Twenty-first-century sitcoms largely got their shtick from the Muppets, and now The Muppets are back for tepid revenge. At least, that’s the sense I got from the pilot of ABC’s long-awaited The Muppets, a somewhat disappointing first episode for a show that we can all reasonably expect will get better.
The good and bad of handheld “mockumentary” shows as a whole aside, it’s important to note that the Muppets were a meta-show long before anyone else. The Muppet Show was a sketch show, but it was also a show about making the show within the show. Statler and Waldorf existed only to provide snarky live commentary in the days before Twitter. When sketches were bad, they were called out as being bad. The comparisons to 30 Rock were not coincidental; in fact, an argument could be made that we wouldn’t have any of the most popular sitcoms of the past ten years without the meta-comedy of the Muppets. The Muppet Show begat 30 Rock and 30 Rock begat The Muppets, it would seem.
But cutaway-style meta-comedy is a much different thing from Muppet self-awareness, and something about The Muppets pilot just felt … incorrect.
Remembering how stilted the Parks and Recreation pilot felt, given how brilliant and self-assured it would later become, certainly helped relax my initial disappointment with the episode, which finds Kermit executive-producing Up Late With Miss Piggy, whom by now we all know he’s broken up with. We are also (re-)introduced to the Up Late crew: Gonzo is the writer, Fozzie is the warm-up comic, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are the band, Scooter is, you know, Scooter, and, in a rare inspired choice, Sam the Eagle is Standards and Practices. Much of my enjoyment from the episode came in seeing which Muppet favorites made the cut for major roles. I’m especially excited that Bobo the bear is getting some well-deserved airtime, but hope future episodes have more Rowlf.
As is Muppets tradition, real-world stars play the in-show guests of Up Late. Elizabeth Banks is the show’s first celebrity guest star, but Miss Piggy wants her bumped from the show — presumably because of Piggy’s botched Hunger Games audition. Kermit goes out of his way to find a different star (Tom Bergeron — well synergized, ABC), but Elizabeth Banks shows up anyway. Scooter’s attempts to keep her away from Miss Piggy until showtime weren’t as zany as I wanted from a Muppet show.
Meanwhile, we get to meet the much-discussed Denise, who, let’s be real, might be way better for Kermit than Miss Piggy. She seems supportive and even-keeled, and best of all she doesn’t seem prone to regular karate kicks to the head. She is the Karen to Kermit and Piggy’s Jim and Pam; there’s no reason not to like her except for how much we’ve come to like Kermit and Piggy as a couple. The worst that could be said of her is that she doesn’t have a ton of personality yet, but no one really does at this point. The pilot seems more interested in reacquainting us with this particular format of sitcom than it does in reacquainting us with the Muppets and their personalities. Everyone feels just a little less colorful, and not just because it’s shot a bit coldly. Everything on The Muppets looks a little flat, and it falls just a little flat, too.
If there are two things I love in this world, they might as well be Fozzie Bear and Riki Lindhome (in a role that appears to have been played by a different actor in the trailer), but I wasn’t that interested in their story line. I hope Riki Lindhome becomes a regular, but I didn’t like that the pilot took us out of the world of Up Late so quickly when there’s automatically so many show-within-the-show-centric story lines to explore. Especially because, if I’m being honest, it just wasn’t that funny. And it had way too many funny elements working for it for that to be the case.
The emotional crux of the episode was, if not a highlight, at least a welcome reminder of who these characters are, what they care about, and why we care about them. Kermit discovers that Miss Piggy’s objection to Elizabeth Banks has nothing to do with any personal rivalries and everything to do with the fact that the big breakup took place outside a theater playing Pitch Perfect 2. Miss Piggy and Kermit get so little screen time together during the pilot that watching them together brought me back to basics: “Ohhh yeah, this is that Muppets sitcom I’ve been waiting for since I first heard rumors about it. Ohhhh yeah, I deeply love these characters I grew up on.”
Pilots are difficult, and rarely good, even for the best of shows. But what The Muppets pilot left me with was a version of the question that used to be asked of King of the Hill — why make an animated show that you could make much more easily as a live-action sitcom? Why use the Muppets if you could just as easily make a live-action 30 Rock knockoff? Besides their obvious pull, I’d like to believe there are bigger, Muppet-ier plans in store.
It strikes me that what is good about The Muppets’ pilot is what’s always been good about the Muppets, and what’s bad about The Muppets’ pilot is what’s bad about every mockumentary-style show’s pilot episode (with the notable exception of Modern Family). The Muppets have always gone “meta” without being “ironic,” and I hope that what comes through most clearly as the series progresses is not aloof detachment, but old-school Muppet-y heart.
As a last note, I’d be remiss not to give props to Miss Piggy’s new role as host, because sometimes it feels like she’ll have to fly before a human woman gets a late-night show.