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'Muppets Now' Proves: It's Not Easy To Capture The Old Muppet Magic


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today, Disney Plus premiers a new series with a very old lineage - "Muppets Now," a six-episode comedy show from The Muppets Studio. It features many familiar characters and a few new ones.

So the Muppets are back. They're not better than ever, but at least they're back. I have wonderful memories of Jim Henson's goofy creations - Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, The Swedish Chef and the rest - and I don't know anyone who doesn't. Since 1969, children have grown up watching and loving Bert and Ernie and Big Bird on "Sesame Street." And even before that, in the '50s and early '60s, Henson and his fellow puppeteers were familiar fixtures on television. They presented their own local children's show in Chicago called "Sam And Friends" and went national as furry and felt-covered guests on TV's earliest talk shows hosted by Steve Allen and Jack Paar. But their true TV masterpiece to me came in 1976 with the premiere of their syndicated variety series called "The Muppet Show." Kermit was the always exasperated producer trying to put on a weekly vaudeville-style revue while everything around him threatened to spill into chaos. The new Disney Plus series "Muppets Now" adopts a similar format, except the producer is Scooter, not Kermit, and the program these muppets are making is being uploaded to the Internet. But like the classic "Muppet Show," this new one features some spoofs of TV shows and celebrity guest stars and even some new Muppet characters, like the show's corporate attorney who's a real weasel - well, a muppet weasel named Joe.


MATT VOGEL: (As Kermit the Frog) You're watching "Muppets Now" streaming direct...

DAVID RUDMAN: (As Scooter) What the - did I click something?

PETER LINZ: (As Joe the Legal Weasel) Greetings and salutations. I'm Joe from legal with a notice regarding the pending uploads for "Muppets Now."

RUDMAN: (As Scooter) Well, yep, they're all ready to go.

LINZ: (As Joe the Legal Weasel) Not without prior audience testing, they're not.

RUDMAN: (As Scooter) Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no.

LINZ: (As Joe the Legal Weasel) This de facto focus group must be conducted and that is de facto oh - that is de facto o' the matter (laughter).

BIANCULLI: I really wanted to love "Muppets Now," but after seeing half of the episodes that will be rolled out weekly this season, all I can do at this point is like it. That's because as I watch "Muppets Now," I remember "Muppets" then, back when the writing was super sharp and the guest stars were great. It was one of the first shows I ever reviewed and raved about as a TV critic. It was a perfect program - fast moving, loaded with lovable characters and featuring big name guest stars who were as entertained by "The Muppets" as I was. Linda Ronstadt showed up to sing "Blue Bayou" in a swamp filled with Muppet frogs as her backup singers. Even Milton Berle, who brought vaudeville to TV in the first place, showed up on the "Muppet" stage to do his comedy routine and was heckled mercilessly by a pair of senior citizens in the balcony, two old codgers named Statler and Waldorf.


RICHARD HUNT: (As Statler) Hey, Berle.


HUNT: (As Statler) You know what? I've just figured out your style.

BERLE: Really?

HUNT: (As Statler) You work like Gregory Peck.


BERLE: Gregory Peck is not a comedian.

HUNT: (As Statler) Well...


BERLE: Now, just a minute, please. I have been a successful comedian half of my life.

JIM HENSON: (As Waldorf) How come we got this half?


BERLE: Look, did you come in here to be entertained or not?

HUNT: (As Statler) That's right.

BERLE: What's right?

HUNT: (As Statler) We came in here to be entertained. And we're not.


BERLE: Oh, yeah? I'd like to see you come down here and be funny.

HENSON: (As Waldorf) You first.


BIANCULLI: The new series, "Muppets Now," isn't nearly that funny. The jokes aren't as crisp. The individual TV show sketches go on much too long. And there are no musical segments, which are sorely missed. Trying to recapture the old "Muppet" magic isn't easy. The first "Muppet" movie managed to pull it off, but that was when the original "Muppet Show" was still in production and when Jim Henson and Frank Oz were still the heart and soul of the operation. But ABC failed with more recent revival attempts in 1996 and again in 2015. And "Muppets Now" also is a very mixed bag. Its celebrity guests aren't given enough to do, though they try. Linda Cardellini is a good sport without any good lines, and the best sketch in these early episodes presents the Swedish Chef as a sort of iron chef doing battle with guest star Danny Trejo, who takes the battle part a bit too seriously.


DANNY TREJO: Today, we will be preparing the mole taco - traditional Latin meal - very, very delicious, probably better than anything in Sweden.

BILL BARRETTA: (As The Swedish Chef, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Boys, boys, boys, now, let's stick to your sides, please.

BIANCULLI: In the episode in which Joe the Legal Weasel makes Scooter preview the show to a focus group before uploading it - in this case, that's actually not such a bad idea, especially since that focus group turns out to be a pair of very familiar and very opinionated "Muppet" characters.


LINZ: (As Joe the Legal Weasel) Enjoy the audience survey.

RUDMAN: (As Scooter) The focus group can't be any worse than that guy. Oh, no.

DAVE GOELZ AND PETER LINZ: (As Statler and Waldorf) Our thoughts exactly (laughter).

RUDMAN: (As Scooter) What did we do to deserve this?

LINZ: (As Statler) Don't worry.

DAVE GOELZ: (As Waldorf) We'll tell you.

GOELZ AND LINZ: (As Statler and Waldorf, laughter).

RUDMAN: (As Scooter) I can't look.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, is that an option?

BIANCULLI: My own criticism is short and sweet. My advice if the staff of "Muppets Now" convenes for a second season is simple. Cut the sketches by half, sharpen the writing, keep the weasel and, by all means, bring back the music.

On Monday's show - since 2004, more than 2,000 American newspapers have gone out of business. Our guest will be Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who discusses the decline of local news coverage. It's a crisis, she says, is as serious as the spread of disinformation on the Internet. Her new book is "Ghosting The News: Local Journalism And The Crisis Of American Democracy." I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE ENSEMBLE'S "CANON AT THE 4TH IN 4/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.