The Muppets don’t return to television for their back-end episode order until February. But when they do, we’ve been promised that things will be improved.
The Muppets’ premiere on ABC was the most heralded show to come to ABC since the MCU decided to spin Agents of SHIELD to television. In terms of bring back an old franchise, it had the most hype of any revived franchise. Perhaps the expectations were simply too high, and the resulting show was never going to be what everyone hoped for. But, perhaps with the sole exception of Tough Pigs, everyone agrees that what arrived did not begin to meet expectations. As I described it at the time, “just because one’s run-of-the-mill sitcom stars Muppets does not automatically make it funny or worth watching.” Whether this was actually the attitude of those driving the bus, or just what wound up making it to air was not clear. But what was clear is that it couldn’t remain that way and survive.
Unlike something like Agents of SHIELD, which could all but flop, and Disney and the MCU would still support it until it found its feet again, The Muppets have no such movie backstop. The Muppets returned to television because Disney discovered that remaking Muppet movies was a rapidly diminishing return venture. If they flopped on TV, there was nowhere to go, other than back into the vault, with occasional appearances on YouTube. And so a new showrunner was brought on. Kristin Newman (who runs the show Galavant–another ABC show that mysteriously came back despite ratings) has taken over, and in her interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she’s said all the right things.
One major problem I had with the format? The late night show. For some reason, those running The Muppets seemed to have last watched a late night show back in the 90s when Jay Leno and David Letterman were still the gold standard, interviews were the heart of the program, and the word “viral” was reserved for something like chicken pox. That’s simply not how it is in 2015. Jimmy Fallon’s interviews are secondary to The Roots, the games, and above all the clips designed to go viral. Stephen Colbert was brought on precisely because he can both do a heartfelt interview and a viral clip in one show. Musical numbers are sometimes the most important thing that happens all week. Under the new regimes, the variety type show has made a comeback. The Muppets were made for variety shows. So why is Miss Piggy doing Leno stand up and then Letterman sit downs?
Newman says that’s one of the first major changes: “It’s more of a Jimmy Fallon-style late-night show where there are bits and sketches. We won’t be doing sketches straight out of 1979, but we may be doing some of them updated. We’re doing an updated Veterinarian’s Hospital, we’re doing an updated Swedish Chef where Bunsen is helping him do molecular gastronomy. We’re taking some of the inspiration from a lot of the old stuff and trying to think about how would Fallon do it? How would [Jimmy] Kimmel do it? And getting to see the Muppets being zany and not just being guys who are having a hard time at work but also getting to perform and do silly things.”
Speaking of The Muppets simply being miserable in the workplace, Newman is planning to fix that as well. The mean-spirited unfunny Muppet on Muppet emotional abuse is leaving. Instead they will get a new, human, foe that they’ll have to band together to defeat. “The human threat is obviously from the network because they work on a TV show. He is a branding guru named Pache — played by [recurring guest] Utkarsh Ambudkar (The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect) and he has rebranded warlords and network presidents and he has a lot of slick ideas and it’s all about new, new, new and slick, slick, slick, which is not The Muppets.”
No, slick is not the Muppets, which has been part of the problem–the slick, snarky, ugly sitcom simply didn’t fit. Newman isn’t asked about this quiet stab at the way the show started, but she’s promising it will be fixed by the time it is over. Including removing some of those Muppet-Human relationships that have been less than fun to watch. “Camilla will be coming back for Gonzo.Lew Zealand will be throwing some fish around. We don’t see all of the penguins, but Piggy does tap into her charitable side when she’s in Argentina and Tierra del Fuego and decides to save the penguins, specifically this one in her tote bag, so there will be a baby penguin coming into the show. Foo-foo will be around more. For the finale, I’m going to have a lot of the beloved Muppets that all the fans and performers have really been missing come back for the last show. We’re going to have some cameos of old Muppets that haven’t been around a lot.”
It sounds like it might be worth tuning back in for in February. I know I’m not willing to let The Muppets go just yet. Let’s hope there are more fans who are also willing to give this one more try. And for everyone’s sake, let’s hope this time it succeeds.