The Muppets doesn't work, exactly, but I'm still watching.
As a relative outsider to the 60-year Muppets franchise, I've long suspected that early imprinting is the key to loving Jim Henson's gaudy, unblinking rags. I've never felt a particular need to watch pieces of felt tell Borscht Belt–style jokes, and I have a particular aesthetic distaste for Kermit the Frog, who is basically the puppet version of a stick figure with a bow tie. His relationship with Miss Piggy, the emotional center of the Muppetverse, is built on the quicksand of codependency. My advice to the porcine karate master, should she want it, is to get with someone who actually wants that bacon-flavored neediness she's selling.
Kermit and Miss Piggy are broken up in their latest chapter, ABC's The Muppets, a mockumentary spin on the showbiz vets. A fake camera crew chronicles the behind-the-scenes messes of the talk show Up Late With Miss Piggy, for which Kermit serves as the harried showrunner. The first five episodes have been full of colored fur, interpersonal mayhem and manifold reasons that Bill Prady and Bob Kushell's series probably doesn't deserve a second season.
Yet I continue to watch, because The Muppets does what television does best: provide comfort through familiarity. TV is exciting these days because there are so many channels and websites backing original content and promoting new voices. But keeping up with the explosion can be exhausting, especially with so many shows holding to the serialized format, which demands extra attention and memorization. Sometimes you just want an affable and unchallenging comedy to drift off to, and for me, that's The Muppets.
Reviews have most often compared The Muppets to The Office, particularly for the drabness and existential compromises that fill up Kermit's work hours. But that's a highly unfair comparison for The Office, which thrived on hidden melancholy, particularly in its empathetic character development. Steve Carell's showboating Michael Scott was exposed as an eager-to-please emotional black hole, while Jenna Fischer's shy Pam was revealed not to have the talent to justify pursuing her artistic dreams.
Granted, The Office had much longer to develop into its characters. But the Muppets, at least in this iteration, already feel more like shtick generators than three-dimensional individuals — none more so than Miss Piggy, the show's only prominent female character and an embarrassing relic of Mad Men–era sexist caricature. Three of the five episodes that have aired so far have Miss Piggy mired in petty, misguided rivalries with other blondes (Elizabeth Banks, Christina Applegate and Reese Witherspoon). It's depressing enough that she has little other purpose on The Muppets than the role of Kermit's "crazy ex-girlfriend," but even more squickily, several of the story lines simply resolve with the ranine boss scoring a triumph by manipulating the emotions of his former partner.
In addition to those repetitive catfights, the celebrity guests are virtually wasted by the writers' failure to play with their personas, the way Saturday Night Live does as a matter of course. In last week's episode, we were reminded multiple times that Witherspoon won an Oscar — oh, and she supports Habitat for Humanity, too. In his episode, Liam Hemsworth is hunky and Australian. Nick Offerman and Laurence Fishburne make cameos as jerks for some reason. The famous faces feel more interchangeable than the hands that operate the puppets. Factor in the rote story lines, the rarely inspired jokes and the undue focus on the unfunny-on-purpose Fozzie Bear, and it's no wonder the ratings have slid with each new episode.
Brady and Kushell have mined recent sitcom history for what's worked best — and it's this unoriginality that makes The Muppets most watchable. Kermit and Piggy's separation sets up will-they-or-won't-they tension, and the constant infighting between a self-involved star and the only grown-up in the room trying to wrangle a live show out of chaos recalls 30 Rock's dynamic between Jane Krakowski's prima donna Jenna and Tina Fey's put-upon Liz Lemon. The primary conflict in the fourth episode, in which Miss Piggy attempts to ingratiate herself into the crew's after-hours drinks, is practically identical to one on Fey's show.
Kermit and company offer their own pleasures, too. Watching the Muppets interact with flesh-and-blood humans remains a surreal joy, though the interspecies romances don't quite work. The animal jokes are the comic highlight of any episode, as when Pepe the King Prawn observes that his pregnant cousin only had so many wardrobe options for her wedding because she's carrying, "like, 4,000 babies." The last two episodes have included exceptional musical scenes, even if they leaned a little too hard on the novelty of the Muppets singing vintage hip-hop, as if they were Betty White.
But so far at least, The Muppets is still relying on nostalgia and the echoes of TV favorites past as its chief selling points. And in a media landscape as crowded with strangers as this one, it's soothing to see a few familiar faces, even if they just remind you of other ones you like better.