You might have heard there's a new Muppets series debuting Tuesday, Sept. 22, the first featuring all of these characters as series regulars since The Muppet Show left the air in 1981. You might have even heard that this new Muppets series is more "adult," which conjures unfortunate images of a tawdry version of Kermit's famous flailing routine. And you might know that the series goes behind the scenes of a late-night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy.
But The Muppets is also, oddly enough, one of the new series most hotly dividing critics this season. There's good reason for that. For every good decision the new show makes, there's an equally bad one waiting in the wings, and it seems likely to divide its prospective audience of families and nostalgic Muppet faithful.
For all its obvious weak spots, the show has turned out pretty well. It's silly but emotionally resonant, and able to call back on Muppets lore without getting lost in it. Here's what works, and what doesn't.
Good: Behind-the-scenes shenanigans
The Muppet Show was often at its strongest when it took viewers behind the scenes of the wheezy old variety show at the series' center. But with variety series largely a thing of the past, The Muppets has refocused on a late-night talk show, the closest modern equivalent (especially since it allows for the occasional musical number).
Throughout the new series' first two episodes (all that I've seen), the best moments are usually when the show is dealing with the behind-the-scenes chaos of working on a TV show. There are times — especially when Kermit is in the writers' room — when the show feels ever so slightly like a copy-and-paste of an unused 30 Rock script with Muppet character names swapped in. That can be disconcerting, but 30 Rock was also really, really funny.
The best thing about this is that the behind-the-scenes stuff is baked into the premise of the show. This means that it will be easy for the writers to trim away stuff that doesn't work, while keeping this at the core. A botched premise would be much harder to fix.
Bad: Denise, the pig Kermit is in love with
The show's central emotional story deals with the fallout from a breakup between Kermit and Miss Piggy. There are plenty of good things about this (in fact, more on those in just a second), but by far the worst thing about it is the character of Denise, the new pig Kermit has taken up with.
Denise isn't a character. She's a plot point. She's there solely to drive a wedge between Kermit and Piggy, and that only increases the artificiality of her existence. When she tries to joke around, it feels awkward. And the few scenes featuring her almost always feel cloying.
I suspect there's a half-hearted attempt to do some social commentary here, about how breakups often end up with one partner going to find a "less complicated" model of the other partner. But that only works if Denise were going to be as rich a character as Piggy, and I have a hard time seeing the show pulling that off.
Good: Taking the characters' emotions seriously
This is by far the most "adult" thing about the series. (There are a couple of double entendres, but legitimately smutty jokes are nowhere to be found.) And it's also by far the most exciting thing about the series.
Kermit and Piggy's breakup, for instance, is played straight. There's a genuinely devastating scene in the premiere where Piggy recounts something about the night of their breakup that Kermit never realized, and it dovetails with the behind-the-scenes storyline surprisingly well.
Yeah, there's a lot of sitcom contrivance here — in particular, the lack of communication between Piggy and Kermit mostly seems to exist to drive the story, rather than as an organic character choice — but when the emotional beats hit, they hit as hard as they would on a show featuring "real" characters. The Muppets have been around for decades now. It's nice to see a show treat them as if they'd really been around all that time, accumulating experience and slowly finding gaps between expectations and reality, just like the rest of us.
Bad: Kermit is a huge dick
I was originally going to label this one as "WTF?" but the more I think about it, the less it works. It makes sense that Kermit would be trying to distance himself from Piggy in the wake of a breakup, and, of course, that would be difficult to do when the two worked together. But it's one thing to have that make sense and quite another to actually want to see it.
In practice, it makes Kermit seem like a somewhat shallow, terrible person, who's mean to an ex-girlfriend not out of genuine spite but out of an apathy that seems unlike the character as he's been established. We've seen Kermit get angry or frustrated before, but we've never seen him so passive-aggressive and jerky. Yes, he's an everyman, but he's also a genuinely good guy, who tries to do the right thing.
But that's the tension at the heart of this series. None of us is a good guy who tries to do the right thing all of the time. Kermit, being a frog puppet, is much more believable as that, but if the show is going to take his emotions seriously, then he also needs to have his own blind spots and problems. The first two episodes of the new series lean too heavily in favor of making him a jerk, to be sure, but the impetus behind that idea could lead interesting places.
Good: The nods to the past
If you squint, this show isn't so very different from The Muppet Show at all. There are celebrity guests who get wrapped up in the week's storylines. The characters have clearly delineated, perfectly chosen jobs at the show within the show. (Fozzie Bear is the warm-up comedian!) Even Statler and Waldorf are in the audience to heckle and boo.
There are few things harder than taking a beloved property and updating it for a new era, yet that's all that Hollywood seems to do these days. In the end, what most recommends The Muppets is that it tries to keep a single toe in the past, while pushing everything else into the present. It's kept so much of what worked about the show in its heyday, but it's eschewed a bunch of other things (like comedic sketches that would fit more poorly into shorter modern running times).
This is still very much a work in progress — particularly when it comes to the show's main character — but that willingness to experiment and play with what was good before indicates that the creators want to serve as good stewards of the material. If they'll get to a point where The Muppets feels as vital as The Muppet Show is anybody's guess, but they at least seem pointed mostly in the right direction.
The Muppets debuts Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 8 pm Eastern on ABC. New episodes air weekly.