Of the properties Disney has acquired over the years, the most violent isn’t Marvel Studios or Lucasfilm, it’s Muppets Studio, home of the Muppets. Kylo Ren might have blown up a planet, but you don’t see the carnage. In Muppets Now, the first new Muppets series since ABC’s fortunately short-lived The Muppets, you see the mop-puppets (and occasional human) being punched, karate chopped, sling-shotted, devoured, and in one twisted segment, set fire to an Alexa-like device. The only thing missing in the four episodes screened for critics is a fish boomerang, and I’m sure that’s coming. It’s time to raise the curtain, because the Muppets, in their silly glory, are back.
This wasn’t a given, as my hopes weren’t high on Muppets Now. The “unscripted” teasers looked sweaty, in a “how do you do, fellow kids?” kind of way, and I’m still not sold on Joe the Legal Weasel. But the series is a welcome, if occasionally uneven, throwback to the Muppets’ variety show roots. Whereas The Muppet Show (still the best Muppets project, over The Muppet Movie and holiday classic The Muppets Christmas Carol) was a loving riff on The Ed Sullivan Show, Muppets Now finds inspiration from YouTube and reality TV, with the characters presenting individual segments — Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker test MythBusters-approved experiments for Muppet Labs; Miss Piggy sits down with celebrities like Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini in her Uncle Deadly-assisted Lifesty (or is it Lifestyle?) web series; and Pepe the King Prawn hosts a game show that even Chunky would find chaotic. In some ways, Muppets Now reminds me of a kid-friendly I Think You Should Leave, and now I would like to see Tim Robinson play Fozzie Bear in a live-action Muppets movie. Thank you in advance.
(A brief aside: much has made about the new voice of Kermit, and yeah, even after multiple episodes, I never got used to it. That’s not a knock on Matt Vogel, a talented puppeteer; it’s just hard to hear anyone but Jim Henson or Steve Whitmire doing the voice. Eric Jacobson and Dave Goelz continue to do a fine job, however, as Fozzie/Miss Piggy/Animal and Gonzo, while Julianne Buescher is a nice addition as Beverly Plume.)
Every episode begins the same way, with an over-worked and under-appreciated Scooter scrambling to edit together the whims of his various fellow Muppets into something resembling a concise episode of TV. It’s hit or miss, both for poor Scooter (who also must deal with Zoom-triggering video calls from Fozzie, pitching a pun-heavy stream of concepts) and us viewers. Some segments work far better than others (the Pepe and Swedish Chef ones are personal favorites), but the structure unfortunately doesn’t allow for much interaction between the Muppets. It’s also curious that with so many characters to play with, the show repeats the same handful of sketches.
There’s a lot of promise here, and Muppets Now is already the best Muppets show in decades as is (I stand by Muppets Tonight being an underrated entry in the Muppets canon), but there’s a nagging sense that it could be better by adding 10 percent more chaos. Chaos is what the Muppets do best. Especially explosion-based chaos. But ultimately, if you’re tickled by the idea of the Swedish Chef wrapping an actual mole in a burrito and slathering the little guy with sour cream, while Danny Trejo makes mole sauce to impress a horny turkey named Beverly Plume, you will enjoy Muppets Now.
‘Muppets Now’ begins streaming via Disney+ on Friday, July 31.