I might have pondered over the sex lives of Harry Potter characters and Disney villains. Yet never the Muppets. And I was fine with that. Really. I never wanted to think about Fozzie boning a bubbly blonde (Riki Lindhome) or Kermit “crosspromoting” with his Miss Piggy rebound, Denise. But thanks to ABC’s new sitcom The Muppets these ideas are in the pop culture ether. And that’s just the beginning of the wrong introduced in its series premiere.
I grew up on the Muppets. They made me love movies, thanks to Jim Henson’s behind the scenes special features which demystified the process of filmmaking without ruining the magic of the Muppets. I used to fantasize about becoming a Muppeteer. I interned on Sesame Street in college, and count it as one of the coolest experiences of my life. (I saw Frank Oz play Grover. I can feel your rightful jealousy from here.) So, I was excited to see how they might be re-introduced on television. But their panel at SDCC had me concerned. I was intrigued by the promise of a more mature Muppets. But I didn’t want my beloved childhood heroes falling prey to trends as a means to make them “fresh” again. I didn’t want this Muppets.
ABC’s The Muppets has woven sex, swearing and substance abuse into the felted figures we grew up with. Fozzie laments the difficulty of online dating with “When your online profile says ‘passionate bear looking for love,’ you get a lot of wrong responses. Well, not wrong. Wrong for me.” Kermit calls working on the late night talk show Up Late With Miss Piggy a “bacon-wrapped hell on Earth.” And Zoot of the Electric Mayhem begins to introduce himself at a staff meeting as you would at AA, “My name is Zoot and I’m a—” before being cut off.
None of these things were deal breakers. But they each added to a deliberately different tone from past Muppet shows. The Muppets is not a wacky variety show (like The Muppet Show) nor a silly sitcom (like Muppets Tonight). It’s a sadcom, following the trend of series like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Rick & Morty and Broad City. These shows have a sense of humor tinged with tragedy, be it a life-changing abduction, a ever-looming awareness of your own mortality, or the soul-crushing challenges of trying to “make it” in New York. For the record, each of those is a show I adore. But that doesn’t mean I think their humor blends well with the Muppets. Sadcoms demand their heroes be assholes sometimes. And I don’t want to see the Muppets be assholes. But here we are.
Kermit’s dating a younger, less complicated model of Miss Piggy. After much media speculation, the first episode didn’t reveal Denise to be anything more than that. And by dating a co-worker (she’s in marketing), he’s basically rubbing his new romance in his ex’s face. Classy move, Kermit.
To add insult to injury, Kermit says nothing when jokes are cracked at the expense of Piggy’s looks. They mock her weight (noting a suspension chain that dropped her was made to carry a wrecking ball) and her personal grooming (In his warm-up act, Fozzie says the audience might think he’s Piggy when she’s missed a waxing appointment. But I guess at least his humor is supposed to be groan-inducing?) Even Piggy gets in on the act on air, suggesting she’s had scads of plastic surgery before guest star Elizabeth Banks makes fun of the size of Piggy’s ass. The climax of the episode is Kermit realizing how callous he’s been toward Piggy, reflecting on the all too public break-up and how it still hurts his ex. But he shows no remorse for casually encouraging an office environment that judges her so harshly on her looks.
The Muppets wants to have it both ways. The show wants us to laugh at Piggy for being fat, yet feel for her that she’s heartbroken. It’s changed Kermit from a flustered leader to a furious one. He’s become cynical, seething so much that his love for his furry family—and Piggy in particular—seems to have been smothered by it. But still we’re meant to root for him to reunite with Piggy. Why? They only seem to bring out the worst in each other.
I know. They’re not real. But for so many of us they feel real. Real enough that I hated seeing their relationship blown apart for headlines, and now its wreckage plundered for juicy plot lines in a revamp that’s made the Muppets mean.
I was so hopeful for the return of the Muppets. Cautiously optimistic about how this new take might speak to me in a new way. But it’s just bummed me out. And maybe that’s the worst sin of all. In its first half-hour, The Muppets didn’t make me laugh once.
Kristy Puchko needs all the ice cream in the world right now. Or maybe to just rewatch The Great Muppet Caper.