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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    'The Muppets Mayhem' review: The puppets are back in town

    That great American acting company, the Muppets, returns once again to television in the 10-part series "The Muppets Mayhem," which premiered last week on Disney+. Like any company of contract players, they have been turned to better and worse uses, and here it is very much the former — like the best Muppet shows, a delight not only for children of all ages, but grown-ups of all ages as well.

    The story revolves around the Muppet house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, created in the mid-'70s for "The Muppet Show." They have made appearances in many subsequent projects, but this is the first time they've taken center stage. Indeed, apart from a new character, a couple of bunnies, a talking shoe and a cameo appearance by Muppets who shall not be named, they are the only actors in this series not made of flesh and blood.

    As a cast of characters, only Uncle Walt's original critters (the mice, the dogs, the ducks) are their peer in cultural penetration; it makes corporate sense that Disney would eventually ingest them (minus, I am happy to say, the Sesame Street Muppets — Bert and Ernie and Oscar and Cookie Monster and Oscar and Elmo, et al). Given Disney's long history of smoothing out and jazzing up the quirky, potent, sometimes dark works of Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, P.L. Travers, Carlo Collodi and Hans Christian Andersen for mass consumption, I feared for their fate under their new masters. Unexpectedly — or not, given that the Kermit and crew were already pretty smooth and jazzy — ABC's 2015 mockumentary series "The Muppets" took an opposite tack, with a psychologized, sexualized, more "adult" take on the characters. It did them few favors.

    But "Muppets Now!," a digital-era updating of "The Muppet Show," recaptured the spirit of the original. So it is with "The Muppets Mayhem." Developed by 30-year Muppet veteran Bill Barretta, Adam F. Goldberg, creator of "The Goldbergs," and Jeff Yorkes, it's perhaps the best post-Henson Muppet show, even though — or exactly because — it features none of the usual headliners but strikes into fresh territory while maintaining the proper mix of satire, slapstick, silliness, subtlety and sentiment. The writing is good; the jokes land with Simone Biles consistency. The Muppets are, as always, astonishingly present and alive, above their invisible puppeteers.

    The band, for the uninitiated — if such people exist — offers a range of musical types, as they would have been conceived in the mid-'70s. Keyboardist Dr. Teeth (Barretta), who nods to Dr. John — we learn here that he's also an actual "Doctor of Teeth" — is the nominal leader of the band, even as he agrees with the band that the band has no leader. Guitarist Janice (David Rudman) is a flower child cum Valley Girl (her "transplendent" here is borrowed from Shelley Duvall in "Annie Hall"). Bassist Floyd Pepper (Matt Vogel) has the air of a holdout from the Summer of Love. The enigmatic horn section consists of saxophonist Zoot (Dave Goelz), cool to the point of inertia, and trumpeter Lips (Peter Linz), a mumbler. And, most memorably, there is Animal (Eric Jacobson), who is all drummers, times 10.

    A kind of quantum nonsense rules. (When some impossible thing occurs, a character is simply liable to ask, "How did that happen?") We are told that the Electric Mayhem have been together for 40 years, yet they have not aged a day; a remark about Floyd turning 50 means that he was 8 when "The Muppet Show" premiered. The band somehow flies at once below and on the radar; they play huge concerts — which is where the money is, people — but even without the usual bank account-draining expenses of a rock band, they're broke. (Still, it's easy enough to imagine them not remembering to get paid.) They rely on kismet and serendipity to guide them and share a lack of commercial ambition that keeps all in harmony.

    But this is a series with an arc, and things will happen. Nora (Lilly Singh, not a Muppet) is a music fan and seemingly the sole employee of Hollywood's Wax Town Records; her boss, a new Muppet named Penny Waxman (Leslie Carrara-Rudolph), is ready to close up shop when Nora discovers that the Electric Mayhem, who have never recorded an album, owe the company one. (Dr. Teeth and Penny, as it turns out, also have a history.) Nora sees her chance.

    The first thing we learn about her is that she thinks the lyrics to Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite" run "and part of every day," rather than "party every day," as they do. It marks her as a logical, sensible sort and puts her at temperamental odds with the Electric Mayhem. (They love her anyway, of course — Animal especially.) Also in the mix are Nora's much more successful sister, Hannah (Saara Chaudry, an online influencer); JJ (Anders Holm), an old boyfriend determined to win Nora back by becoming a power player; and Gary "Moog" Moogowski (Tahj Mowry), a shy Mayhemhead, with skills, who becomes part of the (dis)organization. Their human business is ... not unpredictable. But it fits the gestalt.

    As on "The Muppet Show" and many Muppet projects onward, there are human guest stars, here including Lil Nas X, Kesha, Susanna Hoffs, deadmau5, Morgan Freeman (in a Zoot suit — that is, dressed as Zoot), Ziggy Marley, Charlamagne tha God, Paula Abdul, Chris Stapleton, Danny Trejo, Zedd, Kristen Schaal, Ben Schwartz, a reunited Cheech and Chong and on and on. (It's a long list.) It speaks to the art and craft of the Muppeteers that there is no existential distance between the people and the puppets; they are equally real, and equally absurd.

    An episode-long parody of the Beatles documentary "Get Back," in which "a random deadline has been forced upon [the group] to create tension and stakes," brings in directors Kevin Smith ("You see this camera? Do not look into this camera") and Peter Jackson ("I don't make movies; I make trilogies"). There are satires on various forms of social media, YouTube channels and the metaverse. ("He literally scratches himself on camera and goes viral," Hannah will complain of Animal's sudden TikTok success. "It's almost like social media is shallow and pointless.") An episode that finds the band and company out in the desert seeking inspiration turns psychedelic when they discover a bag of expired marshmallows — don't eat old marshmallows, kids! — an occasion for some excellent stop-motion animation and a vision of "Weird Al" Yankovic appearing in the sky to Floyd.

    Weird Al: "I'm here to tell you to stop being so precious and start writing music again."

    Floyd: "Says the guy who only writes parody songs — got you!"

    Every film or program featuring the "Muppet Show" Muppets is in some sense a show business story, because even in something like "The Muppet Christmas Carol," they're performers — at once as who they are and who they're playing. Show business in their world has always been both rewarding and cruel: "All this time we thought show biz was a trusted haven of truth and honesty," someone says here — full of mishap but ever leading to triumph, and no doubt a song. And where many such backstage fairy tales would introduce a villain, a tempter, a wolf in executive clothing to lead them astray, the only obstacle in the Mayhem's way is the Mayhem — if "obstacle" even applies, since they're in no hurry to get anywhere, and you can't make them. But naturally, the show will go on.



    Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

    How to watch: Disney+

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