Why does ABC’s ‘The Muppets’ seem to miss the point of the Muppets?

Long before he co-created “Big Bang Theory,” Bill Prady broke into show business as a low-level Jim Henson Co. staffer, working in licensing and other tangential Muppet-related departments before eventually getting to write for Gonzo and company himself. Now, his career has come full circle, as co-developer (with Bob Kushell) of “The Muppets,” a new primetime series featuring Kermit and the gang that debuts on ABC on Tuesday night at 8.

Back at press tour, before I had seen a full episode of the show, I spoke with Prady for a while about his history with Henson and these characters, and the specific approach he was taking with the new show, a mockumentary where Kermit is executive producing a late night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy, featuring Fozzie as her announcer, Electric Mayhem as the house band, and all the other familiar Muppet characters working backstage.

Because ABC has tried to pitch this as a more “adult” version of the characters – Kermit himself had used that word earlier in the day at a press conference – and because some of the original Muppeteers like Frank Oz had complained about some of the creative choices of Jason Segel's “Muppets” script (like the idea that Kermit lived in a big mansion), I asked Prady if there was a line he felt he had to draw, as the new guardian of these characters, that would allow them to be modern without betraying the fundamental natures bestowed on them by Henson, Oz, and others. He gave a long and thoughtful answer that laid out exactly how he envisions the series:

You have a bunch of lines, if you will.  One is is, are the characters the characters?  And I think you want Miss Piggy to be Miss Piggy and Kermit to be Kermit.  And as best you can, without making them 70 years old, you want to acknowledge their past and what's happened.  One of the things we're saying is that in the movies, they were playing versions of themselves.  So we're seeing them off screen for the first time.  I'm trying to think of an example, but like Hope and Crosby used to play themselves in all the movies or the Marx brothers or something, but then they also lived in Beverly Hills and had real lives (outside the movies).  I always imagined that after they finished doing “The Muppet Show,” there was a bar across the street from the Muppet Show Theater where they'd go sit down and Kermit would have a drink and Fozzie would come over and say, “Well, it wasn't our worst.”  And I always wanted to be at that bar.  So that's where this show is, it's in as close to the real world and the real personal life. 

The other line that is triggered by the word “adult,” which is not my favorite word, I would disagree with Kermit; I would say it's a more grown up “Muppet Show.”  But not really more grown up than “The Muppet Show” itself was – which was never a children's show, it was a family show.  So these characters are real characters who live in the real world, who get in a car and go to work and shop at Whole Foods and get stuck on the 405 and do the same things we do, and we want to talk about their lives.  I want to do it in a way that I'm not uncomfortable watching with my eight-year-old son.  I don't want to have to cover my ears when Piggy describes her first date with somebody.  And I think that there's a way to do that.  I think there's a way to put them in the real world and have them have real world experiences without being inappropriate.

That “real” approach is apparent from minute one of Prady and Kushell's “Muppets.” Kermit and Miss Piggy have broken up,  Pepe the King Prawn talks about spending the weekend at the wedding of a cousin who was pregnant with 4000 babies, and when Zoot the spacey saxophone player is told that he's at a meeting, he starts to introduce himself like he's at AA. Sam the Eagle is now the network censor assigned to the show, and informs Kermit that he is banning the use of the words “crotchety,” “twiddle,” and “gesticulate,” the last one because gesticulating leads to shaking hands, “which is the first step in making babies.”

It's a bit of a shock to the system, as are later jokes about Fozzie's personals ad being misinterpreted by people looking to cuddle a different kind of “bear,” or Kermit alluding to the celebrity “free pass list” he had while dating Piggy.

I've seen other critics express alarm about the show's level of sexual innuendo, but almost all of it feels like it would sail over the heads of kids watching with their parents. But it's in another way that the grown-up nature of this take on the Muppets would have me reluctant to show it to my own kids: these “real” versions of the characters feel awfully cynical and bitter.

If you go back and you watch the original “Muppet Show,” there's a frantic quality to life in that theater, the show-within-the-show is often a disaster (much to the delight of Statler and Waldorf), and Kermit seems on the brink of full-out panic more often than not. There were salary disputes, star tantrums, and other kinds of showbiz headaches…

… yet at the same time, there was still a sense of innocence and – more importantly – optimism to those characters. The show was a mess, and Fozzie was nearly crippled by his need to have people laugh at his terrible jokes, but the Muppets as a whole didn't feel spiritually that far removed from Kermit's days as a reporter of fairy tale stories on “Sesame Street.” Watch the early Muppet movies, and for all their bickering and turmoil, these characters – Kermit in particular – are ultimately as Pollyanna as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in their films from the '30s and '40s. 

Prady and Kushell, though, present them as acidic showbiz veterans, and it throws everything out of balance. The tone never feels right, as if we're watching a dark parody of the Muppets – say, “Greg the Bunny” – that for some reason is starring the genuine article.

The Kermit/Piggy break-up is an enormous problem, not because their relationship is sacred Henson canon and should never be messed with, but because the separation makes both characters meaner. Piggy's always been abrasive and even cruel, but her feelings for Kermit softened her just enough to make the diva behavior amusing; when she's nice to no one, she's just intolerable(*).

(*) The Muppets have almost always had a gender balance issue. (It's one of the reasons “Muppet Babies” added Skeeter.) The new show adds a couple of other female Muppets, like Kermit's new pig girlfriend Denise, but Piggy remains the only woman of any significance. So when she's this relentlessly awful, it's a problem.

And making Kermit into a petulant frog who can't believe he still has to deal with his ex every day alters too much of what made him one of Henson's most special creations. Kermit can fight back, Kermit can be a hustler – like the time he outmaneuvered Fozzie's new agent by offering to pay Fozzie 10 times his current salary, which was $0.00 – but he can't be sour. If this is the “real” Kermit, then I'd rather go back to watching him act, just like I'd rather not see documentaries about what many of my favorite flesh-and-blood stars are like out of character.

There are a few funny moments here, and Prady's both a smart writer and a flexible one. If you compare the “Big Bang Theory” pilot to any episodes made after Amy and Bernadette became regular characters, they're practically two different shows. Given his history with the Muppets, and the fact that this show was a bit rushed in development (the final pilot wasn't made available to critics until a few days ago), I hope he and Kushell will be able to figure this one out.

But something feels flawed in the basic concept.

At one point in our conversation, I asked Prady if he had plans to use Lew Zealand, one of my favorite minor Muppets.

“I think Lew's a toughie. I think Crazy Harry is a toughie,” he said. “Those are tough characters to imagine functioning in the real world. I think in the real world, one is committed and one is incarcerated.”

Prady then suggested that it could be fun to have Crazy Harry pop by just once if Miss Piggy's talk show needs to do an elaborate special effect, but it's still an oddly sobering thought. A Muppet show that doesn't have room for two of the stranger and more obscure '70s characters isn't the worst thing in the world. But the logic that probably sidelines Lew and Harry is the same logic that has core characters like Kermit and Piggy acting so unlike the versions of the characters we know and love, and at that point, the conceit of the new show seems like more trouble than it's worth.

The show can be modernized, and the humor aimed at parents watching with their kids can be made ever so slightly more adult, but the Muppets themselves still have to be the Muppets. And almost all of them feel off here. I'm not reluctant to show this to my kids because of some of the double-entendres, but because I don't want them to see a version of the Muppets that, for now, is so utterly lacking in joy.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com