Since The Muppet Show, Jim Henson’s glorious, groundbreaking puppet variety/sketch comedy from the 1970s, Kermit the Frog & Co. have been reinvented many times over on television. They’ve been animated and de-aged in Muppet Babies (twice), thrust into the short-lived Muppet Show reboot Muppets Tonight, and then thrust again into the ABC mockumentary series The Muppets, which aired for a single season on ABC in 2015 and 2016.
Now it’s happening again in Muppets Now, the new Disney+ comedy that places the familiar felt-based characters in, as Disney puts it, their first “unscripted” series. In each episode, overworked producer Scooter uploads the digitized segments of each episode so they’ll be available to stream. As he drops and drags the files across his desktop, and usually gets peppered with requests and concerns from his colleagues, we get to watch each one, from Miss Piggy’s weekly attempts at offering health and beauty advice to the Swedish Chef’s cooking show with the overly accented title, “Økėÿ Døkęÿ Køøkiñ.”
In other words, Muppets Now is based in a contemporary entertainment setting, sort of the way The Muppets was five years ago, but wisely works in a sketch-comedy vein that is semi-reminiscent of The Muppet Show. On Muppets Now, Miss Piggy still “hi-yaaas!” and says, “Kissy, kissy.” Beeker, loyal assistant to scientist Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, continues to make colossal mistakes while frequently “Meep, meep-ing” during their regular segment, “Muppet Labs Field Test.” For those olds weaned on “Pigs in Space” and “Muppet Labs,” The Muppet Show precursor to “Muppet Labs Field Test,” all of these bits will register as just that: bits like the ones they remember from the golden age of Muppetry. Younger viewers, on the other hand, may perceive the blocks within each episode as the equivalent of YouTube clips. That’s what’s so clever about the way Muppets Studios has designed this series: Any generation can enjoy it and believe it connects directly to their own sensibility, a quality that the overly adult, straining-to-be-edgy The Muppets lacked. (Though it was filmed in 2019, the segmented, occasionally video-chatty format also makes Muppets Now occasionally feel like a more polished version of the fare we’ve grown accustomed to watching during the pandemic.)
Plus, in this beyond-stressful world, who doesn’t need some Muppets in their life? I more than happily immersed myself in the first four episodes of the season’s six, which roll out one per week starting this Friday, and their recognizable mix of silly-meets-meta humor that has always defined the best Muppet comedy. I laughed, more than once, during “Pepé’s Unbelievable Game Show,” hosted by Pepé the King Prawn, who, despite Scooter’s objections, insists on making up his own games and rules every time he invites a pair of contestants to play. In one installment he ditches a planned trivia contest and instead forces his two guests into a staring contest; in another, he fills a lightning round with nonsensical questions such as “Is there somebody named Dave here?”
A “Mup Close and Personal” feature, a one-on-one interview between a Muppet and a celebrity that inevitably spirals out of control, enables Miss Piggy to begin a conversation with guest Aubrey Plaza by asking something that should be asked on more red carpets, if red carpets ever become a thing again: “What is your favorite, very personal story that your publicist has ever written for you?” I never expected part of Muppets Now to remind me of Between Two Ferns, but I was pleasantly surprised that it did.
Not every joke and detail lands. The bits with the Swedish Chef aren’t quite as fun as the ones on The Muppet Show used to be, probably because he doesn’t spend nearly enough time flinging ingredients into the air. “Økėÿ Døkęÿ Køøkiñ,” essentially a cook-off between Swedish Chef and an actual famous chef, is hosted by a new character named Beverly Plume, who is a turkey, which makes it a little strange when the dish being cooked involves chicken. (Fortunately, Beverly is never forced into a situation where she has to taste-test a poultry dish.) The cooking segments also sneak in a semi-educational element by introducing cuisines from a variety of cultures and demonstrating how to cook them. Even some of the science-lab skits impart legitimate information about how velocity and sound waves work while simultaneously making sure that Beeker’s nose gets flattened.
But just when you might think Muppets Now is veering too far into kids’-show TV, it drops a little in-joke for the fans who got hooked the first time Kermit and the gang declared it was time to start the music and light the lights. In one episode, Joe From Legal, the show’s legal consultant who is a Muppet weasel in a suit, insists the segments be focus-group-tested. The information that scrolls by on the testing console includes this important piece of data: “54 percent ask why are there so many songs about rainbows?” Muppets Now is something new and very 2020. But the franchise’s rainbow connections very clearly have not been forgotten.