The Muppets, Jim Henson’s beloved felt creations, are 60 years old, but feelings for them still run high. The canny publicity campaign for their latest venture, ABC’s sitcom The Muppets, “leaked” “news” to the tabloids that Kermit and Miss Piggy had broken up, and Kermit had taken up with a pig named Denise, drumming up attention and ire in nearly equal measure. Rebecca Traister, in a piece last week headlined “The Muppets should not be having sex, people,” ably captured the sentiment that the Muppets, perfect and lovely (and, sure, fictional), should not be besmirched by tawdry gossip and innuendo. “Please stop talking, writing, and otherwise promoting the upcoming Muppets television reboot by alluding to them actually fucking,” she wrote. “They are Muppets.” But the new show spends far less time than the (highly effective) promotional materials on the unseemly prospect of Muppet boinking, committing instead a less salacious form of Muppet blasphemy: turning the Muppets into neurotic adults.
The show, co-created by Bill Prady, a muppeteer from wayback, finds Kermit and his pals plagued by work stress, day-to-day irritations and relationship problems. It is set behind the scenes of Miss Piggy’s late-night show, Up All Night With Miss Piggy, where Kermit is the executive producer, Animal plays drums in the house band, Gonzo is the head writer, Statler and Waldorf are perpetually in the audience, and so on. It melds the backstage set-up of The Larry Sanders Show or 30 Rock (fans of which will recall that Kenneth the Page already thought everyone on that show was a Muppet) with the mockumentary tricks of The Office: the talking head interviews, the glances at the camera. The resulting comedy is knowing, self-referential, low-energy, and a little jaded, perfectly promising qualities in a new sitcom, unless that new sitcom stars a green frog beloved for self-identifying as a “lover and dreamer.” The Muppets turns the rainbow connection grey.
The Muppets, historically, have been an ebullient and silly group who love to entertain people, not in some crass or soulless way, but in a generous and good-spirited one. In The Muppets, though, anxiety and overwork creep in. (The mockumentary format is also not a great fit for Muppets, who have many skills, but immobile eyes. Moving lids and irises are required for the deadpan glances to camera so necessary to this format.) There is still the occasional bolt of pure Muppet-y sweetness, like a series of jokes that rely on staff writer Pepe the King Prawn’s multiple claws, but the first two episodes largely focus on the bummers and indignities of workaday life. Fozzie Bear is a dating a human woman (Riki Lindhome), a premise mined for anxiety and adult content (“When your online profile says passionate bear looking for love, you get a lot of wrong responses”). The woman’s parents don't approve of this interspecies match and Fozzie desperately tries to change their minds. Bobo the Bear sells his daughter’s Girl Scout Cookies around the office, but after having little luck he mourns that he’s teaching his daughter “that she can’t rely on her father.” Gonzo struggles to come up with bits that please Kermit. And everyone is working overtime for a nightmare boss, an egomaniac with a horrible temper, unpredictable whims, and a hatred of direct eye contact: Miss Piggy.
Miss Piggy has always been a high-maintenance diva, but in the sweeter environs of past Muppet entertainments, her bad behavior was milder. Even at her worst—hitting Kermit all the time, for example—she was the sour powder slathered onto the Muppet gummy bears: the lip-puckering tang that made them taste so good. In recent years, Piggy has even become a kind of feminist icon, authoring a piece for Time, “Why I am a feminist pig.” On The Muppets she is, it’s true, a woman with a late-night show, but otherwise she’s a real boor.
The first two episodes orbit around Piggy’s bad porcine behavior. In the first, Kermit insists on booking Elizabeth Banks as a guest despite Piggy’s protestations. He and the crew spend the episode tip-toeing around Piggy, who they believe doesn't like Banks for petty reasons. It turns out she just doesn’t like her for inappropriately personal ones. In the second, she’s been in a hellacious mood for days—the crew hides beneath their desks, rather than risk eye contact—because she doesn’t have a date to an awards show, and only a famous person will appease Piggy’s ego. Eventually Kermit hooks her up with Josh Groban, whom she tries to impress by forsaking her own tastes and going highbrow, pushing to interview some authors even though she’s never read a book. Kermit only breaks Groban’s spell over Piggy by playing to his ex’s vanity. Bossy, shrill, hysterical, irrational, moody, and all the other condescending words that are disproportionately used to describe and police women’s behavior, all truly apply to this iteration of Miss Piggy. (Except frumpy. Even this Miss Piggy is not frumpy.)
I am aware, as I write this, that Miss Piggy is not a real person. But this is exactly why she is such a potent symbol. Miss Piggy is not a human being, but she is controlled by human beings, human beings who have hung her out to fry: You can almost smell the bacon. The original Miss Piggy is a forerunner to the complicated female protagonists TV continues to provide, characters from Liz Lemon to Hannah Horvath, from Skyler White to UnReal’s Rachel Goldberg, deeply flawed women not primarily, or even particularly, concerned with being likeable. But it’s hard to get past this iteration of Miss Piggy’s unpleasantness because that’s all there is: She’s not a fully developed moi, just a set of high-maintenance tics.
Making Missy Piggy so awful has dour ramifications for the rest of the Muppets: Why are they working so hard for this pig, who can’t even deign to remember Fozzie Bear’s name? Have they no self-respect? Nothing more joyful to do? The Muppet who comes off worst is Kermit, who spends his days sneakily managing Piggy’s moods, working up the nerve to disobey her, a mild-mannered middle manager. His voice, previously so adorable, began to sound to me mealy and weak, like the vocal equivalent of pleated khakis.
A reasonable person already cauterized to the indignities reboots can visit upon beloved intellectual properties would remind you that The Muppets may very well improve, and, even if it doesn’t, these are still the Muppets: a gang of spastic goofballs who will remain good company so long as the Swedish Chef is still spouting charming Swedish-inflected nonsense. But who wants to be reasonable about the Muppets? The first movie I ever went to see in a theater was 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan. I was 3 years old. Late in the movie, Kermit gets hit by a car. My mother looked over to see if I was okay, but I was gone, out of my seat, halfway up the aisle and heading for the door. I was not going to sit there and watch anything awful happen to Kermit the Frog. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling so strongly about this version of Kermit. The show has already run him over.