There aren’t a whole lot of franchises that can boast about being as culturally significant as something like The Muppets. A very risky idea almost 50 years ago, Kermit the Frog and pals quickly invaded the cultural zeitgeist and have remained nearly as popular as when creator Jim Henson first introduced the world to his puppet creations. Ask anyone about Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, or even Sam Eagle and you’re bound to get a positive response.
The history between The Muppets and Disney is almost as storied, too. In Henson’s final years, he sold the rights to the Walt Disney Corporation so that his legacy would be remembered by generations for years to come. This resulted in a theme park attraction, a number of new films, and various different shows over the years that would attempt to recapture the spark Henson landed upon.
We could argue about the success (or lack thereof) until the world implodes, but one thing is certain: Disney hasn’t quite known what to do with the brand. A rather successful movie in 2011 was followed up by a sequel that was less successful. Then there was an Office styled confessional show on ABC that tanked super hard. Disney has then been flopping around with the brand, seemingly unsure of how to proceed.
That brings us to Muppets Now, a new Disney+ series that is taking the iconic characters and throwing them into scenarios where they can improvise to their heart’s content. Much like the interstitial scenes on the very famous Muppets Show, this series is a collection of somewhat scripted sequences where Kermit, Piggy, and the gang sit down with celebrities and attempt to riff off of them for the benefit of the audience.
Does it work out? Sadly, I can’t say that it does.
Directors: Vito Mansano, Rufus Scot Church, Chris Alender
First Episode Premiere Date: July 31, 2020 (Disney+)
Labeled as an “unscripted” series, Muppets Now doesn’t feature a plot in the traditional sense. You could say that Scooter trying to upload various clips to the internet before the deadline is your hook, but that’s more framing for the randomized nature of the series. This isn’t something you’ll be tuning into on a weekly basis to learn the inner struggles of Kermit and how he can’t quite wrangle the gang together.
No, this hearkens back to those improvised segments on The Muppet Show that I mentioned earlier. An absolutely groundbreaking show back in the late 70s, Jim Henson and his crew were true masters of improv and could make even the dumbest of ideas into gut busters. In the case of Muppets Now, that spontaneous nature is completely lost since Disney seems to have scripted things out too much.
What I mean is, each of the four episodes available for review (the first “season” will have six) feature the same segments with Miss Piggy -in a fashion show called “Lifesty”- and Swedish Chef on a cooking show trying to outdo a celebrity guest. These aren’t bad concepts, but they also don’t feel unscripted. There is a clear format that the producers are sticking to, even going so far as to have title cards for basically everything.
Putting that aside, the first episode does not make a great impression. Chef’s segment is absolutely horrible and I hate being so dismissive. I know his shtick is that you can’t understand him, but the celebrity personality feels like he is floating on his own while Chef is just mashing food together like a crazy man. Maybe this truly is unscripted and no one knew what they were doing, but it’s not funny or entertaining in any manner.
The same goes for Kermit’s first segment that looks at how he’s a master photographer. The punchline is that the narrator read the word incorrectly, but the skit just drags on and on with no real point. I understand you’re supposed to be laughing at the misunderstanding and then Kermit’s real skill is bizarre, but that doesn’t strike me as unscripted in the slightest.
At least in the subsequent episodes, things flow much better. Piggy and Chef actually improve on their respective segments and the little science show with Bunson Honeydew and Beaker is enjoyable. You could view it like some Mythbusters analog where they explore the science of destruction, but it’s mostly the antics of Beaker that sell this. Watching him melt a smart speaker is a sight I’ll never forget.
What doesn’t quite work are the celebrity guest spots. I won’t spoil who is here (a few of them are surprising and delightful), but the lack of any specific angle for these guests robs their respective skits of the spontaneity that I think Disney is going for. To make another comparison to The Muppets Show, that series was a parody of Saturday Night Live. You understood why guests were showing up as they were there for interviews or performances.
On Muppets Now, it mostly feels like a commercial spot for different projects. I say that, but then I have no idea how any of these people were picked. I was only familiar with a few of them, but quick research shows they were involved with Disney and Marvel productions in the not so recent past. I can’t help but see this as Disney using Muppets Now to promote other Disney+ shows and films. This is actually pretty similar to another series on the service, Prop Culture.
That isn’t the worst thing to do, but it doesn’t lead to any organic comedic situations. Piggy just ignores her co-host and Chef attempts to steal the spotlight every chance he gets. The spots do start to gel a little better as the episodes progress, but you get the feeling this first season is almost a prototype for what Disney plans to do in the future.
I think my biggest problem with Muppets Now is that I’m stuck on the unscripted nature of it. I like improvisational comedy and the wacky situations that can blossom from it, but Muppets Now is not that. It’s a scripted show pretending to be unscripted and failing to make solid use of its eclectic cast.
The Muppets have such diverse personalities and designs, but their roles here feel undercooked. The series is almost selling itself on brand recognition, first, then throwing together some bits as an excuse to fill time. It’s not what I expected from The Muppets, but it also doesn’t result in anything new for the franchise.
Disney doesn’t need to stick with the familiar when it comes to Henson’s furry critters. The brand has shown how adaptable it can be to changing times with its various film installments over the years. You can never truly count Kermit and friends out. It’s just disappointing that Muppets Now isn’t making better use of the creativity that is inherent to this brand.