By Caroline Framke
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) – Unto most every TV-watching generation, a new Muppets show is born. The original “Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1981, had Jim Henson’s felt puppets take over a vaudeville theater to perform songs, slapstick sketches and more unabashedly cheesy puns than its bewildered guests could count. The “Muppets Tonight” reboot, which ran a single season from 1997 to 1998, swapped the theater for a television studio, where the Muppets frantically threw together a variety show while letting the audience in on all the drama happening in the control booth. A sour 2015 follow-up (“The Muppets.”) tried for a “30 Rock” meets “The Office” vibe, imagining a world in which Miss Piggy had a late-night show and the rest had midlife crises. Whether tap dancing with rat puppets, trading quips with celebrities or exploring TV’s most enduring on-and-off relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit, every iteration of “The Muppet Show” tries to mix timeliness with nostalgia for maximum effect.
Which brings us to “Muppets Now,” Disney Plus’ newest entrant into the Muppets TV canon. Whereas its predecessors were made for primetime, “Muppets Now” is made with an obvious eye towards airing on a streaming service, where many of its kid viewers will probably watch it on a tablet while their parents try desperately to get five minutes to themselves. At a brisk six episodes, the series doesn’t waste time with its setup, keeping the meta “backstage” chatter (a Muppets staple) to a minimum. As becomes clear in its cold opens, in which a harried Scooter tries to get the final cut locked despite Kermit and everyone giving him dozens of last minute notes, “Muppets Now” isn’t a variety show in the traditional Muppet sense. Instead, it’s a series of sketches and unscripted demonstrations delivered in the style of YouTube channels, the better to appeal to the generation it’s now targeting via Disney Plus.
Each of the series’ recurring segments is anchored by both the most familiar Muppets and some furry faces that only diehards would know. Miss Piggy’s show (“Lifesty With Miss Piggy”) focuses on beauty and wellness — more specifically, her own. Beaker and Professor Honeydew have a science- experiment show featuring alarmingly sentient A.I. sidekicks, while Kermit attempts a “Mup Close and Personal” interview series that inevitably falls apart as more and more Muppets keep interrupting to ask their own. Pepe the Prawn has a delightfully unhinged game show that, despite Scooter’s pleas to stay on task, quickly devolves into whatever he feels like doing, which is usually asking his enthusiastic contestants rapidfire, nonsensical questions. In between, Kermit checks in with “Joe from Legal,” an uptight little weasel whose bass deadpan and love of rules makes him a perfect counterpart to the other Muppets’ constant flights of fancy.
The most versatile segment is the one that, fittingly, slots the neatest into the YouTube genre from whence it came: cooking demos. “Okey Dokey” has Beverly Plume, a new turkey Muppet, learning how to cook a dish from a guest while the Swedish Chef throws together his own pot of chaos. (It’s technically billed as a competition, but as anyone who’s encountered the Swedish Chef knows, there’s little controlling anything once his “cooking” gets going.) With guests like actor Danny Trejo and chefs Carlina Will and Roy Choi, “Okey Dokey” introduces its audience to a wide range of cuisines while having a perfectly ridiculous time along the way.
Which makes the fact of Disney Plus having precious little Muppets content even more disappointing. If someone watches “Muppets Now” and wants to check out more, the only other shows they can access on Disney Plus are “The Muppets.” (which isn’t entirely appropriate for younger children) and the recent uncanny- valley update of 1985’s “Muppet Babies” cartoon. “The Muppet Show,” “Muppets Tonight” and the original “Muppet Babies” run are nowhere to be found unless you do a deep dive into the archival wilds of YouTube and DailyMotion, which is a confusing shame. For now, at least, the earnest fun of “Muppets Now” will have to do.
“Muppets Now” premieres Friday, July 31 on Disney Plus. 30 mins. (6 episodes; 4 reviewed.)