If there’s one question the cardinal season of The Muppets absolutely must answer, it’s this: What’s to be gained by filtering the antics and ennui of Kermit and co. through the lens of the office docu-comedy? We’re used to seeing these characters set against a vaudevillian backdrop or within the parameters of familiar movie genres—road trip comedies, heist flicks, and the occasional literary adaptation. Most of all, we’re accustomed to the experience of the Muppets putting on a show-within-a-show, so in that respect, The Muppets feels like familiar ground for the gang to tread, though this time, they’re on late night television as ABC attempts to bring Jim Henson’s beloved felt creations back to TV for the first time since 1998.
Like the terrible, overused trope of found footage that still plagues horror cinema today, the workplace documentary is fast losing its novelty as a plot device. Why, oh why, didn’t the showrunners just make The Muppets a regular-strength sitcom without lurking shaky cameras and talking head interviews? It’s to producer Bill Prady’s credit that he and his team work in the obligatory “cover your ass” joke spoiled by the show’s TV spots and trailers: When Kermit pitches the documentary idea to the rest of the Muppets, we cut to Gonzo kvetching aloud about that overused conceit to the audience, only to cut back to him at the writers’ table singing its praises. It’s one of the most Muppet-esque jokes in The Muppets’ pilot, but thankfully it’s not the only one.
The premiere episode, “Pig Girls Don’t Cry,” deals chiefly with the production of Up Late with Miss Piggy, which on paper and in practice is exactly what it sounds like: Piggy at a desk, hobnobbing with celebrity guests, while the Electric Mayhem does their thing. It’s a nifty enough callback to tried-and-true Muppet TV formats, and intermittently throughout “Pig Girls Don’t Cry,” we find ourselves wishing that Prady had thrown his influence behind getting that show on the air instead of “Muppets by way of The Office/30 Rock.” But we’ve seen that show before. We haven’t quite seen, well, this, so out with the old and in with the new, except that The Office clones aren’t exactly new. Hell, The Office is an Office clone. Did we need The Muppets to go that route?
We’re only one episode into the series, so patience and a few weeks’ time might provide an answer to that brain-buster. In the meantime, The Muppets mostly works, because the Muppets weren’t made just to fit into a preconceived box. They’re flexible. They fit where we want them to fit, and if The Office’s format is already a worn-out cliché even in 2015 (a time when all of the major knock-offs, sans Modern Family, have gone off the air), why not take the piss out of it? The show’s composition turns out not to be the major hurdle it has to overcome. Instead, The Muppets has to contend with problems of tone and composure.
In between two reasonably successful movies, it seems that the Muppets have become jaded, cynical, and prickly. Kermit’s stress at corralling his crew manifests with more edge, while Piggy is exponentially more demanding than we’ve known her to be in the past. We learn, through flashbacks and through scenes in the present tense, that they’ve broken up, which explains their increased unease. (He’s since moved on to a younger rebound girlfriend, also a pig, but with decidedly less personality than Piggy herself.) Sam the Eagle takes umbrage with words like “gesticulate” being spoken on air, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem don’t know when to stop playing their instruments, and Scooter loses a fist fight with Elizabeth Banks, Up Late with Miss Piggy’s guest star du jour. Failure has always been an integral component of the Muppets’ brand: Kermit can’t put on a show without a hitch. Piggy never becomes the star she wants to be. The Swedish Chef can’t kill a single damn chicken. Fozzy can’t sell a punchline. We love the Muppets for their underdog qualities, and always have.
That pervasive melancholy gets turned up so much in The Muppets that the air turns acrid even when the show is at its goofiest. Fozzy’s side-plot, revolving around his relationship with his human gal pal, Becky (Riki Lindhome), is about as classically Muppety as the episode gets, right up to his clashes with Becky’s father over the matter of their future man-bear-children. (“That’s an offensive stereotype!” Fozzy yells when dad wonders aloud where their kids will go to the bathroom.) The expanded bitterness pushes “Pigs Girls Don’t Cry” to its limits, but the attitude suits the characters nicely. We don’t need The Muppets to have bite—they’re the product of Jim Henson’s imagination, not Robert Lopez’s or Jeff Whitty’s—but after decades of ebbs and flows, disappearances and resurgences, triumphs and defeats, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that everybody’s developed a chip on their shoulder.
What The Muppets must do to balance out that quality is strive to find its characters’ humanity. Toward the end, “Pig Girls Don’t Cry” does just that by taking us to the moment where Kermit and Piggy split. There’s something inherently funny about the scene’s melodrama—they’re puppets, for crying out loud—but it’s equally as silly as it is heartbreaking and true. There’s enough trademark Muppet tomfoolery and hilarity in The Muppets for us to get by, but the show will succeed only if it continues to mine that emotional vein.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.