Today’s article was written by Tough Pigs pal Grant Harding. Thanks for your insights, Grant!
By and large, I like Muppets Now. It was a fun ride, and I was smiling the whole time I watched, but it didn’t make me laugh out loud much.
Whenever the Muppets do something new, it’s natural to compare it to The Muppet Show. That was where many of the characters were born, and where they got to show off their zany sensibility to millions of people for five whole years. But The Muppet Show is an impossibly high standard, and it’s also just not the kind of television that exists anymore.
No, when I watch Muppets Now, the piece of Muppet content that I can’t stop thinking about is a YouTube video from only five years ago: Flowers on the Wall, featuring our old pal Beaker.
Remember Flowers on the Wall? If you haven’t watched it in a while, watch it again right now:
This video should, I think, be regarded as the modern standard that new Muppet material should aim for. Why? Because it has absolutely everything. In just two minutes and twelve seconds, we get:
A look into a character’s home life. This was the mission of ABC’s The Muppets series (which came out the same year as this video), but I think it’s done better here. This isn’t a sketch the Muppets are performing for us on a stage; it’s “really” happening. We see what Beaker does when he puts on his hat, punches out of Muppet Labs, and goes home to his little apartment. We see that Beaker isn’t unintelligent – he’s a sudoku whiz, and he has lots of books and chemistry equipment – but he’s isolated by his inability to speak. And he eats Chinese takeout.
A fun song. The Muppets don’t sing as much now as they did in the old days (Muppets Now has no songs at all!), but music is a big part of what makes them who they are. “Flowers on the Wall,” first recorded by the Statler Brothers in 1965, is catchy and evocative and would have fit right in on The Muppet Show.
Lots of funny little visual gags. Some of them I didn’t even notice until right now. There are pencils stuck in the ceiling of Muppet Labs. One of Bunsen’s honorifics is C.S.I.C.O.E. (which ostensibly stands for “chief scientist in charge of everything,” but say the acronym out loud). When the Bunsen balloon pops, its glasses land right on Beaker’s eyes, and he does a great take to the camera. And Beaker’s pyjamas have little DNA molecules on them!
Cool puppetry effects. It took three puppeteers in green suits to get Beaker to build that playing card sculpture of Bunsen.
And yet it still collapsed.
Objects singing that shouldn’t. The Muppets live in a surrealistic world where anything could start singing at any time: vegetables, rock carvings, snowmen. The ABC series really dialed down the surrealism (why did Gonzo live in a house, not in a cement mixer or a chicken coop?), but here we see the flowers on the wall themselves begin to sing as Beaker becomes delirious with exhaustion.
Hints at more “adult” feelings between the characters. Much digital ink has been spilled on this website on the nature of Bunsen and Beaker’s relationship, and this video provides more fodder for the shippers. Beaker play-acts a romantic date with a Bunsen stand-in, and he builds his likeness out of playing cards.
Are they boyfriends? Are they secretly in love and don’t know how to communicate it to each other (quite literally, in Beaker’s case)? Or is Bunsen just the only person Beaker ever hangs out with, and so he thinks of everything in terms of Bunsen, similar to how Dorothy the goldfish imagines everyone and everything as some variation of Elmo? Again, exploring the Muppets’ relationships was one of the promises of the ABC series.
Plenty of Beaker getting hurt and things going wrong for him. Beaker’s basic function as a character is to be injured for our amusement, and there’s plenty of that here. He gets zapped by Bunsen’s sleep machine, his hand gets flattened by an iron, and everything he tries to build falls apart.
And of course, an explosion at the end! The explosion blows away the rat band, too, even though they’re outside the frame, so we get a nice bit of reality breaking as well.
In short, it’s pretty much perfect. And that’s a word I usually only use to describe A Muppet Family Christmas and Secrets of the Muppets.
Obviously, this level of intensity is really hard to keep up for an entire half hour, not to mention expensive. I counted forty separate shots, and they had to build some big, detailed sets. But if every episode of Muppets Now had just one sequence this good, we’d be absolutely raving about it.
We can dream. And so, finally, can Beaker.
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by Grant Harding