It’s probably fair to say that of all of the intellectual property that Disney has amassed in the last two decades, the Muppets aren’t the highest priority. Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, National Geographic, and everything else at the top of the Disney+ screen is also higher in the Disney pecking order, as are Mickey, Goofy, the princesses, and everyone else famous from the century-old Disney canon.
The Muppets, who have been Disney property since 2004, aren’t exactly featured prominently at the Disney parks, aside from the Muppet Vision 3D attraction. They’ve been the stars of two theatrical movies in the Disney era, one very memorable and one not so much, and also of a very misconceived ABC sitcom that only lasted one season. Otherwise, the Muppets have starred infrequently produced content on the brand’s YouTube channel, and also in a Disney Jr. revival of Muppet Babies.
Once it became clear that Disney was launching a streaming service, it was a no-brainer that a new Muppets-related show would part of it. And last fall, shortly before the launch of Disney+, Disney announced that it was scrapping a Muppets TV limited series called The Muppets Live Another Day. That show was to star Josh Gad and come from some of the creative team behind Avenue Q, and was meant to pay homage to the Muppets’ 1980s legacy, in the tradition of Stranger Things.
At the same time they revealed the Gad show was kaput, Disney announced Muppets Now, “a brand-news, unscripted, short-form series,” which would debut on Disney+.
Now the show is here, and while it has its moments – and is a huge improvement over the ABC sitcom – Muppets Now is far from the Muppets at their best, and one can’t help but wonder if The Muppets Live Another Day might have been a better choice.
Muppets Now‘s first season consists of six episodes- I’ve seen the first three- and it seems that its primary inspiration in Muppet history isn’t The Muppet Show or any of the movies, but rather the Muppet Studios YouTube channel.
The new show, aside from a desktop-based framing device featuring Scooter “uploading” the show, consists of various recurring segments, including a lifestyle show hosted by Miss Piggy, Swedish Chef hosting a cooking show, an interview segment hosted by Kermit, Muppet Labs segments with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, and a game show hosted by Pepe The King Prawn. The bit featuring Beaker and Bunson throwing pizzas as part of an experiment is probably the standout in the early going.
The segments, while occasionally chuckle-worthy, are somewhat repetitive, and even reuse the same celebrity guest stars, including Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini, although there are amusing one-off appearances by the likes of RuPaul and Danny Trejo.
Muppets Now also represents the first major Muppet project in which Matt Vogel voices Kermit the Frog, following the sacking of Steve Whitmire three years ago. Vogel doesn’t sound quite like the Kermit we’re used to, but then again that’s what most people said about Whitmire, when he replaced Jim Henson following Henson’s death, just over 30 years ago.
These segments are entertaining at the margins, and it’s great to see these characters again. But it’s really missing what’s made the best Muppets material special, starting with the relationships between the characters.
There is, thankfully, none of the mean-spiritedness of the 2016 TV show, which dropped the Muppet characters into a 30 Rock-like TV milieu with a great deal of backstage drama and backbiting.
Muppets Now isn’t even the best Muppets project for the month of July. Even better than that was a YouTube video, created by Ricky Downes III, called “Hamilton Act 1 but it’s Muppets.” Posted to YouTube at the start of the month, it’s a mostly sung-through rendition of the first act of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, featuring versions of the Muppet characters performing all of the parts. It may have been completely unauthorized- by the Muppets, by Disney, or by Miranda- but it was closer to the spirit of the Muppets than anything on the new Disney+ show.
Kermit is Hamilton, Gonzo is Aaron Burr, Fozzie is “Marquis de LaFozette,” and John Laurens is Beaker. It’s funnier, more creatively successful and more daring than the actual new Muppets show.