Over the past several years, the Muppets have become increasingly prevalent in culture. Starting with the 2011 film “The Muppets,” which was a modest success for Disney, they’ve been making appearances in a wide array of talk and variety shows. Their renaissance-of-sorts continues with a new television show on ABC. At its core, “The Muppets” is a workplace sitcom that happens to star the Muppets instead of human actors; it has the same beats and humor as a conventional sitcom. These characters have jumped between genres (from children’s television to heist movies), but this show crosses into more standard, adult fare. It strips away some of the energy of the recent film iterations of the characters, but once it settles into its rhythms and style, it could become one of the better sitcoms on network television.
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“The Muppets” takes place behind the scenes of the fictional late night show “Up Late with Miss Piggy.” Her ex-boyfriend, Kermit the Frog, is the executive producer. Other Muppets fill various roles throughout the show, including Gonzo and Pepe the Prawn as staff writers, Fozzie as the warm-up comedian and announcer and Animal as, of course, the drummer in the band, to name a few.
“The Muppets” ’s weirdest aspect is how it puts these adored characters into conventional sitcom roles, using the mockumentary format popularized by “The Office” and “Modern Family.” The most prominent of these tropes involves the relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy, who are presented as fighting exes, having broken up a few months before the pilot. The romance between the characters has been a key part of their shared history, but the show chooses to go in a different direction (in fact, Kermit is porking a new pig, Denise). Yet, the way the two characters interact is identical to most “will-they-won’t-they” couples who are in a lull. There’s a coolness to every scene they share.
It’s not just the romance subplot that relies on sitcom conventions; “The Muppets,” developed by Bill Prady (who co-created “The Big Bang Theory”) and Bob Kushell (“3rd Rock from the Sun”), uses other sitcom tropes to middling effects. The Muppets universe has utilized a wide array of Hollywood talent. The first episode guest stars Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games”) and Tom Bergeron (“Dancing with the Stars”), both of whom earn laughs by playing themselves. Plus, Jere Burns (“Justified”) continues his streak of giving the best reaction shots on television, playing the father of Fozzie Bear’s human girlfriend. However, the show uses the sitcom trope of trying to keep two people separated at all costs (in this case, Banks and Piggy) only to have them meet each other in a big blowout. It’s no fault of Banks’s, but the seven-minute sequence is awkward and humorless.
It’s a little disappointing that this show is a different version from other stories with the characters, because the scene like the powerful closing of the 2011 film (with the characters getting together and singing “Rainbow Connection”) can’t exist in this world. (Though a performance by Imagine Dragons did add a necessary musical element.) However, it’s hard to knock the show for not doing something it’s not trying to do. “The Muppets” attempts to be something more conventional and adult, but it’s doing a shaky job of achieving those goals. The executive producers of this show are seasoned veterans in the comedy world, so it’s not hard to imagine it growing and finding its distinct voice. However, it’s just not there yet.