and The Office (and countless others, including ABC’s comedy juggernaut Modern Family), it also stays true the Muppet’s signature meta style. And for fans, that should be enough. It just may not be enough to win any new fans in the adult demographic (for whom the show is skewed, although it’s also fine for kids, too).
The Muppets revolves around the behind-the-scenes exploits of “Up Late with Miss Piggy,” with the porcine diva as high-maintenance as ever. As Kermit says (the two have broken up as of the start of the show, with Kermit dating another pig named Denise), “if you take dating out of the question, she’s just a lunatic.” While the new series will supposedly take a look at the Muppets’ personal lives, the best and funniest scenes revolve around the inner workings of the show, where the staff live in fear of Miss Piggy, and Kermit runs himself ragged trying to keep everyone on point. Gonzo, Rizzo, Bunson, Beaker, Pepe, Bobo, Scooter, Sam Eagle, and the Electric Mayhem all appear backstage, along with Waldorf and Statler in the crowd (though not the balcony). The jokes are fast, many of them are funny, but the greatest combination is often a throwaway line mixed with sight gags related to a character’s reaction, in addition to the old-school physical humor that’s missing from most current comedies. These are creature puppets, after all. There’s always going to be something inherently fun in that.
However, there are also some humdrum off-the-lot scenes starring Fozzie Bear and his dating life (and a short-lived professional relationship with Jay Leno), but in general, segments are more likely to work — or not work — depending on your favorite Muppets. That’s really the bottom line when it comes to the show; despite a few missteps, The Muppets plays it safe with Muppet canon, and the nostalgia factor (the show is clearly aimed at adults) is its driving force.
Still, the show definitely provides some good laughs, and if these were people and not puppets it would rightly be considered an extremely strong pilot and a great two-episode start to a series. The fact that these are the Muppets, though, raises the stakes. But if you’re already a fan, you’ll find plenty of things to like about to show (and in the interest of disclosure, I love me some Muppets); if you’re a dabbler, your mileage may vary. In Muppet terms, it’s certainly better than prison sushi. In fact, “it’s gas station sushi. And we love gas station sushi.”
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — A Promising Start
Chance of Series Survival: High
The Muppets premieres Tuesday, September 22nd at 8 p.m. on ABC