The Muppets are back…and better than they were last fall.
ABC’s The Muppets (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. ET) have returned for the second half of their first season, and it is already clear that some changes are underway. The February 2nd relaunch was the first new episode after the ratings failure of last fall’s iteration and the network’s reworking of the beloved franchise; and, in true Muppets fashion, the redo featured a creative storyline integrating the real-life behind-the-scenes drama into the show itself.
On the program, ABC’s network executives insisted on a rebranding of the show-within-a-show, Up Late With Miss Piggy. In case you haven’t seen the first half of the season, here’s a brief synopsis: Miss Piggy is the host of a late-night talk show on ABC, and the executive producer is her ex-boyfriend, Kermit the Frog. Some other familiar felt faces, including Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, Scooter, Rizzo the Rat, and Pepe the King Prawn, are also part of the crew, and help Kermit create the show. Being that they live in Los Angeles and film on an ABC studio lot, they often run into celebrities (often playing themselves), whether they are booked as guests on the late-night talk show, or just happen to be around the studio.
In the first episode back, the network decides to bring in a “branding expert” in order to update the show so they might appeal to a younger demographic. The expert suggests the show fire Fozzie and replace him with a kid who is popular on YouTube, as well as suggesting that the show should be broadcast live so that viewers can live-Tweet while watching. Kermit quickly realizes that these changes will be a disaster, and will more than likely cause his friends and coworkers to lose their jobs. Unfortunately, Miss Piggy takes this to the extreme and shows up to work the next day dressed like Miley Cyrus at MTV’s Video Music Awards, complete with braided hair and a top that looks like a teddy bear. But when Kermit escorts Miss Piggy out of the writer’s room, the rest of the Muppets begin making music with their office supplies and Kermit realizes that the thing that was missing from the show is all of their other Muppet friends. This was one of the first scenes since the beginning of the new series that was truly reminiscent of the original series, The Muppet Show. Ideally, this is an indicator of the new direction that The Muppets is taking.
It’s true that one major thing was lacking in the first fall episodes: heart. The entire Muppets franchise was built on the idea that the Muppets were a hodgepodge group of performers with various talents that treated each other like family, despite the fact that they were working on a television show together. Another indicator that the series is now headed in the right direction is that Miss Piggy is no longer a spotlight-craving diva. (Well, she is – she always has been — but at least now she’s nicer to Kermit and the others.) This meta-method of storytelling is a smart and simple way to retool the series without changing it so much that the new half of the season is unrecognizable.
Some of the complaints about the first half of the season were that the Muppets were portrayed too much like adults, and they were regularly shown drinking alcohol at their friend’s bar, Rowlf’s Tavern. This has not changed; at the end of the show, the cast and crew are seen toasting each other with glasses of champagne in celebration of a successful show. In another scene, Miss Piggy’s assistant/wardrobe coordinator, Uncle Deadly, is shown drinking a martini after a long day. This is an issue that should be left up to individual parents as to whether or not the show is appropriate for their children. On the one hand, the Muppets are portrayed as adults, and they have always been since their original inception. On the other hand, the Muppets have always appealed to children of all ages, despite the subject matter. Another possible issue for parents with young children is that several of the characters are single and regularly go on dates with humans and other Muppets. But in this episode there was significantly less innuendo, and when there was, it was so layered that some adults might have missed it.
Hopefully, these changes aren’t too little, too late. According to ratings collected by Nielsen, before its retooling The Muppets reached a record low average of 2.7 million viewers, compared to their series fall premiere, which amassed an average of 9 million viewers. Last fall, The Muppets showrunner, Bob Kushell, exited the show after completing the 9th episode. His position was given to Kristin Newman, who’s currently the producer of ABC’s Galavant. Newman has previously stated that she has been a fan of the Muppets since she was a child, and that she intends to bring a balance to the program, combining the classic zaniness of the characters but also making them more relevant to audiences in 2016. The February 2nd episode was rated TV-PG and, aside from the use of the word “jackass” by comedian Jordan Peele, contained no offensive language or depictions.
There’s a long road ahead for The Muppets to gain back their viewership. The program will have to be able to capture the same nostalgia that has kept the beloved characters in circulation for so many years. It seems that now more than ever, “It’s not easy being green.”