It was inevitable that Disney+ would try something with The Muppets. Few entertainment franchises are more beloved than Jim Henson’s troupe of felt eccentrics. Sixty-five years have passed since their creation, and over the decades, they have acquired fans of all ages, from all over the world. Who doesn’t love a Muppet?
The question is what, precisely, to do with them. The Muppets’ alchemy is a fine balance of wit, chaos, darkness and innocence, and their reputation rests on a surprisingly thin output. After their early appearances on Sesame Street came the variety series in the late Seventies, which brought them to wide notice. Then there were some excellent films: The Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island. Other iterations have been less successful, especially in recent years. In 2015, four years after the decent Jason Segal reboot film, ABC commissioned a mockumentary which attempted to give the puppets proper character arcs. It was weird and promptly cancelled.
In theory, Muppets Now! is an opportunity for the gang to do what they do best – a variety show with celebrity guests. On the evidence of the first few half-hour episodes available to reviewers, they sometimes make good on this promise. The coronavirus-friendly premise is that Scooter is trying to put together an online streaming service, featuring content from different characters, with the usual clash of egos and demands. There’s a science section with Bunsen Honeydew and the long-suffering Beaker, which sends up MythBusters’ destructive experimental style, setting things on fire and catapulting pizzas at a target. A new character, a turkey called Beverley Plume, hosts cook-offs between the Swedish Chef and celebrity chefs, including Roy Choi and Danny Bielo, with anarchic results and a limited amount of genuine cooking advice. Pepe the King Prawn makes up the rules of his game show as he goes along. Miss Piggy has a regular feature called “Lifesty”, which mocks Gwyneth Paltrow-type lifestyle influencers. As a felt Dame Edna, Miss Piggy has the most satirical bite of any of the Muppets, as she proves when she interviews the actor Aubrey Plaza.
Although there is plenty of entertainment along the way, Muppets Now! doesn’t quite hang together. The different Muppets don’t interact with each other as much as would be ideal. As ever, a lot rests on the gameness of the celebrities. RuPaul seemingly has trouble submitting to being questioned by a frog. Kermit’s new voice, by Matt Vogel, lacks the richness of both Jim Henson’s much imitated original and his successor Steve Whitmire’s. But the throwaway, rapid-fire format suits the Muppets’ qualities, and the series has the flexibility to adapt to what’s working and what isn’t. If Muppets Now! isn’t quite the new Muppets show we have been waiting for, it could be soon.
‘Muppets Now!’ is streaming on Disney+