This review of Muppets Now contains no specific spoilers for the show, but will include general information already officially released in press images and episode descriptions.
Jarrod Fairclough – Thanks to the good folks at Disney, I’ve been blessed with seeing the first four episodes of Muppets Now, which begins on Disney+ this Friday. While the show has its flaws, I’m comfortable saying it’s a welcome return to form for The Muppets, certainly to be received better by fans to the middling (but still decent) 2015 series, the last time we really saw a lot of these characters.
The show has often been referred to as ‘unscripted’, yet I’m not entirely sure it is. Large parts of it are, without a doubt. The parts with guest stars or guest actors have that feel of improvisation to them, including faint sounds of muffled laughter as everyone tries to compose themselves. But I found a lot of the other stuff seemed scripted, or at least heavily rehearsed. That’s not to say those parts of the show don’t work – they really do. But I guess I’m just not sure why they’re making such a fuss of the ‘unscripted’ part during promotion, when the show could easily have have stood on its own merit without the advertised gimmick. But, please, if anyone involved in the show wants to tell me how that stuff worked – you know my email!
There are parts of the show that feel classicly Muppety. Pepe’s game show, which debuts in episode 2, is the definite highlight of the four episodes I’ve seen. Bill Barretta’s chaotic enthusiasm is palpable, and he’s been allowed to dial Pepe’s manic tendencies to an 11, to the point where it seems once or twice that even Bill isn’t sure what’s going to come out of Pepe’s mouth.
Then there’s Bunsen and Beaker, who have a real return to form in something that feels like Muppet Labs smashed together with Mythbusters, and could even be considered educational. The shorts are matched with fun cartoons that cast classic Muppets into roles you’d have never expected.
Guest stars are a welcome presence, with Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini appearing in each episode. Diggs is good, but Cardellini steals every shot she’s in. From what I could find on Muppet Wiki, this seems to be her first interaction with The Muppets. But, god, I really hope it’s not the last. Her ability to be perfectly Muppety but still so subdued is sublime. RuPaul is also a fun guest star, whose segment includes the reappearance of a heavily underutilized character who really needs to do more – you’ll know who I mean when you see him. Aubrey Plaza’s interview is awkward in the way all Aubrey Plaza interviews are awkward, but there’s a great payoff if you stick it out.
The characters feel like themselves on this show, harking back to how we remember them but also adding new layers. There’s a segment with Kermit in episode 1 that introduces an odd obsession for the frog, but made me giggle the entire time. His demenour during the conference call with Miss Piggy and Cardellini also made me smile, and feels like something he would have done back in the Henson and Whitmire days. I know some people are still getting used to Matt Vogel’s Kermit (for the record, I’m all in) and I’m hoping the way he’s played in Muppets Now means people will finally give him a shot, because he’s really got the character down pat.
In fact all the performers have their characters down. Piggy is equal parts diva and tolerable, which is always a win. When Eric Jacobson is allowed to do what he wants with her, Piggy becomes all the better for it. Vogel shines once again as Uncle Deadly, as they keep one of the better aspects of the 2015 series going – Deadly and Piggy’s friendship. Peter Linz gets some fun moments with Walter, and with the hilarious Joe the Legal Weasel, who appears far less than promotion would have you believe. David Rudman’s Scooter is still stressed out, as he basically runs the show. His presence in Pepe’s game show is a real hoot, and feels a little more like the Richard Hunt era. Bill Barretta knows Pepe inside and out and, as discussed, is having an absolute blast. The Swedish Chef gets his own segment in each episode, and while they can sometimes feel a little slow, Bill will always find a way to throw in a little something.
On that, Chef’s parts are fun, for sure, but they’re probably the lowlights of each episode for me. Instead of letting him do his thing, they pit him against celebrity chefs and have it hosted by a turkey named Beverly Plume, an okay new character performed by Julianne Buescher. Don’t get me wrong, he stills gets to wreak havoc, but it takes a little too long to get there, like he isn’t the star of his own segment. That said, his spot with Danny Trejo was the best of the bunch, and really made me laugh, and in fairness, each spot made me laugh out loud at least once, which is good for a comedy.
Piggy’s lifetyle segment has some really great moments, namely those with Cardellini and any time Deadly gets to do anything – truly, Deadly steals this whole show. But this show is very much an ensemble, with characters like Animal barely appearing, if at all, until episode 4. Kermit has very little to do in episode 2. I’m not sure I remember ANY Fozzie in episode 3. My point is, I don’t know that we need Piggy’s segment every episode. They could have used her time to let other characters shine – give Janice a segment where she ponders spirituality with special guest Sweetums or something. Give Yolanda a love advice segment where she talks to Angel Marie and Chip about their love triangle with Anna Kendrick or something. My point is, I love you Piggy, but sometimes less is more.
When the show was first announced, we were told it would be a bunch of segments released one at a time. It wasn’t until recently that they made the decision to lump them all together in six episodes, so obviously they require some kind of framing device. This has Scooter uploading each episode at the last minute with various obstacles (and old men) getting in his way. Because of this late decision amidst a pandemic, these segments have all been filmed in the performers individual homes, which adds a nice little touch.
I’ll obviously get in to more detail each week as we review the episodes (come back Friday for Episode 1!), but I’ll leave you with this. Muppets Now is not The Muppet Show. But when it works, it’s the next best thing. And thankfully it works far more than it doesn’t.
I genuinely predict this show will make a star of Uncle Deadly.