A Deja-vu-inducing 'Muppets' Reboot

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Actress Mindy Kaling makes a guest appearance on 'The Muppets.'
Actress Mindy Kaling makes a guest appearance on 'The Muppets.' Credit: Screenshot
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Once, when we were not obliged to be as politically correct as possible (and that can never be correct enough) there was an admittedly male chauvinistic saw about all good girls going – eventually – to heaven, and all bad girls going to Paris. That was when the city of lights was supposed to be the city of fun (and sin), long before it became a city of terror and fright.

Taking the saying mentioned above as a paradigm, I dare claim that all good TV programs go to the Emmys, whereas all others, good, bad and indifferent, go to the vast treadmill of endless reruns. That is the nature of the TV beast: Most channels broadcast 24/7, and even with the deluge of creativity that churns out new series and sitcoms destined for prime-time viewing, a lot of stuff is needed to fill the late morning and late night hours.

That suits me to a T. I find nothing more relaxing than the realization that I’m seeing an episode of a series I’ve seen already, sometimes a couple of times. It was never important for me to remember who did it or how or why (in a police procedural, for instance), so watching a rerun is never spoiled by knowing vaguely what is happening on the screen and in the plot. I just stare at it, safe in my comfort zone, following the sleuths and villains like old friends, going through their motions, sometimes sensing that a bit I didn’t like is coming up, and zapping away.

The TV providers and the various TV talents, all those creators and producers and showrunners, understand very well this need of their viewers to feel on familiar ground, even – or especially – when seeing something new. That explains the fact that once (or twice or thrice) in a while we are treated to a remake or a reincarnation of a once-popular series. Such is, for instance, “The Muppets,” a new series starring the one and only Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog and all their friends, relatives and acquaintances, who have been part of our world for the last – believe it or not – more than 60 years.

In case you’ve just landed here from outer space, The Muppets are a creation of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and a band of their talented friends. In the 1950s Henson et al. created a bunch of characters made of whole cloth in varying textures: animated figures manipulated on screen by unseen puppeteers. The new word, “muppet,” was supposedly a blend of “marionette” – manipulated with strings or rods – with “puppet” – made to come alive by the puppeteer’s hands from within.

It took the furry characters about 20 years to evolve from being bit players or sidekicks in commercials and OPS (other people’s series, like “Sesame Street”) to have their own program, “The Muppet Show” (1976-81), with a second edition, “Muppets Tonight” (1996-98). The current version, “The Muppets” is broadcast in Israel on HOT Plus, Thursdays at 21:35, three days after the U.S. airing, where it has about 4 million viewers (down from 9 million for the opening episode).

Ageless characters

By now The Muppets are a franchise, owned by Disney. They have appeared in eight movies so far, and many TV programs and specials. The main creators of the particular Muppet characters, their qualities, personalities and voices were Henson, who was mainly Kermit the Frog, and Oz, who instilled life and soul into the one and only Miss Piggy. They are no longer with us, but their creations live on, never aging, having, as it were, an everlasting life of their own.

It started as a self-referential TV show. The Muppets run a televised show, with Kermit as producer and MC, and a band of unruly, good-willed but more often than not inept helpers (Fozzie Bear and Scooter), all of them trying to placate the star of the show, Miss Piggy, who is Kermit’s love interest, and who sees herself as God’s gift to humanity (those furry creatures are as human as you can get).

With time, The Muppets became an idea, more than a TV show. The main characters acquired a life of their own. Kermit relishes being green, is ever on the verge of panic and fears the worst (which always transpires, eventually). He is never angry, more often than not resigned to his fate. Miss Piggy, with her diva ways, lets her blond hair down, utters bon mots in French, and delivers karate chops (mostly with her left upper appendage. Most Muppets are left-handed, as most puppeteers need the right hand to animate the head).

The formula has the crew trying to make the star of the show happy (she never is). Mostly Kermit has to trick her into accepting the guest he has signed up, even if she does not like him or her (and she is very hard to please), or into performing a routine she does not want to do. The main difference between this third version and its predecessors is that the love-hate relationship between the star and the MC is a thing of the past. Both parties have moved on, even if both – and the viewers – have a very vivid sense of déjà vu.

I have watched several episodes of the new series feeling that I had been there before, and enjoyed it mildly, like a rerun. It gave me a sense of my own continuity, trying to remind myself what it was that made me like it so much when I was younger. Kermit is still very much my favorite frog, especially with his air of quiet resignation and acceptance of the cards of life as they are dealt to him.

And it is certainly not Miss Piggy’s fault that everything about her reminds me of a certain wife of a certain prime minister in a state in whose well-being I have a vested interest. One cannot fault the art – and The Muppets are certainly objets d’art, no doubt in Miss Piggy’s view – for the way in which life imitates them.