The Muppets (this latest incarnation of the decades-old franchise) is the product of two noxious philosophies:
1. Everything you once found childlike and pure suddenly needs to be made EDGY. See: The gritty, dystopian reboot of Little Women in development at the CW.
2. If there is one dollar to be squeezed out of your nostalgia, Walt Disney will extract it via the psychological equivalent of fracking. See: The endless live-action remakes of classic Disney films, the Star Wars marketing campaign which is nearly as frenzied and premature as Presidential campaign coverage, and this latest goldmine.
Don't get me wrong; The Muppets Season 1 Episode 1 is amusing and engaging. It revives the behind the scenes madness of 30 Rock with the tried-and-true mockumentary format of The Office, complete with the cutaway interviews that are either "a great device!" (according to Gonzo), or "an overused device" (according to Gonzo via cutaway interview).
But if you're looking for something to make you feel warm and fuzzy (pun ever so slightly intended), you'd best head back to Fraggle Rock.
The premise of The Muppets is that the gang is back together to work on a project: Up Late With MIss Piggy (forget the talking pieces of felt; the most unrealistic part of this episode is the notion that a woman would get hosting gig on a network late night show).
Of course, this enterprise is made difficult by the fact that Kermit, the show's executive producer, just broke up with the star. (The publicity campaign for their breakup has to be one of the more nauseatingly cynical moments in recent pop culture history.) The stress of working with his ex brings out a misanthropic streak in Kermit that feels awfully jarring.
My life is a bacon-wrapped hell.Kermit
His days of singing about rainbows seem to be over. Overall, Kermit comes off the worst in this iteration, with hardly a kind word for anyone, save his new girlfriend, Denise.
What can I say? I'm attracted to pigs.Kermit
Denise seems innocuous enough, and patient with Kermit's recent stress-eating. But theirs is not the most engaging cross-species romance in this episode. No, that honor belongs to Fozzie Bear and his human girlfriend Becky (the earnestly hilarious Riki Lindhome).
When your online profile says you're a 'passionate bear looking for love,' you get a lot of wrong responses.Fozzie
Fozzie is desperate to prove himself to Becky's parents, and to dismantle the offensive stereotype that bears only relieve themselves in the woods. But even though the interactions are awkward, they're still the most successful forays into "adult" humor, since "desperate to win approval" has always been part of Fozzie's persona. The same with Miss Piggy, who is as bombastic as ever, but seems more likable when compared to the suddenly prickly Kermit.
The smaller roles bring the biggest laughs in this pilot. Comic genius Elizabeth Banks indignantly throws Scooter from a moving golf cart to avoid a studio lot tour. Sam the Eagle is perfectly cast as the hyper-vigilant head of standards and practices (he finds the word "gesticulate" to be obscene).
And the best line of the night belongs to Animal, who explains why he can't go on the road anymore.
Dr Teeth: Life on the road is no good for Animal.
Animal: Yeah. Too many women. Too many towns.
The Muppets have always had a sly and self-referential style (Statler and Waldorf are still in fine form as the show's resident hecklers), but the humor here feels a shade too dark.
The fun of old-school Muppets was catching the hidden subversiveness; it kind of kills the magic to hear Rizzo the Rat talk about getting laid or Electric Mayhem candidly address their drug problems. Also, the inclusion of Imagine Dragons as the musical guest feels like a shameless cash grab/scheduling error.
There's still hope for this show, and ABC will doubtlessly give it some time to find its feet. But what it needs to find it its softer side. If viewers want a cynical comedy, they can watch Veep. This show needs to take the advice of is musical guest and get back to its roots.