Our world is being invaded. And by “our world”, of course I mean our streaming services, which have certainly been a focus for all of us in The Year of Our Frog 2020. The invader in question is Ned, a four-armed alien from the Henson Company star system, and he will soon be taking over the airwaves of Disney+ on Earth to Ned.

The good folks at Disney+ have allowed us a sneak peek at five episodes out of the ten that will premiere on Friday, September 4th. This latest offering from The Jim Henson Company hits all the beats we’ve come to expect from them over the past few years: Technological marvels of puppetry with middling results.

That’s not to say Earth to Ned is a bad show. On the contrary, the series feels very well-thought-out, is visually stunning, and sets the tone for what could be a few seasons of quality television. But the semi-improvisational nature of the show leads to some off-kilter pacing and inconsistencies, and there are very few genuine laughs.

As you may have heard, Earth to Ned stars Ned: A Sonny Eclipse-esque alien invader comes to Earth to either blow it up or take it over (confusingly, both explanations are given in the pilot episode), but he has an infatuation with celebrities and decides to start his own talk show. He’s joined by his sidekick and Lieutenant Cornelius, a disembodied computer head named B.E.T.I. (who acts as the show’s Producer and computer A.I.), and an infestation of “Clods”. The Clods end up being pretty fun, as they fill the background like Doozers and reflect the episode’s themes with their antics.

All those wacky aliens give the show an opportunity to play with different types of puppetry. Ned seems to use the Henson Company’s WALDO tech, with at least three more puppeteers inside the body to control the head and two pairs of hands. Cornelius is a hand puppet with remote controlled stalk-like eyes. B.E.T.I. is a completely digital puppet. The Clods are hand puppets, similar to the Snerfs. The Henson Company is certainly showing off what they’re capable of with this show, between the puppetry styles, technology, character designs, and the synchronicity of the puppeteers. Much like their work on last year’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the Creature Shop has outdone themselves.

The show itself is a strange combination of scripted comedy with improv interviews. The fact that the interviews aren’t actually promoting anything hinders the celebrities – they can’t talk about their lives or careers, so instead are forced to talk about Ned.

In the premiere episode, Andy Richter and Gillian Jacobs appear to teach Ned and Cornelius about what a talk show is. In the second episode, Kristen Schaal and Paul Scheer teach Ned about laughter. The conceit of having a theme takes away from what we expect from a talk show, and instead becomes an exercise in finding a justification for all those expensive puppets.

The themes do make more sense a little later in the season, as Eli Roth gets to talk about horror films and Rachel Bloom talks about musicals. But since they’re not given free reign to actually discuss the topics that they’re so well known for, we lose out on anything actually pithy or educational. The theming eventually allows for some fun moments, including musical numbers and more nonsense from the Clods.

The highlight is most definitely episode #3, which is Star Wars-themed. The guests include Billy Dee Williams, Reggie Watts, and the actual for-real BB-8. Not only is this a silly (and appreciated) bit of synergy, but it’s refreshing to see Disney willing to have some fun with their Star Wars legacy. It gives me hope that they might allow the Muppets to play in that sandbox again someday.

Speaking of which, the comparison between Earth to Ned and Muppets Now isn’t lost on me. They’re both Henson-connected series on Disney+ with a strong mix of scripted and unscripted content. Oh, and for some reason, they both feature appearances by Taye Diggs. The main difference is that Muppets Now is a scripted show with too much improv, and Earth to Ned is an improvised talk show with too much structure.

All in all, Earth to Ned is a perfectly fine show. But “fine” may not be good enough to draw proper attention to The Jim Henson Company or for Disney to invest in more puppet-based programming. Despite its talk show format, I’d love to see it effectively work as a quality talk show and not a weird hybrid of a half-dozen different genres. If the series gets a second season, I hope they find ways to take new risks and to get beyond their premise into new worlds where no puppet has gone before.

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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