Hello, I’m Television’s Kynan Barker, but you can call me TV’s KB. Believe it or not, it’s been fifteen years since I last wrote for Tough Pigs — or to put it in fan terms, about six Great Big Muppet Comebacks ago.
The world was a different place back then. I was listening to Muppet music on CDs, an obsolete technology short for “compact disc”, and reviewing Muppet specials on VHS tapes, a technology so obsolete nobody even remembers what it’s short for. To upload my articles I had to line up at an internet kiosk and then feed punchcards into a coin-operated machine. I’m old, is what I’m saying.
For additional context, I’m also Australian. You might remember Australia making the news in late 2019/early 2020 when someone left the iron on and the whole joint caught fire. It was pretty exciting for us to be the centre of world attention for a while, as a leading global example of what happens when you do less than nothing about climate change. Thank goodness that’s over!
But the thing to remember about Australia is that, being on the wrong side of the equator, the polarity of the earth is reversed, meaning Disney Plus is legally Disney Minus. I don’t know how much that actually affects the content, but Muppets Now has definitely left me scratching my upside down head. Is it fun to watch? Mostly, yes! But is it the Great Big Muppet Comeback of 2020? Sadly, no!
As mentioned in previous reviews, Muppets Now began as a series of standalone sketches, which were stitched together with new linking material. In the links, Scooter is uploading the various segments of the show we’re watching, which is all very meta and confusing.
A lot of time and effort has gone into these scenes, which feature David Rudman’s Scooter in great form, and a series of guest Muppets (in this episode, Joe the Legal Weasel, and Statler and Waldorf as the test audience referenced in the title).
But look, if Disney was looking for a way to string together a bunch of Muppet sketches, there’s a perfectly simple solution staring them in the face. He’s green, he has ping-pong balls for eyes, and his name is Nigel. Alternatively, there’s the obscure Muppet character Kermit the Frog, who might (bear with me here, I’m just spitballing) make a pretty good host for a series of Muppet bits.
Instead, we have Scooter dragging and dropping files on a screen full of freeze-frame gags (arguably wasted on a streaming platform where most people don’t have access to frame-by-frame playback). It’s chaotic, and it’s meant to be, but the chaos isn’t the typical Muppets “chicken feathers flying everywhere” style, it’s more like “wait, how does this work again?”
So the links are just… unfocused, which, weirdly enough, is also the problem with the individual pieces. What should be really straightforward ideas (Miss Piggy is an influencer! Pepe hosts a game show!) are instead overcomplicated, with too many elements pulling in different directions.
Let’s start with the Swedish Chef’s ongoing segment, Øk?ÿ Døk?ÿ Køøkïñ, which combines an instructional cooking show with a competitive cooking show in a way that’s just jarring enough to undermine each concept. On one half of the set, Chef Roy Choi makes a kalbi bowl, complete with graphics to illustrate the recipe, while on the other half, the Swedish Chef makes a mess, in a series of bits that don’t let him build up any comic momentum. And in the middle, Julianne Buescher’s turkey character Beverly Plume tries to bring the elements together while flirting with Roy. That’s… a lot.
Would I enjoy a segment where the Chef genuinely competes with a guest star to make a simple dish? Heck yeah I would!
Would I love a segment where a celebrity cook tries to demonstrate a recipe while the Swedish Chef, in the role of a nonsensical host, interferes, misunderstands and gets flour in everyone’s hair? Yes, by gosh, I sure would!
But do I want a segment that sort of tries to do both, in a way that does justice to neither? Eh, not really.
Same goes for this week’s Bunsen and Beaker segment, in which they demonstrate velocity by flinging pizzas at a big wall in a parking lot.
Would Bunsen and Beaker make a good educational series where they genuinely illustrate scientific concepts with a comic twist? I do believe they would.
Would it be hilarious to see them outside in the real world just making a huge mess by making pizza ingredients go splat? I vote Yea.
But what if the sketch was only almost educational, and the pizza flinging was so overproduced with slow motion effects that we don’t even get a sense of Bunsen and Beaker’s reactions, and also Al Madrigal is there for some reason? Not so much.
Next comes Miss Piggy’s Lifesty segment, which honestly has so much going on that it would take a whole separate review to critique it properly. She gives lifestyle tips! She tries new things with Taye Diggs! She takes questions from viewers! She hosts a virtual panel where she’s sort of mean to Linda Cardellini, and Kermit is inexplicably bummed out, and also Beaker is there for some reason! (I guess he was filling in for Al Madrigal.)
Let me stress, as with the rest of the show, there’s some excellent stuff here. Piggy and Uncle Deadly have amazing chemistry, Kermit’s casual side convo with Linda and her cheese friend Brie is charming, and Taye Diggs, in true Muppet guest form, really appears to be up for anything. But all together at the same time? It’s Just Too Much.
Which brings us to Pepe’s Unbelievable Game Show. Pepe wreaking havoc by breaking the rules of a game show should be comedy gold, but since the game show he’s breaking already has no rules, there’s no comic tension. Likewise, Pepe interacting with Real Live Human Contestants should be hilarious, but it’s apparent that these humans aren’t Really Real, they’re just Actors Playing Themselves. Which, again: No tension, because it’s clear they’re just gonna go along with whatever the Prawn throws at them. (Imagine if they were real contestants and there were actual prizes at stake — then you’d get some real reactions, and Pepe’s nonsense would create actual jeopardy.)
Are there hilarious bits sprinkled in there? Oh my goodness, yes. But do a few great ad libs make up for the fact that the concept hasn’t really been ironed out? Not quite really, no.
So overall, is there stuff to love in Muppets Now, both for old cranky fans like me and for new viewers who meant to click on Hamilton on the Disney+ menu? Yep! No doubt.
But could it be a whole better, perhaps by being a whole lot simpler? Excuse my Australian potty mouth, but: Oh my goshly hecking yes.
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): It’s a tie! How exciting! First, Beverly Plume, for creating genuine sexual tension with Roy Choi by ad libbing the line “I’m easily startled — around you” when he turns his blender on. And second, Brie. The cheese. She’s a cheese, and her name is Brie. It’s a really simple, dumb joke, but it’s not laboured the way too many Muppet puns are. (Plus she just seems like she’d be fun to have around.)
LVM (Least Valuable Muppet): Kermit. Not because he wasn’t given the host role, which is not his fault, but for his weird obsequiousness when Miss Piggy brings up their relationship in the group chat. It’s not the eye-rolling dismissiveness that we’re used to, or the snarky “sheesh, here we go again” of old— he actually seems to be really afraid of the topic, in a sad pathetic way. Here’s a Muppet News Flash for you, Kermit: You’re broken up! You don’t have to put up with her shit anymore! (Although I did get a chuckle from his handwritten “Buffering” sign.)
Best Puppetry Trick: Not a trick per se, but when Piggy gets covered in dinner during the Dining in the Dark bit — man, that Muppet stunt food really pops. Just the right combination of believable leftovers and cartoony Looney Tunes spaghetti. My compliments to the styling team.
Missed Opportunity: Speaking of food, if the pizza-flinging sketch had been better produced, Bunsen’s and Beaker’s real-time reactions to the splatting and slopping and general messiness would have been priceless.
Best Joke: A nice little character moment from Statler, fast asleep and dreaming: “Money!”
Second Best Joke, Which I Actually Think is the Best Joke, But I Had to Demote it Because it Doesn’t Really Translate on the Page: Another ad lib (hey, did you know this show was meant to be unscripted? I guess nobody told the room full of ten writers). This one from Pepe, who turns a weird moment about a contestant’s deceased dog into a nice callback, saying “You’ve won a place in our hearts with your little dead Dusty.”
One More Thing: I can’t be the only person who’s noticed that Scooter’s web uploading platform is named “The Rainbow Connector.” Cute. Cute gag.
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by Kynan Barker