The rainbow disconnection: Goodbye, “Muppets”

The rainbow disconnection: Goodbye, “Muppets” May 12, 2016
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Muppet fan than me.

As soon as my son was old enough to notice the moving colors on the TV, I pulled out my DVDs of “The Muppet Show.” Consequently, his favorite stuffed animal for the past four years has been a Fozzie Bear that he takes everywhere. On my office wall hangs a plaque of Kermit the Frog, with the quote “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending” — the final lines of 1979’s “The Muppet Movie.” I’ve read bios about Jim Henson, the Muppets and the creation of “Sesame Street.” When I saw 2011’s “The Muppets” at a press screening, I turned to my wife as the credits rolled and said, “You have no idea how happy I am right now.” I unabashedly love The Muppets.

So why am I fine that they’re going away?

Today, ABC announced that it was cancelling the prime-time television show “The Muppets” after one season. The show debuted in the fall to controversy and sour reviews. And while a new showrunner tried to restore Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo to their former selves, viewers quickly abandoned them.

Going into the fall, there was no television show I was more excited about. I loved the idea of The Muppets returning to their television roots. I didn’t even care that the show was aimed at a more adult audience, with risque jokes about the gang’s extracurricular activities. Jim Henson had created “The Muppet Show” for all ages. He’d been frustrated with being pegged as a children’s entertainer once “Sesame Street” became popular. The characters and the program were developed as a way to experiment with puppetry, celebrate art and create something that grownups would find funny.

kermitfozzie

No, what bothered me about this new program wasn’t the jokes — although the show leaned way too hard on double entendres and veiled drug references — but the tone. This was a workplace comedy where no one was happy. The Muppets were constantly frustrated with each other, the jokes lacked any craziness or energy, and there was a cynical streak running through the entire thing. Kermit and Piggy were ex-lovers nursing bitterness and broken hearts. The Muppets were often frustrated by their guest stars or at rivalry with them. Several episodes ended with Kermit openly admitting that he had manipulated his coworkers.

If anything is antithetical to the spirit of Jim Henson and the Muppets, it’s cynicism. For decades, Henson’s creations have been bursting (sometimes literally) with energy, joy, inclusiveness and creativity. The driving point of many of their movies was the joy of putting on a show together. Kermit’s entire story in “The Muppet Movie” hinged on wanting to make millions of people happy. The opening scene to that film had Kermit earnestly singing “The Rainbow Connection” alone in a swamp. The Kermit of television’s “The Muppets” would probably make a snide joke about how treacly it all was. Just four years after the feature film “The Muppets” had pit the characters against a “hard, cynical act for a hard, cynical world,” that same bitterness and world weariness were present in their own show. And does anyone want world weary Muppets?

Yes, a new head writer was brought in to fix the tone late in the season. And there were moments where the show captured some of the joy the characters were known for. There was a very fun karaoke moment, and the show began spending more time uniting the gang instead of dividing them. But it still felt off. I can’t say I’ll miss it.

I honestly don’t know what Disney does with the Muppets now. Yes, the 2011 film was a hit. But 2014’s “Muppets Most Wanted” was a box office disappointment greeted with mixed reviews (I don’t think it’s horrible, but it’s the rare Muppet movie where the humans are more fun to watch).  Viewers weren’t lining up for the Muppets’ return to television, and I don’t know that they’ll follow them back to the big screen. It’s a hard property to get right. Right now, the only opportunity people have to see the characters in all their glory is in the MuppetVision show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

And maybe that should tell us something. MuppetVision was the last Muppet project to feature Jim Henson. There is a joy and vitality to it that comes through even on YouTube clips that isn’t  present in the best modern Muppet stuff. Go back and watch the old episodes of “The Muppet Show.” The energy and chemistry still buzz through the television. Henson and his crew developed the Muppets by playing around, bantering and finding the psyche for each character. If you re-watch anything from their era, be it the television show or movies, you’ll find not only well-developed characters with their own insecurities and foibles, but a sense of camaraderie in each interaction that you can’t simply recreate with different puppeteers.

Photo by Mark Zimmermann, Flickr. CC Licensing.
Photo by Mark Zimmermann, Flickr. CC Licensing.

I’m not going to reinforce the fallacy that  Jim Henson never should have sold the Muppets to Disney; he wanted to make the sale because he wanted the money to make his own, experimental films, and he felt his own ethos combined well with the company’s. And listen, Disney has done some good things with The Muppets. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is a perennial favorite in our home, and I’ve already spoken of my love for 2011’s “The Muppets.”

But even at their best, Disney’s Muppets have succeeded based on savvy brand management and nostalgia. “The Muppets” is a very funny, joyous movie, but so much of its success depends on “Here’s that thing you like. Haven’t you missed it? We got it almost like it was before.” Yes, there are clever writers involved with the movies and TV show, and I’ve enjoyed many of the gags and new songs. But when I compare that to the pure joy and artistry of “The Muppet Show” or “The Muppet Movie,” something always feels just off.

And it’s not just the voices. There’s an intangible spark, call it the soul of the Muppets, that’s missing. No matter how much flirty banter you write, Kermit and Piggy’s relationship lacks the energy and wit that you get from the interplay between Henson and Oz (see also Bert and Ernie).  You can tap into Fozzie’s nervousness all you want, but you won’t recapture the anxiety and eagerness to please that Oz brought. And when you can use computer effects to augment the puppetry, you miss the artistry that came from figuring out how to make a frog ride a bike or a pig take a swan (swine?) dive. Yes, characters can be re-imagined, as we see with superheroes, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes. But The Muppets feel like a special case. Their creation is so tied into their creators’ imaginations and interactions that I imagine even the best attempts will feel watered down.

So maybe it’s time to close the curtain and dim the lights. As much as it pains me, maybe it’s time to put the characters back on the shelf. Because the best Muppet work will always feel like a pale imitation, and the worst feels like a betrayal of Henson’s ideals. Maybe it’s best to let us remember the characters in their heyday and celebrate them as art, not extend them as IP. Maybe the best thing Disney can do with Henson’s legacy is encourage puppeteers to continue creating and experimenting, dreaming up their own impossible, crazy characters and bringing them to life. There are few fictional characters as beloved to me as Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo, and it’s sad to think we might not see them in anything new again.

But when I’m feeling sad, I still have “The Muppet Movie.” I still have “The Muppet Show.” And there is work in them that still thrills, inspires and makes me happy. And I’d rather enjoy those perfect works than see the characters trotted out to make Mickey Mouse a few bucks.

 

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