Review: The Muppets redeem themselves — well, Disney does — with delightful 'Muppets Now'
Just because you own a brand doesn't mean you know what to do with it. The Muppets, which have been largely controlled by Disney since 2004, have had their ups and downs over those 16 years. The height of their success in that time came with the very popular, well-reviewed Jason Segel film "The Muppets." The height of their failure, to my mind, was the 2015 ABC series also called "The Muppets," a mockumentary account of the production of a late-night show starring Miss Piggy that overlaid a sophisticated worldliness, and adult cares, onto the troupe.
Audiences, too, have their own ideas of what should be done with an intellectual property, what is true to a character or a world; I have just owned to that myself. It's not that I'm averse to change. There's no reason why a Daniel Craig James Bond should look anything like Sean Connery's — indeed, it requires a modicum of mental gymnastics, historical context and ironic distance to enjoy those old Bonds at all — or that the next should look anything like Craig's, or be white, or a guy. Any sort of person can be the Doctor on "Doctor Who." Do anything you want with "Star Wars," I don't care.
But when it comes to the Muppets, I can be something of a stickler. Maybe a pill.
If ABC's "The Muppets" wasn't quite "Riverdale," which turned Archie Andrews' hometown into a place beyond Peyton Place, it was a step too far for me, and apparently for many. (It lasted only a season.) The Muppets were already real enough without being made "realer." We know who they are without explication or complication, their essences as immediately graspable as those of any other great screen comedians. They do not need their quirks framed as neuroses, or their love even a tiny bit sexualized: Stars in Miss Piggy's eyes tell that story well enough.
I am very happy to say this is not the case with "Muppets Now," a delightful new series that on Disney+. Although it picks up a theme or two from the ABC series, and does have the odd dark moment (a mothballed computer complaining of "crippling loneliness"), it feels almost like a corrective to the 2015 series — getting back to the roots, not getting a reboot. That it was designed for a family-oriented platform has possibly kept it from the "adult" excesses of "The Muppets," but it also looks for inspiration and substance to "The Muppet Show," the late '70s-early '80s syndicated series that introduced most of the characters who didn't come from "Sesame Street." (Kermit predates both.)
They are a repertory company. In films like "Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island," they play other characters, while remaining themselves. At other times, as in "The Great Muppet Caper," they play themselves, but as characters. Putting on shows is what they do, and as in "The Muppet Show," that's what's happening here, updated for the webbed world. The frame this time is an online streaming channel, with Scooter once again handling the practical matter of getting things on their feet.
All your favorite Muppets are here, in new and old-but-remodeled situations. The "Muppet Labs" segment, with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his "resilient assistant" Beaker, which used to revolve around silly inventions like an electric sledgehammer, germ-enlarger, fireproof paper and edible paper clips, here involves some actual science and "Mythbusters"-like experiments: catapulting pizzas at a target in a segment on velocity; setting things on fire to see if they'll melt or burn: marshmallows, ping-pong balls, steel wool, a ukulele, a clock (which comes with a Salvador Dali joke). Similarly, real food is prepared during the Swedish Chef series "Okey Dokey Kookin," a sort of cook-off between the Swedish Chef and a kitchen celebrity -- Carlina Will, Danny Trejo, Roy Choi, chef Giuseppe Losavio. If you have seen the Swedish Chef work, you know how this turns out, and that if mole is on the menu, there will be a mole present.
Miss Piggy gets a "Goop Lab"-esque program that is supposed to be called "Lifestyles" but winds up represented as "Lifesty," and features regular appearances by Linda Cardellini ("my sister from another mister"), who is part of a chat segment, and Taye Diggs, who explores hot yoga and in-the-dark dining with her.
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