Time for a new installment in my series of Muppets-related reviews and reactions! To sum up: I liked the 2011 The Muppets film, and I loved the 2014 Muppets Most Wanted follow-up. Yesterday saw the premiere episode of the new The Muppets TV series on ABC.

Promotional image courtesy of the American Broadcasting Company.

There were a few major selling points for this show in the advertising leading up to the premiere, designed to garner interest in the show and drum up curiosity:

  1. Kermit and Miss Piggy have broken up in the world of this show.
  2. Kermit is now dating a new character (also a pig) named Denise.
  3. The show has a “more adult” tone (racier jokes than previous Muppets films or shows), including more references to the character’s romantic lives, i.e. “Fozzie is dating a human woman!”
  4. The talking-head style mockumentary format, following in the recent footsteps of The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.

How successful were each of these things? Let’s break them down:

1. Kermit and Miss Piggy have Broken Up

This doesn’t really bother me seeing as the two have a pretty flexible relationship that is generally just adapted to fit whatever story the given film/show is telling. They have been, at various times: dating, semi-dating, fighting, platonic friends, and married. Whether or not they’re actively dating doesn’t really matter all that much, so long as their interactions feel genuine to the established personalities which everyone who loves these characters is familiar with.

This seemed like mostly a “fun” way to try to drum up press for the show before it hit the air by treating Kermit and Miss Piggy the way entertainment media treats Kim and Kanye or whoever, which seems to have mostly been successful. But it doesn’t really matter all that much in terms of the show.

I just hope the show doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on this aspect of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship, because it really isn’t all that interesting. There’s a potential for this to run into the problems Futurama had in later seasons with the Fry/Leela relationship, where the show keeps going back to it but there’s just not enough material there to make it a big focus.

2. Kermit is now dating a new character named Denise

This is probably my biggest gripe with the show, mostly just because the Denise character is just not very well thought out. Her entire character is “sexy rival for Miss Piggy to be jealous of,” which isn’t exactly a compelling use of a new Muppet. Additionally, her voice is grating with a faux-southern accent which tries too hard to be “sexy.” She even refers to herself in the third person!

And the design of the puppet, as the A.V. Club’s Erik Adams astutely put it, is “upsettingly inexpressive.” All of the most iconic muppets have incredibly maleable faces which are capable of a wide range of expressions, which also means they’re capable of funny reactions. Miss Piggy can wordlessly portray happiness, anger, jealousy, frustration, etc. just by the puppeteer scrunching up her face in different ways. By contrast, Denise looks like an overly-botoxed “Real Housewife” who can no longer manage any expression other than faint bemusement.

Here’s hoping Denise is de-emphasized and potentially written off the show relatively quickly. I don’t think the character has enough personality or an interesting enough design to be worth salvaging. It’s a shame, because if anything, The Muppets could use a few more female characters. But introducing female characters whose only function is to be romantic interests for male characters is the worst way to achieve that.

3. The “More Adult Tone”

This one was probably the most alarm-bell raising for Muppets fans. However, I can happily report that the show is pretty good at staying in the general zone of most of the classic Muppet outings. Lest we forget, there are some pretty racy jokes snuck into The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and even going back to The Muppet Show (the first pilot of which was called “Sex and Violence,” for Pete’s sake, and the whole of The Electric Mayhem is pretty obviously stoned at all times).

Nobody wants these characters to talk explicity about sex acts or whatever, but a few double-entendres are far from unprecedented. The show didn’t really go any further in this regard that where the lines have been drawn previously. The only real moment that kind of took me aback (and not by a “flutter of godets,” mind you) was Kermit saying “My life is a bacon-wrapped hell,” but the fact that that’s the strongest language anyone uses in the episode should pretty well illustrate what a non-issue this is.

The early reactions also made a lot of noise about the storyline where Fozzie is dating a human woman, but again this isn’t exactly new territory for the Muppets when you consider that Animal’s catchphrase has always been yelling “WOMAN! WOMAN!” and chasing human women around, even on The Muppet Show, and there are countless other examples.

Fozzie’s plotline is not really used for racy humor, but rather for a Who’s Coming to Dinner spoof, only with the boyfriend being a different species rather than a different race or creed. That stuff mostly works pretty well on account of being well observed (the mother’s questioning of what Fozzie eats reminds me of David Cross’ routine about friends’ parents condescending about whether “his people” could eat oatmeal), and Fozzie’s complaint that his online dating profile got a lot of unexpected responses due to listing himself as a “bear” is the right kind of “adult” joke, allowing the viewer to click together the implication mentally while keeping the character’s innocense intact.

4. The “Mockumentary” Format

I don’t really have a lot to say about this one, the format doesn’t bother me and it seems like the show is going to play it fast-and-loose, more like Parks and Rec or Modern Family, where there’s not much of an attempt to justify why or how the “documentary crew” got a particular shot, or have the characters act self-conscious on camera like they on The Office. That’s probably the right move for this show, and those other series have established that TV audiences can accept the talking head as a device without the show needing to strictly pretend to be a real documentary.

Overall Reaction

In summary, I think the show is off to a pretty good start. The characters are mostly “themselves” in a way that shows the writers know what they’re doing (although I always like it better when Gonzo is a full-on weird performance artist rather than a straight man). Miss Piggy and Kermit’s interactions in particular feel authentic in a satisfying way.

Also, the format of the show is smart. It’s basically 30 Rock with Kermit in the Liz Lemon role. It feels like they did a better job differentiating the “show” that is being ostensibly produced (in this case, a late night talkshow starring Miss Piggy) from the vaudevillian theatre of The Muppet Show, unlike the short-lived Muppets Tonight, which was too slavish to the original show’s format.

I’ve seen people on Twitter and elsewhere complaining that the show “stole” it’s format from 30 Rock or The Larry Sanders Show, and while it’s true that the set-ups are very similar, those shows also pretty much copied The Muppet Show to begin with, which itself was pretty much the same set-up as The Dick Van Dyke Show (without the home-life stuff) and probably a dozen others.

I don’t think anybody has a monopoly on “the backstage farce” as a plot device, so the similarities there don’t bother me. Plus, it’s a good way for the show to work in guest stars (as the pilot does with Elizabeth Banks and Tom Bergeron), as they’re ostensibly around to appear on the talk show the gang is attempting to produce.

In conclusion, I think there’s a lot of promise in the new show, and while there are a few things that could potentially be handled poorly depending on the direction that subsequent episodes take, I would advise fans to keep in mind that this was only a pilot, and a lot of great shows had pretty crappy pilots. This one is probably better than the Parks and Rec or 30 Rock pilots, and those were both top ten all-time sitcoms. Give it a couple episodes to find it’s footing.

I remain, as always, cautiously optimistic.