Last week, there was great news for ABC's new series "The Muppets." They started with a thirteen-episode order. Pretty standard these days. Four episodes in, ratings were good enough that the network ordered another three episodes, bringing the season up to a total of sixteen. An odd number (a full season is typically twenty-two episodes these days), but positive news nonetheless.
Yesterday, Deadline broke news that show co-creator, executive producer, and showrunner Bob Kushell was given the boot. According to Deadline, there were conflicts between Kushell and co-creator/executive producer Bill Prady. Because Prady has his hands full with his "other" series "The Big Bang Theory," Kushell was more hands-on in the day-to-day filming of "The Muppets." The conflicts between Kushell and Prady were "starting to show on screen," so it was decided that Kushell would go. These things happen in television all the time, but with a high-profile new series, it's troubling.
The other piece of this puzzle is "The Muppets" ratings. Here's what Deadline has to say about them, which may make more sense than if I were to paraphrase it:
...after a highly-rated premiere, ratings dropped. "The Muppets" has done an OK job opening Tuesday night for ABC at 8 PM, with its numbers on par with lead-out "Fresh Off The Boat," but because of its marquee title, The Muppets has been held to a different standard, so its performance has been considered somewhat disappointing.
So...bad news. But then there's this:
Season-to-date, "The Muppets" still ranks as Tuesday’s highest-rated new TV show among Adults 18-49 (2.6). On average, the freshman show is improving its half-hour for ABC by 69% in Total Viewers (7.6 million) and by 86% in Adults 18-49 (2.6), standing as the net’s strongest performing Tuesday comedy in 4 years.
ABC's strongest performing Tuesday comedy in 4 years
Other numbers provide a similar mixed message; that because the Muppets (characters, not the television series) are owned by Disney, it's an in-house production, which makes it less expensive, meaning the network can give them more leeway with ratings. However, the production demands of the Muppets, including building every set and prop from scratch so that (for example) Kermit has an appropriately-sized phone instead of one as big as his torso, make the series more expensive to produce than a standard sitcom.
So. There it is. For so many of my friends and acquaintances, I'm the biggest Muppet fan they know. This is only because they don't know my Muppet Friends. But I am a big Muppet fan. My license plate is "KERMIT." For reals. Because I'm such a fan, it's hard to be objective about the series. Frankly, I love about 80% of it and what they're doing. I like the setting of the backstage of Miss Piggy's talk show. It lets her be the diva, but in an updated context. I really don't want to see the Muppets do vaudeville like they did 40 years ago. I like that they're playing themselves instead of Charles Dickens or Benjamina Gunn or the Wicked Witch of the West. Those adaptations are fun, but these are my friends. I like seeing these pieces of their lives.
I love about 80% of it
I think the pilot episode, which is the one that many people tuned in to, seeing if they'd like the new show, went a little too far with the shock factor. Muppets swearing, Muppets referring to sex -- both of which they've done before, but it's been a while, and overlooked by most Americans who just like the sentimental Muppets that warm our hearts. Because they do. And that's good. After that first episode, they've toned that down, while keeping the show funny and sharp and weird. Episode 4, "Pig Out," had them at a karaoke bar wayyyy too late, and coming to work the next day with hangovers. Including Bunsen and Beaker wearing each other's clothes "if it didn't happen at work, we don't need to say anything, Beakie."
This show is pushing the boundaries of comedy for the Muppets, but also for puppetry. There are scenes that are amazing to watch simply because of the puppetry. Some of it is accomplished with greenscreen, but much of it isn't. Things like Miss Piggy's sultry moves on the piano singing to Josh Groban, and the beginnings of her "apology dance" with Reese Witherspoon -- they're things Jim Henson would have been proud of. The puppetry, but also the comedy. The blurring of the lines between puppet and person, reality and television.
I like that they're using multiple "guest stars" per episode. We don't need a fully 22 minutes of story all revolving around one Very Special Guest Star. For the most part they've worked them in organically, like Nick Offerman showing up to be a writer for the show, and running into Ed Helms at the karaoke bar. Some of them are actual guests on "Up Late With Miss Piggy," but several others are just around because hey, it's Hollywood.
I've said this before, but this is the first time they've had a fully-casted family of Muppet characters in a long time. Janice, the hippie guitarist for Electric Mayhem? She's talking again. And she was the love interest of Sam Eagle, in some awkward awkward scenes. That I love. Zoot the saxophonist has had some of the best, most quotable lines for the first time ever. The Swedish Chef, well -- he threw down to "Rapper's Delight"
The Muppets are more than just Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo. They always have been. For these characters to find life again pleases me more than I can express. And they're not the same as they used to be. And that's great. For me, honestly, Scooter has become the breakout star of this series. Scooter. Scoooooter. I never would have thought that in a million years. Whether he's wrestling Elizabeth Banks for control of a golf cart or pie-ing Christina Applegate in the face or flashdancing on his glasses and smashing them and having to go without them the next day and giving us the most horrifying image ever:
...he's surprising me in every episode. And that surprise comes with a bark of laughter. And my wife is also laughing. And my kids are laughing. And sometimes at four different things, but man. This is a Muppet series that puts comedy above sentiment, puts the puppets above the humans. It's funny. I like it.
Alllll that said, there are definitely things that need tweaking. Fozzie Bear has carried most of three different episodes, and it's clear they haven't quite figured out what to do with him yet. I want to like him almost as much as he wants to be liked...but I don't. Not yet. The producers (not sure if this was Prady or Kushell) said something to the effect of "dancing chickens and singing food have no place in this series." Which is blatantly ridiculous. They're the damn Muppets. You have a talking frog, a singing pig hosting a talk show, you have a whatever the hell Gonzo is--and his girlfriend should be Camilla. Camilla the Chicken. She's a thing. He doesn't need the online dating schtick. Bring her back, and have her bring her adorable little glasses from "The Muppets" (2011)(holy crap they need better titles) with her. Those weird little touches of chickens and penguins and anthropomorphized food are all part of the Muppets.
So. The Deadline article refers to a reboot. That after episode ten there will be an extended winter hiatus (common for shows), and when it comes back it will be different. Hopefully that's just tweaks. It could use some tweaks. But a full-on reboot? Of a show that is, itself, a reboot? Don't. Give it time to grow. The new showrunner is Kristin Newman, who's written for "How I Met Your Mother," and co-executive produced "Galavant." She knows funny, she knows musicals. She could be a good fit for the Muppets. The Deadline article, and other outlets that have picked this story up, frame it all as bad news. I see the bad. But there's a lot of good too. The Muppets are still the Muppets. If ABC gives them a chance, they'll find their way.
They will, right? They'll find their way?
Just hold me.