For months now, Disney – they own this piece of your childhood, too – has been bombarding social media with promotion for ABC’s “reimagining” of The Muppet Show (1976-81), hyping the soapy shenanigans of beloved characters Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. They broke up! He has a new girlfriend! Piggy is jealous! Piggy is seeking solace in the arms of handsome Liam Hemsworth!
As with their exhausting STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS hype, Disney’s hard sell of The Muppets felt assaultive and unnecessary. We’re all going to see the new STAR WARS movie whether they tells us to or not, and we’re all going to sample the first new Muppets TV series in a generation because they’re the Muppets.
But there were more red flags. The tone of the promotion felt distinctly different, and the extreme focus on the characters’ personal lives risked a venture into unchartered territory for the franchise. Plus, the faux-documentary style – the most overused cliche since the wacky neighbor – often trades storytelling and character interaction for jokiness, especially in today’s shorter duration primetime shows (thanks to the need for more ads). It seemed like a desperate ploy to appeal to contemporary viewers of Modern Family, 30 Rock, The Office and countless others.
So that’s where I was, emotionally, as the premiere approached: conflicted, loaded for (Fozzie) bear and prepared to trash the show because these Muppets weren’t my Muppets.
Then the fundamentalists showed up.
Before the first episode even aired, a conservative Christian advocacy group called One Million Moms condemned the series as “perverted” and launched a campaign to kill it. “Miss Piggy came out as a pro-choice feminist during an MSNBC interview” they pearl-clutched on their protest page (with more than 21,000 Facebook shares as of this writing). Created by the Mississippi-based American Family Association (deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), One Million Moms insisted The Muppets was going to be all about sex, drugs, promiscuity and abortion(!) and was “not what Jim Henson imagined and created.” (Note that these are the same people who tried to get Ellen DeGeneres fired for being gay.)
Nothing makes me want to watch something more than being told I shouldn’t, particularly when the guy telling me is Donald Wildmon. A Methodist minister, notorious homophobe, and the founder of the AFA, Wildmon got his start in hate-based advocacy by boycotting sponsors of All in the Family forty years ago (I assume because he shared Archie Bunker’s prejudices). He also penned a letter sent home with every kid in my Catholic school in 1980 warning parents about Adam and Yves, a proposed ABC sitcom from Barney Miller producer Danny Arnold that would have been the first network TV series with gay protagonists. (Primetime’s only other gay character at that point was Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on ABC’s daytime drama parody, Soap.)
Wildmon led protests of Disney (for welcoming LGBT guests to their parks), Madonna (for her blasphemous Like A Prayer video), Three’s Company, M*A*S*H, Dallas, and The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse (alleging that the cartoon superhero snorted cocaine). In short, Wildmon was against a whole bunch of things I enjoyed as a kid, and still do today.
If his small-minded cabal was against the series, it was already looking better to me. And last night, finally, it was time for me to meet The Muppets.
Like the original syndicated series (and ABC’s last primetime reboot, Muppets Tonight in 1996), this update uses a show-within-a-show concept. This time around it’s Up Late with Miss Piggy, a fictional (obviously) late night talk show hosted by America’s favorite egotistical pig. Kermit is the harried show-runner, a job made more challenging by his complicated relationship with the hot-headed host. As the pilot reveals, Kermit broke off his longstanding relationship with Piggy due to her self-involvement and obsession with fame (what else is new). But, proving that this is a Kermit for a new generation, the frog has already moved on to a new pig: Denise, the head of marketing at ABC.
“What can I say?” Kermit tells the documentary camera. “I’m attracted to pigs.”
Also on hand is Fozzie, who serves as Piggy’s announcer and the warm-up comic for the live studio audience. Much time is spent in the pilot on Fozzie and his absurdly attractive girlfriend (Riki Lindhome) and their efforts to win over her prejudiced father (he’s anti-bear, apparently). Nobody ever mentions the fact that he’s a felt puppet, or that he speaks with the anxious cadence of a young Woody Allen (either that’s new, or I didn’t notice it about Fozzie as a kid).
The rest of the familiar faces are back as well: Gonzo is a joke writer; Scooter is the talent coordinator; Sam the Eagle handles Standards and Practices; the Swedish Chef does craft service; Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (featuring Animal) serve as house band; and old coots Statler and Waldorf are in the audience every night to hate-watch the proceedings. There was even a sample of the original theme song during the cold open.
Despite the fear mongering, The Muppets is the same show as it was 39 years ago, with some updating of concept, tone, and setting (and Elizabeth Banks as a guest star instead of Vincent Price). There’s no reference to abortion, drugs, or any of the other hot button, culture war topics the protest calls out. Yes, there are a few jokes that are clearly meant as double entendres: Fozzie makes a reference to “bears” that could also mean burly gay men; Zoot acknowledges (without saying the word) that he’s an alcoholic; and Pepe the King Prawn puts the moves on a female colleague. Kermit also refers to Piggy as “sexy,” but that’s nothing new, considering that one of the original pilots for The Muppet Show was called Sex and Violence. In 1975!
Like the jokes in classic Looney Tunes, Rocky & Bullwinkle, or many of the shows on Cartoon Network today, the double meanings will sail right over the heads of most younger viewers, while keeping things interesting for parents. And, regardless of One Million Moms’ claim about the “family-friendly design” of the franchise, multi-generational appeal was Henson’s strategy from the get-go, with Muppets making appearances on late night talk shows in the 1960s and NBC’s less-than-family-friendly Saturday Night Live in 1975-76. (And if you don’t believe me, here’s an excerpt from Henson’s 1975 Muppet Show pitch reel, where he hypes the shows cross-generational appeal.)
Was I a more sympathetic viewer because of my opposition to everything One Million Moms and their legacy of hate stands for? Probably. But The Muppets is good. It’s smartly written, hip, and it deftly navigates the tightrope of inter-generational appeal without falling too hard to either side. And, most importantly, it does not sell out the iconic characters of my youth in a crass effort to appeal to lowest common denominator tastes. I will most definitely watch it again and, from the looks of the overnight ratings, so will millions of others.
It’s not 1976 anymore, despite what some people wish. We can embrace creative updates of our childhood favorites that will help keep them relevant for contemporary audiences, or we can bolt our doors, put in our old DVDs, and try to convince ourselves that the world hasn’t changed. I know which direction I’m marching, and with whom, and it’s not the haters. Unless you’re talking about Statler and Waldorf.