The Muppets Mayhem Fine-Tunes the Franchise with Funkadelic Friendliness

TV Reviews The Muppets Mayhem
The Muppets Mayhem Fine-Tunes the Franchise with Funkadelic Friendliness

Following the cancellation of ABC’s underrated The Muppets in 2015, Disney began treating Jim Henson’s beloved creations like estranged stepchildren. Apart from the ill-conceived Muppets Now series and the corporate synergetic Muppets Haunted Mansion special for Disney+, we had Mahna nothing of quality. There needed to be some good Muppet electricity! Thankfully, Muppet fans Adam F. Goldberg and Jeff Yorkes, alongside long-time Muppet puppeteer Bill Barretta, stepped in to bring that Muppet magic back. Their new Muppets Mayhem series finally fine-tunes the franchise with funkadelic friendliness.

For over 50 years, The Electric Mayhem––Dr. Teeth (Bill Barretta), Animal (Eric Jacobson), Floyd (Matt Vogel), Janice (David Rudman), Zoot (Dave Goelz), and Lips (Peter Linz)—delighted fans with their rock music and groovy positivity. But, as the new series explores, despite their legendary status, the band never produced a complete album. Enter Nora Singh (Lily Singh), an ambitious yet low-ranking music exec at struggling record label Wax Records. When she learns that Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem owe Wax an album, Nora uses that as her ticket to success. She meets the Mayhem and tries to get them to the studio. But besides never having an album, the Mayhem are unfamiliar with today’s music industry landscape. So Nora, the Electric Mayhem, and the band’s mega fan/aspiring record producer Moog (Tahj Mowery) must start from the ground up. They need a collaborative producer who understands their sound, as well as a studio for recording, the right groove to write new tunes, and most importantly, they need to focus. There’s a reason why they’re called The Electric Mayhem. Amid those obstacles, the deadline becomes tighter as Nora’s ex-boyfriend, music executive JJ (Anders Holm), schmoozes up to Nora’s boss Penny (Leslie Carrrara-Rudolph) with intentions of buying her label.

Excluding Animal, the individual members of The Electric Mayhem have not had much of a chance to shine before this. Their introduction in The Muppets Movie (1979), for example, established that the band was already formed. But The Muppets Mayhem is the first franchise entry to not feature Kermit, Gonzo, or Miss Piggy, which allows the central band to confidently carry their show as the headliner rather than an opening act with groovy results.

The Muppets Mayhem on Disney+

In this 10-episode season, creators Goldberg, Yorkes, and Barretta cleverly use a simple premise as a foundation to finally add depth to each member’s personas, and also satirize the music industry in the goofiest way imaginable. As part of the journey to get the band back in the public’s eyes and ears, each episodic plot riffs on various facets of music culture: toxic fanbases, popularization of music documentary films, the music production process—you name it. Whatever’s relevant, they hit it via silly gags, celebrity cameos, and inside-baseball references that might leave adults laughing hysterically more than their kids. There are even corporate marketing tactics that Disney has done for the other properties that they openly mock. (Maybe I’m reading too deep, but there’s an episode that discusses the toxicity of social media that low-key felt like a rebuttal to the handling of the Muppets image with the terrible Muppets Now series.)

Every aspect of today’s music culture is foreign to the Mayhem though, leaving them flopping like fish out of water. But thanks to their hakuna matata mindset, they keep on moving with high positivity. With each music-related topic they riff on, there is an authenticity about how draining and ridiculous many aspects of today’s music culture are. It’s all good-spirited in nature, and the show walks a perfect tightrope between reality and Muppet absurdism. And as the mayhem in each episode increases, the harder the laughs land. The Electric Mayhem’s charm could have easily worn thin, but their open-sleeved joyfulness toward the world around them prevents the series from steering into the banal.

It’s also refreshing to see the band portrayed as out-of-date rather than outdated, and that sentiment extends to the cameos. The series proves how beloved the Mayhem are just by the number of musicians involved (like Lil Nas X, Colton Dunn, Zedd, and Paula Abdul, to name a few), who all embrace the band lovingly. Most of the cameos have celebrities sharing how far back their relationship with a band member goes, or how influential they are to them, or even how they changed their lives. Because the Muppets are known to be top-tier when it comes to tasteful cameos, it is genuinely exciting when a recognizable face pops up on screen. Further, many of the series’ pop culture jokes often throw hard, unexpected curveballs that get downright hysterical. I’m still thinking about the music documentary-centric episode featuring Kevin Smith and Beatles: Get Back director Peter Jackson, who were both great sports about it. Not to give anything away, but I am going bonkers over a deep-cut reference to Jackson’s filmography that I would not have expected to be in a Muppets series.

Unfortunately, the series is at its weakest when those unexplored upbringings are used in juxtaposition to Nora’s interpersonal drama with her social media-influenced sister Hannah (Saara Chaudry). Just like every Godzilla movie known to man, the series’ lowest points occur when the humans take the foreground. High-strung Nora is often challenged by the Mayhem’s influence to confront either her long grief over her dad’s passing, her sister whom she had to raise when she was young (ala Nani and Lilo energy), or her relationship with her ex JJ. Admittedly, I did sob over the first two episodes, because anything about a person grieving their late dad hits me hard. That said, that emotional momentum is lost as the focus on Nora continues. The material also becomes weaker when it turns towards an uninteresting love triangle with Nora, JJ, and Moog as the season continues. That’s not to say the comedic cast, including Lilly Singh, Tahj Mowery, and Saara Chaudry, aren’t good; they’re all funny and have great onscreen chemistry with their Muppet counterparts. But when it’s on them to hold down the fort when the Muppets are not around, they falter due to the weak material provided. The human-based drama evokes the energy of an ABC after-school special, and while it may work for a family audience, it leaves a lot to be desired overall.

And it’s no surprise: the Muppets are the stars, and luckily there’s plenty to dive into. There hasn’t been any context about the Mayhem for over 50 years, so the creators take full advantage of penning new canon, applying contextual lore to each member’s background, and adding more about the interpersonal dynamics through humorous flashbacks regarding their formation. Whether it’s Dr. Teeth, Floyd, Janice, or Animal, each time a different member takes center stage, the storytelling is so strong that I welled up several times. Muppet performers Bill Baretta and Matt Vogel particularly stand out, pouring their hearts into their puppet performances, adding a fresh, soulful layer to these iconic characters. (A notable episode in particular, “Fortunate Son,” focuses on Dr. Teeth’s family, and boy Barretta does some of his best work through his Teeth performance.)

At its best, The Muppets Mayhem is like a family-friendly version of Spinal Tap or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, minus the mockumentary format. Like Popstar, every original song the series offers (written by music executive Linda Perry) is a certified banger that I would probably add to my Spotify. Ultimately, The Muppets Mayhem finds Dr. Teeth, Floyd, Janice, Zoot, Animal, and Lips strutting their stuff and taking the music industry by storm with their rocking charm, in a delightfully funny and charming music satire for all ages alike. Who knew that the Muppet magic Disney has been missing needed a little bit of mayhem to reinvigorate the franchise again?

All episodes of The Muppets Mayhem premiere Wednesday, May 10th on Disney+.

Rendy Jones is a film and television journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. They are the owner of self-published outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics Choice Association, and a film graduate of Brooklyn College. They have been featured in Vulture, The Daily Beast, AV Club and CBC News.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin