Rebooted as a sitcom, the production has a physical softness and a baggy looseness that match the Muppets' contours

By Tom Gliatto
September 22, 2015 08:00 PM

The popular old syndicated series The Muppet Show has been given a reboot that’s either gentle, radical or both. How you respond to ABC’s The Muppets depends on how you regard the sanctity of beloved pieces of brightly colored felt and fur.

The previous series (1976 81) was conceived as a variety show – you know, the thing that I was expecting Neil Patrick Harris to host that turned out to be Best Time Ever. The new Muppets, which is about the behind-the-scenes nonsense that goes into putting together a nightly talk show for Miss Piggy, is shot in the mockumentary style of so many sitcoms, including The Office (The Muppets‘ opening titles use even the same typeface) or Modern Family. There is no audience laughter and no applause, both of which were conspicuously canned and shrill on The Muppet Show.

This is actually a very attractive change: Rebooted as a sitcom, the production has a physical softness and a baggy looseness that match the Muppets’ contours.

However, one change in this Muppets, co-created by Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory), has already been rubbing some people’s fuzz the wrong way. There’s a new element of “adult” humor – mostly double entendres about, among other things, “free passes” (Kermit the Frog has one should he ever happen to get into an elevator with Lea Thompson) and bisexuality (Pepe the Shrimp is not embarrassed to reveal that he finds guest star Josh Groban attractive).

Parents can decide for themselves whether this puts the show outside the bounds of ordinary family entertainment, but it’s only fair to point out that a.) the sexual allusions are so roundabout and deadpan they probably won’t mean anything to young viewers and b.) Muppets, given their ping pong ball eyes and lipless mouths that open and close like folded paper plates, don’t have the expressive means to add any nuance to these jokes.

The Muppets isn’t Dangerous Liaisons with Le Conte de Kermit and Marquise Piggy. Although that’s an interesting idea.

To be honest, I’m more bothered by the Kermit-Piggy breakup, which was so cleverly and – let’s face it, cynically – set up in the media in the weeks before the premiere. Why should two puppets, even two brilliantly imagined puppets, engage in such Twitter-trending, on-and-off relationship silliness? Are they spoofing the Hollywood dating game? Exploiting it?

Show business never changes. Even after the asteroid hits us and the Muppets have been safely extracted to a different planet, it will all still be the same.

And, as everyone knows, Kermit has been given a new lady-pig. Her name is Denise, and so far she’s too bland to be a Muppet, let alone a foil for the majestically throttled ego of Miss Piggy. She’s too bland to even provoke a joke from Joan Rivers, if that great woman happened to be with us still.

Oddly, Kermit’s anxiety about keeping Miss Piggy a happy star while playing the field makes him suggest a small, green Woody Allen.

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Overall, nonetheless, the show is engaging, mild and funny, which puts it ahead of most of the fall’s new sitcoms. The second episode is better than the first, because Miss Piggy and Groban perform a duet of “If I Loved You” and because it has what could be considered a pure Muppet comedy moment when Fozzie Bear steals a candy dish from Jay Leno‘s house.

The theft itself isn’t funny – it’s depressing to think that a Muppet would even consider stealing from a celebrity – but Fozzie puts the dish on top of his head and hides it under his little hat. It’s a childish thing to do and, despite the theft, innocent and charming and funny.

The Muppets premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.