Some marketing geniuses have managed to make the Muppets a subject of controversy.
Yes, the Muppets, and all because of a television show in the year 2015.
Critical reviews of ABC’s pilot for The Muppets quickly established a consensus that this show is not like the original version of the Jim Henson-created characters, and unhappily so. But this time it’s not just a conservative parents’ group lambasting the show as non-“family friendly” but other outlets like The New York Post, Grantland, and even Slate.
I watched the first two episodes and I found the Muppets partly recognizable. I laughed aloud a few times at familiar yet freshened antics. I saw no justification for some of the most bizarre criticisms. But I also saw no justification for a new Muppet show to be like this one. Some criticisms approach why the show doesn’t work, starting with the series’ bleak premise that barely contrasts the Muppets’ colorful personas with shriveled sex references and an even more irritating celebrity-centric setting, which must be hilarious mainly to people who are on the inside of that culture or who want to be.
Sure, Kermit and company (hurrah! at least Gonzo and Sam the Eagle are basically intact) have no continuity. They and their stories get rebooted for any story or genre. But as recently as 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted, they’ve usually kept their special timeless, cross-genre slapstick mixed with gently subversive pop culture satire. And in their happier stories such as The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie and 2011’s The Muppets, our heroes are shown stuck in the dull cynical “adult” world only just long enough to band together and take a trip out of there. So far, ABC’s The Muppets reflects those dull “adult” places well. But I fear this time there’s no fun yellow vehicle into which all our heroes pile to move right along from that bleak world to happier places.Despite all our cultural voices’ demands to sex-reboot all the things, some of us really do want to keep certain things “sacred.”
Still, two sets of critics made me also cynical about our over-idealized Muppet memories.
The first set is the parents’ media advocacy group(s). At first I grinned, nostalgic because hey, parents’ media advocacy groups made it past the ‘90s! Unfortunately some seem to repeat the “Aladdin whispers bad words”-style habits of pop culture perception.
A group called “One Million Moms” laments that “the puppet characters loved by kids in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond are now weighing in on interspecies relationships and promiscuity” and condemns the marketing for teasing full-frontal Kermit nudity. Perhaps the writers missed The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), the final Henson-helmed Muppet film, in which a rat-cousin to Rizzo asks Brooke Shields, “Do you believe in interspecies dating?“; Animal chases a female student whilst bellowing “WO-MAN!”; and a nurse tells an amnesiac Kermit he was found with no clothing, prompting her to research his identity among area nudist colonies (“You are Mr. Enrico Tortellini of Passaic, New Jersey”).
It’s simply a myth, and rather insulting, to relegate the Muppets to being this kind of “family friendly” — that they’re just “children’s characters” with no appeal to grown-up fans. Such is not the realm of fact but of a recurring quirk in how humans remember culture: We look back at things and think they were better. Thus a mild entendre in The Muppet Show that may have caused outrage in the ‘70s prompts nostalgia today. Hey, no harm, no foul; it didn’t hurt me, did it?
But it’s not just conservative groups who are comparing the Muppets’ seemingly new “edginess” with the pictures in their head of the good old days. The second group consists of critics who say the Muppets aren’t like they used to be — accessible and mostly innocent of all the cynicism and dirty jokes. Grantland‘s Alex Pappademas reflects this intriguing response.
“I guess I’ve found the one marriage-equality hypothetical on which I’m a fuming mossback conservative,” he writes. “Turns out I am opposed to the sexualization of the Muppets.” How come? Pappademas faults the superhero “gritty reboot” philosophy for crossing over and says, “We are a terrible, dispirited society and we finally have the terrible, dispirited Muppets we deserve.” Left unsaid is why we in society deserve this — the language of moral punishment — or why it’s now okay to oppose “the sexual revolution” on this battlefront.
This also seems to reveal a human habit. We want to have our NuMorality in which there are few to no “traditional rules” about things like sex and intimacy — other than age and consent restrictions — but also eat our cake of perceived childhood innocence. This is at once inconsistent, yet blessed with common grace: Despite all our cultural voices’ demands to sex-reboot all the things, some of us really do want to keep certain things “sacred.” As a Christian who wants to view culture biblically, I can cry “touchpoint!” and conclude it’s not all over for pop culture, for by direct admission some voices take our side.
But then must come cultural subversion. If a “sexualize all the things” notion is wrong with the Muppets, why is it right everywhere else? In reverse, if this notion is better everywhere else — making it even immoral for Christians to oppose it — why try to keep the Muppets “safe”? Isn’t that effectively prejudiced, backward, naïve, or “on the wrong side of history”?
Perhaps, but I’d rather point to another touchpoint. If non-Christian critics want to keep some things like the Muppets “safe,” perhaps they could also understand why Christians dislike sexualization-of-everything activism encroaching in other media and cultural spaces such as families, churches, schools, and even local and national government laws. Otherwise, no one can have it both ways, demanding a moral reboot of reality but declaring certain “innocent” things off-limits. Natural consequences don’t work that way. As Narnia’s great lion Aslan once soberly remarked, “All get what they want. They do not always like it.”
This is also why the Muppets cannot successfully live for long on such a decrepit pop culture roadside on which the new show has (so far) stranded them. (Business Insider‘s reports on the show’s second week viewer drop-off may confirm this.) Sure, a good story can begin in Kermit’s empty celebrity mansion, full of dusty pictures of happy memories, or even in a tired “grown up” talk show world. But later, the story must lead somewhere better and happier.
That’s why I hope ABC’s The Muppets won’t stay in the depressing studio with black backdrops and muted tones. It must jump in the car and road-trip it to that other, more joyful and idyllic place, and eventually throw in daredevil acts and lighted lights and bears and chickens and frogs and whatevers. Instead of a vacuous Miss Piggy-hosted talk show, we need the all-ages vaudeville-and-variety show. Instead of a chronically stressed Kermit, we need a Kermit who truly wants to believe the best of everyone. And oddly enough, as was happily the case with Jason Segel and 2011’s unabashedly happy The Muppets film, perhaps even a typically raunchy comedian can understand these truths and help show the way back to that big, hilarious joy-making show.