For five years, Muppet fans have been left in the dark on when there would be a new project starring the fuzzy, furry characters. The Muppets have had a long and tumultuous journey. Three films were released after the death of creator Jim Henson to mostly positive reception (we don’t talk about Muppets From Space). After a previous acquisition deal fell through in 1990 due to Henson’s passing, Disney purchased The Muppets from The Jim Henson Company for $75 million in 2004.
Disney’s rollout was slow; a handful of TV specials were made and a YouTube channel was created in 2009. Videos are still posted regularly and some have done remarkably well, with the gang’s rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at 89 million views at the time of this writing. It wasn’t until 2011 that they experienced a resurgence with The Muppets, co-starring and co-written by Jason Segel, their first big screen outing in twelve years. The film was a critical and commercial hit and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. A sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, was greenlit and released in 2014.
However, Disney opted not to make another movie after Most Wanted and instead followed up with a primetime television series titled The Muppets in 2015 (an absolute banger of a title). Due to mixed reception and behind the scenes drama, the series was cancelled after one season.
Then, a five-year drought began with no substantial project for fans to latch onto. Muppets Live Another Day, a proposed series for Disney+, was shelved. Josh Gad and writing duo Adam Horowitz & Eddy Kitsis (Once Upon A Time) were developing the limited series. The show would have found the gang in the ’80s reunited after the mysterious disappearance of Rowlf the Dog. Creative differences between the creators and executives at The Muppets Studio resulted in the show not going forward.
Fast forward to July 2020 and Muppets Now has made it to the finish line. The series, the gang’s streaming debut, finds Scooter rushing to meet deadlines to upload the new Muppet skits to the platform. The Muppets are well known for their parodies, and this time they are taking on the internet. The show promises unscripted Muppet mayhem, celebrity guest stars, throwbacks, and fresh segments in a 23-25 minute format. Six “Muppisodes” were produced and will air weekly beginning July 31. Special guests include Aubrey Plaza, RuPaul, Seth Rogen, and more.
The series is primarily divided into six segments. Lifestyle with Miss Piggy gives a pretty clear impression from the get go. Piggy has a vlog through which she talks about a different topic each episode ranging from personal style to self-care. There are two more bits within this segment: Try It with Miss Piggy & Taye Diggs, where Taye Diggs and Piggy try the day’s subject at hand, and Le Chat Show, where Miss Piggy chats with fellow Muppets and Linda Cardellini about the days topic. Pepe’s Unbelievable Game Show places Pepe the King Prawn as a game show host with Scooter as his announcer and producer, but instead of going by the script, Pepe throws out all the plans and improvises his own challenges on the spot, which usually comes at the cost of the contestants embarrassment.
Fans discover the hidden talents of the Muppets in Muppet Masters (a parody of PBS’ American Masters), in which Kermit reveals his master photography skills. Mup Close & Personal involves a celebrity guest being interviewed by one of the Muppets but usually results in the exchange being interrupted at every possible moment or irrelevant questions being flung at them in true Muppet fashion.
Muppet Labs Field Test takes Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker out of the lab and into the field, tackling real science. Instead of inventing, this time Beaky and Bunsen are burning, dropping, and smashing. Reminiscent of the Slow Mo Guys or Mythbusters, these segments include colorful animatics and begin with a disclaimer from Kermit and Joe The Legal Weasel telling viewers, “Do Not Try This At Home”. Økėÿ Døkęÿ Køøkïñ Challenge is hosted by an adorable turkey named Beverly Plume. As one may tell from the title it still involves the Swedish Chef preparing food, but pits him against celebrity chefs, such as Roy Choi, to see who is superior. As per usual, one can expect Chef to include some very unconventional ingredients. The Swedish Chef and Danny Trejo go to war in a hilarious taco-making challenge and neither of them hold back; this time it’s personal. Note to Muppets Studio: Please bring in Guy Fieri for a future challenge.
Økėÿ Døkęÿ Køøkïñ Challenge and Muppet Labs Field Test are the standout segments. They retain all the charm of the classic sketches, bringing them into the 21st century and making them more fun and entertaining than ever. Kermit, Piggy, Pepe, Bunsen, Beaker, and the Swedish Chef all have their moments in Muppets Now, and fans are in for a real treat. It generates the serotonin that fans have been craving for what feels like millennia. Although most of these segments are new to the audience, they are still quick and witty enough to feel familiar as the Muppet brand of comedy. They are simultaneously brisk and breezy, though at times some of the newer sketches can feel a little too on the nose, as if they are trying to be a little too modern. Sadly, songs and performances, which are part of the very fabric of the Muppets (no pun intended), are absent in this series. It’s this attempt to be super trendy that leaves Gonzo and Fozzie, two cornerstone characters, with almost nothing to do. No death-defying stunts or tap-dancing on tapioca pudding and thumbtacks from The Great Gonzo. Depression.
Muppets Now also marks Matt Vogel’s first major project as the performer for Kermit the Frog after Steve Whitmire’s dismissal from The Muppets Studio in October 2016. Vogel’s performance still needs a little work (Kermit sounds a little too nasally), but given time, Vogel will surely be able to slip into the role more naturally.
Steve Whitmire’s other characters (Beaker, Statler, Link Hogthrob, and the Newsman) have been reassigned to other puppeteers, with the exception of Rizzo, who doesn’t appear to be in this new series. Rizzo was a fan favorite when interacting with other established characters, so it’s disappointing to find that he is yet to be recast. Though fans may find some comfort in knowing that Muppet newcomer Walter does take part in some of the show’s antics after being omitted from the 2015 series on ABC.
With a return to sketches, Muppets Now marks the first spiritual reboot of The Muppet Show since 1996’s Muppets Tonight. Muppets Now is being seen by The Muppets Studio as a back to basics approach, with puppeteer Bill Baretta saying, “The thinking is to stop trying so hard to be like everybody else and just be the Muppets.” And this is true, but the show is specifically satirizing the internet, is that not still an example of pandering? The vlog segment and excessive use of video chatting can’t help but feel contrived. By parodying the internet this way, they are still trying to be something that they are not. Where’s Crazy Harry and his explosions? Lew Zealand and his boomerang fish? The Electric Mayhem? Where’s the flavor?
There are many laughs to be had in Muppets Now, but it begs the question that many fans have been asking for years now, why not just redo The Muppet Show? The original series was a variety show, which was made up of musical performances, sketch comedy, dance, magic, and more. The Muppets utilized these variety acts perfectly. Variety shows were popular from the late 1940s to the late 1970s before dying off due to audience burnout. Sure, variety shows haven’t been popular in a good while, and certainly not on the networks, but Disney+ provides a new outlet. Disney+ is not a network, it’s a streaming service with accessibility and a built-in audience. Where variety show revivals on network TV have failed, it can succeed on streaming. The current COVID-19 pandemic has shown that people are craving original content. What was once flooded on TV can be considered new again. The Swedish Chef’s and Muppet Labs’ retooled sketches prove that the original template works.
Muppets Now takes two steps forward, one step back. But it signifies a light at the end of the tunnel, and a bright new future for the Muppets.
You Can Stream Muppets Now starting July 31 only on Disney+
Follow Associate Editor Aaron Escobar on Twitter: @aaronfraggle
Sources: The New York Times