"The Muppets" starts up next Tuesday night on ABC. As a lifelong fan, I feel like I've been on a roller coaster with these characters, and I feel like they're my heroes, they're my friends, they're my family. I've used the online moniker "jedikermit" for about half of my lifespan. I have a piece of Gonzo's fur on my fridge. Digging through archives of various fan forums, you'll find both dirty limericks and heartfelt sonnets to Miss Piggy. The first conversation I had with my wife was about the Swedish Chef. They are a big part of my life. I want them to be happy. I want this new series to be successful. More than anything, I want it to be good. The Muppets are most famous for "The Muppet Show," which ran from 1976-1981; since then they've had eight cinematic releases, dozens of television specials, and two fully-fledged attempts to recapture the magic of their original series. "The Jim Henson Hour" lasted twelve episodes in 1990; "Muppets Tonight" had twenty-two episodes from 1996-1998. It's been a while. "The Muppets" is heading in a different direction, one with potential simply because it is a different direction.
Here are five things I'd like to see in the new series. The sixth was to not have the title be "The Muppets." With a period at the end.
1. Be Funny.
The Muppet characters have ended up in this weird place where they're seen as exclusively children's characters, when they weren't originally meant to be. "Sesame Street," yes. But the Muppets have always had innuendo, had a little bit of scandal, had a subversive snarkiness that set them apart from Grover, Big Bird, et al. And that's funny. Too many productions since Jim Henson's passing in 1990 have made the characters so sentimental that you forget why they made it big in the first place--because they were funny. The were weird. Random characters like Lew Zealand threw boomerang fish. The Swedish Chef used a blunderbuss to prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Gonzo was in love with poultry. Miss Piggy was entirely inappropriate with Christopher Reeve. Crazy Harry blew shit up. You may not even know the names "Lew Zealand" or "Crazy Harry," but you remember the bizarre chaos they brought.
With this faux documentary format, popularized by "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," the Muppets have a chance to do all of those things. Some of it might be in the background of a shot. Some of it will be in snarky asides. We keep saying this is a brand new format for these characters, but the Muppets have been making snarky asides and breaking the fourth wall since the very beginning. It's what they do. They're perfect for this format, and there's the potential to make it very, very, funny.
2. More female characters.
Remember when Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy broke up? And that broke the internet? And then we saw the first pictures of Kermit's new love interest Denise? And it broke the internet again? Okay, it's very possible that it just broke my internet, as people Facebooked and Tweeted their outrage. For most, it was based on Denise's appearance (above), criticized as being Not Very Muppety. Cool. Whatever. The thing is, she adds to a very elite club of female Muppet characters. There's Miss Piggy (of course), Janice (lead guitarist for Electric Mayhem) and Camilla (Gonzo's chicken girlfriend). After them it drops to D-list characters like Wanda, Hilda, Mildred Huxtetter, Zelda Rose, Annie Sue...chances are verrrry good you've never heard of any of them.
As such, I'm kind of excited that Denise is around. I'm hoping she becomes a fully developed character, that she becomes more than just Kermit's love interest, that she's not a bimbo. Make her real. I like that it upsets the status quo. I'd love them to introduce other female characters, most notably Skeeter, who was Scooter's twin sister on "Muppet Babies," and was later introduced as an adult character in the comic book series from Boom Comics. She would bring an entirely new personality into the mix, and also let Scooter's character develop more.
3. More music.
The Muppets have always been associated with music. Some of Jim Henson's earliest work was simply puppets lip syncing to popular records of the day. Muppets have been playing covers forever, they've also got a deep library of music that was written for them. We need to build on that. It sounds like the talk show-within-a-talk-show format of "The Muppets" will provide opportunities for music--the band Imagine Dragons is on the first episode--hopefully they'll make the most of it. In the lead-up to the new series, the Muppets have released a few music videos on YouTube, including Jungle Boogie and Flowers on the Wall. If those are any indication, hopefully we'll get more music, more often.
4. Muppets in the real world.
I like the Muppets best when you can't tell they're on a soundstage. One of my issues with both "A Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island" is that it's very apparent that they're in a fake world. I like both movies, it's just that those beautifully crafted settings (and they are beautiful) take me out of the movie. I like thinking of the Muppets as "real" characters, not distracted by the production values of the world around them. It's distracting enough sometimes wondering how they made a particular piece of puppetry work; do it in a real world environment. It sounds like we'll be getting outside of the television studio where Miss Piggy's talk show is shot frequently; we've already seen Kermit stuck in traffic, Fozzie Bear at his (human) girlfriend's parent's house, we know Rowlf runs the bar across the street from the studio. It sounds like we will get some of the real world with our Muppets. Jim Henson made an effort to do that with the three Muppet movies he was involved with; I think he'd like this direction. If I can put words in the mouth of a dead genius.
5. Keep Kermit the heart of the Muppets.
Okay, I just liked this picture. Rowlf's ear is cracking me up. I'm easily cracked today.
One of the myriad problems with both "The Jim Henson Hour" and "Muppets Tonight" is that they tried to remove Kermit from the equation. In the former he was even more behind the scenes than he was on "The Muppet Show," and on "Muppets Tonight" he was replaced entirely--with Clifford, a purple...rastafarian...thing. They brought Kermit back more prominently, but it was after people had already decided the new show wasn't for them. Kermit is the heart of this family of characters. He's their glue, he's their leader, their counselor, their spiritual adviser. His role on "The Muppets" will be the producer of Miss Piggy's talk show, which should keep him at the forefront of things. He should be. There should be chaos surrounding him, he should have to freak out every now and then, but overall be the zenlike frog who can set things right.
Even if he's dating a pig who doesn't necessarily look like the pig that he's been dating. But you know. Still a pig.
"The Muppets" premieres Tuesday September 22nd on ABC.