Disney actually made a good Muppet show—yaaaaaaaay! – The A.V. Club

The Muppets with RuPaul

The Muppets with RuPaul
Photo: Disney+

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Television has rarely been funnier than the classic Sesame Street segment that finds young Joey Calvan testing the patience of Kermit The Frog. The girl trusts and believes in the frog, and in some small way must know that he’ll play along when she adds a few stray “Cookie Monster”s to their recitation of the alphabet. The magic of The Muppets is that Jim Henson could maintain that whole atmosphere of connection while still lightly pushing back against his scene partner, something his successors continue to do whenever they turn up on a talk show or at a live event or in an on-camera interview. Be it Kermit, Miss Piggy, or Animal, in an off-the-cuff conversation or a scripted bit, they’ve always allowed whomever they’re talking with to slip away from the unstated rules and social contracts of human interaction. Keep believing, keep pretending, and in that moment, you too could be a Muppet.

That’s the guiding principle of Muppets Now, the Muppets’ new streaming series and Disney’s best effort to date at bringing Henson’s most famous creations back to TV. It’s not the entirety of what makes the Muppets work (and some of those other qualities are, fortunately, on display here, too), but it’s a good starting point. On Muppets Now, the Muppets get grown adults to answer deeply personal questions, smear their faces with makeup, and splatter a pizza parlor’s entire menu against a wall. It’s the kind of show where a tense taco cook-off between Danny Trejo and The Swedish Chef ends, like Kermit and Joey’s ABCs standoff, in a heart-melting show of affection.

Muppets Now largely succeeds at folding flesh-and-blood guests into its proceedings, and for the most part shows no wear from the bumpy ride the characters took to Disney+. It’s an intriguing package to put the franchise in, a variety show with unscripted elements presented as the Muppets’ big foray into subscription on-demand video—with all the teetering on the edge of disaster that implies. It eventually reveals a limited range of offerings (it’d make a repetitive binge), so it can’t quite beat out HBO Max’s The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo for the title of The Muppet Show’s true streaming successor. But in terms of quality, entertainment value, and honoring the disorderly spirit of the characters, it’s a vast improvement over the muddled 2015 mockumentary The Muppets.

Like that show, Muppets Tonight, and MuppeTelevision before it, Muppets Now translates The Muppet Show into the televisual lingua franca of the day. Drafting off the cast’s too-short run as genuine viral-video stars, every episode comprises updates from Muppet-fronted faux webseries like “Lifestyle With Miss Piggy,” in which the perpetually aggrieved star delivers beauty, fashion, and health tips that she herself clearly has no plan of following. For its backstage framing device, Muppets Now drags and drops itself onto Scooter’s work computer, where he frantically uploads each segment to the cloud in between video calls, unwanted pitches from Fozzie Bear, and, in one inspired touch, real-time test marketing from erstwhile opera-box hecklers Statler and Waldorf.

There’s an ingeniousness to the way Muppets Now casts its classic characters in contemporary roles and formats: Miss Piggy as aspiring influencer, the Swedish Chef thrust into a cooking competition with Tasty-style overheard photography, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker running Muppet Labs like one of those YouTube channels where household objects are torched or crushed in the name of science. Fresh, informative, but most importantly, funny—the Chef’s culinary catastrophes are juxtaposed with dishes you’d actually want to eat and Bunsen’s amped-up experiments increase the already high stakes of puppeteering near an open flame. There’s also just something appealing in who’s getting the spotlight here: While disclaimer-spouting Joe The Legal Weasel and “gobbling gourmand” Beverly Plume represent some new faces, Muppets Now emphasizes characters who thrived in the slam-bam rhythms of The Muppet Show but had less presence in recent, more narratively focused projects.

It’s thrillingly kinetic and rib-tickling right up until the point where routine starts to dampen the sense that anything can happen within the confines of Scooter’s appropriately cluttered desktop. This is forgivable: Formula is the life blood of family entertainment, and Muppets Now isn’t a production on the scale of its broadcast predecessors—and even those shows had their running gags, recurring segments, and go-to punchlines, some of which are the bases for this show’s highest highs. But Muppets Now feels hemmed in in a way those other shows didn’t, particularly in the Piggy segments, which, through the four episodes screened for critics, always feature the same two guests stars: Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini. (To their credit, both are incredibly game.) On the other hand, each installment of Lifestyle begins with a new iteration on a “Robot Repair”/“Peanut Butter Is One Word Don’t Write One Word” joke involving the title, and those kill without fail. Just goes to show how even the smallest dab of creative variety can benefit a formula.

The show finds other avenues for invention, boasting a visual playfulness that builds from the vocabulary of those earlier YouTube shorts and litters the frame with prop gags and Easter eggs. Pay close attention to the name and logo of the videochat app that Scooter and the gang use; watch as the Scandinavian gibberish flies in the onscreen graphics of every “Økėÿ Døkęÿ Køøkiñ” face-off. For that matter, marvel at the skill with which the current generation of Muppet performers sell the illusion of their characters peering into web cameras. (Considering the “now” that Muppets Now is premiering in, the always logged-on relevance of Scooter orchestrating things remotely picked up some COVID-19 resonance on its way to Disney+.)

But that’s also why the best segments of Muppet Now are the ones with the most in-person and in-puppet interaction. It’s never better than when Pepe The King Prawn is confounding the contestants (and sidekick/announcer Scooter) with seemingly spur-of-the-moment challenges on “Pepe’s Unbelievable Game Show,” or when one cast member after another emerges to pile questions onto Kermit’s “Mup Close And Personal” interview with RuPaul. (Fingers crossed this sets up a friendly Muppets-Drag Race alliance that waves away the copyright restrictions preventing any contestant from doing a Miss Piggy impression for Snatch Game.) Even as the structure of Muppets Now grows a little monotonous, the contents retain the promise of a “T-U-Cookie Monster” around every corner.