The Muppets are, in a word, iconic. Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzy Bear and so many others are household names thanks to various television shows, movies, and specials the beloved puppet characters have appeared on over their six-decade career. Of all of those various appearances and projects, nothing is more on the pulse of what the Muppets do than the variety shows, the best known of which may be The Muppet Show which ran from 1976 to 1981. It's that format, the just under half an hour variety show, that Disney+'s new series, Muppets Now, attempts to update and bring into the streaming. While the series has all of the elements you'd not only expect but love about the Muppets, Muppets Now doesn't quite hit the mark — but it still puts on a fun show.
Muppets Now's general conceit, the framework each episode works within, is pretty simple. The Muppets troupe are putting together a new, variety-style/improvisational comedy show using the power of the internet — via a platform called Connector with a rainbow logo in a clever nod to "Rainbow Connection" — with long-suffering producer Scooter putting together the various clips and segments each of the Muppets are contributing. It's those clips and segments that then make up the actual Muppets Now show, each one letting different Muppets shine. All of the players are there — there's a lifestyle vlog program with the vain and fabulous Miss Piggy, Pepe the King Prawn's low-budget, semi-bootleg game show, Dr. Bunson Honeydew and Beaker getting their questionable science on, and even Swedish Chef with a Food Network-style cooking show. Peppered throughout are celebrity guests making appearances on different segments. Danny Trejo as a celebrity chef is truly inspired while Kermit tries to have sit down chats with other guests. Of course, in classic Muppet fashion, things somehow always go awry before finding a way work out in the end.
It sounds fun, and that's because it is actually fun. There are moments in Muppets Now that are funnier than they have any right to be; there's some laugh out loud content here. All of that said, though, the series' laughs and lunacy aren't quite enough to make up for the generally tired feel of things. Don't get me wrong, the show has energy to spare — Swedish Chef's cooking show is so good it could be its own series — but the way it all comes together feels worn. It's as though in the attempt to translate the joy of the classic The Muppet Show for a streaming generation they lost the best parts of things. Muppets Now is familiar, but feels like a glossed over version of itself with the heart of what makes the Muppets the Muppets missing entirely.
Part of that is a bit of cognitive dissonance. Some of the characters simply don't sound the same, and while that's understandable given the longevity of the Muppets, there are moments that feel just so far off in the sound and less tangible tone of the character's speech that it becomes distracting. Much has been made of the new sound of Kermit the Frog's voice, but Sam the Eagle isn't quite right, either. Something just feels missing and, at times, that undefinable absence is huge.
The human guests aren't exactly without flaw, either. While some are just a joy — again, Trejo is a delight and RuPaul is a lot of fun as well — others feel a bit like they're phoning it in. No one can fault an actor for not exactly sparkling opposite the Muppets, particularly Miss Piggy, but the overall effect is a lack of overall pizazz. There are times when the general sense of things is one of exhaustion and mild exasperation — which is probably how Scooter feels trying to pull the show together. You really identify with Scooter while watching Muppets Now, especially if you've been spending a lot of time working from home.
The bottom line is this: Muppets Now doesn't really tread any new ground and at times calls into question what the Muppets' place in contemporary entertainment really is. But with its sub-30 minute runtime, moments of bust-your-gut-laughing lunacy, and a strange sense of the being overwhelmed at others, Muppets Now offers the right balance of being of the moment and a comfortable distraction from it. In a time when everything feels like it's on fire thanks to a global pandemic, a few minutes of laughter wrapped in familiar, friendly, and maybe even well-worn packaging is welcome. Muppets Now isn't perfect. It isn't even peak Muppets. But it's still fun and bound to make you smile.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Muppets Now debuts Friday, July 31st on Disney+.