I watched the pilot of the new Muppet Show the other day. I like it – a number of the gags were hilarious, I liked seeing all the gang again, and I thought the trope/show structure was fun and has a lot of potential. Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest thing I ever saw (a lot of the jokes fell flat), but I liked it and will watch again. I went to sleep that night thinking that it was a pretty solid rebooting of the franchise and that it should do well.
Then, the next day, I saw all the rage. All kinds of backlash from all kinds of places (this one on i09 is a good example) talking about how they “ruined the Muppets” and made them unlikeable and cynical and dark and so on.
And I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Really.
Maybe it’s because I, myself, am a fairly cynical and dark human being. Maybe it’s because, as I have small children, I’ve watched almost all the Muppet movies not only recently but many, many times over, but I don’t think this show has changed the Muppets as characters all that much. Sure, sure – the format has changed. The vaudeville acts and the musical numbers have been sidelined (temporarily, perhaps), but the Muppets themselves? Not buying it. Here, I hope to rebut the claims made using evidence from pre-existing Muppet properties.
Claim #1: This Show Has Made the Muppets Cynical and Mean
First off, I would ask somebody to please point out where the cynicism in the pilot is in the first place. Is it from Kermit’s sarcastic remarks? Please! He’s been making those since forever. Point in case, in The Muppet Movie (going all the way back to 1979), Dr. Teeth and the band paint Fozzie’s Studebaker to make it less conspicuous – by covering it with rainbows and star patterns. The following exchange occurs:
DR TEETH: Doc Hopper will never recognize you now!
FOZZIE: I don’t know how to thank you guys!
KERMIT: I don’t know why to thank you guys.
Not enough evidence? Consider how often Kermit facepalms in front of the crowd. Consider how many times he chews out Gonzo for doing something crazy. Consider the number of times he has had it and freaks out on his friends (happens in Muppets Take Manhattan, It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, and even The Muppet Movie). It happened on the original show all the damned time. It was a recurring subplot.
Or maybe you felt the sarcasm was a result of how Fozzie was treated. Except of course you are forgetting that he has always and forever been treated this way. He had a dressing room in an alley in Reno in The Muppets, he was shot at and had things thrown at him in The Muppet Movie, he’s been fired, he’s been beaten, thrown from a moving vehicle, and so on. Just because.
As for cynicism, the Muppets have always had their cynical moments–usually at their lowest point, usually just before the pivot into the third act or even as part of the first act: they just lost the theatre, they just got fired, they just got thrown out of their home. Hell, at the start of It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie, Kermit is contemplating suicide, just like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The “cynicism” people are pointing to in this new television series seems to me evidence of the fact that the show is just starting and the Muppets are stuck in a rut. A rut they can break out of or recover from. It’s only the pilot guys.
Claim #2: This Show Has Muppets + Sex! OUTRAGE!
Yeah, I guess you guys have never paid much attention to this show. There has always (ALWAYS) been sexual humor in the Muppets; you were just too young to get it, because it went over your head. Much like this sexual humor would go over any kid’s head. Seriously, where was the actual raunchy sex talk? Fozzie made a “bear” reference, but what little kid is going to get that? Do they ever discuss sex? Fozzie is just dating a girl and they talk about having children. Animal mentions “too many women.” That’s it.
But beyond that, have we forgotten about Animal’s track record? Here, let me remind you:
That scene involved Animal chasing a blonde out of a theatre at the start of The Muppets Take Manhattan. What did you think was on his mind?
Not enough for you? What about Gonzo’s weird thing with chickens (obviously NOT Platonic–he gives her mouth-to-mouth later on in Muppets Take Manhattan and it is played for all it’s worth). Oh, and – Dear God! – did you forget all about the It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Special in which Kermit, like George Bailey, is experiencing an alternate universe in which he never existed. In that alternate universe, he encounters this image:
That is Scooter, dressed in tight pants and leather dog collar, gyrating in a steel cage inside a seedy nightclub. Yes. Scooter.
Oh, and is it the Muppet/Human love affair that creeps you out? Have we forgotten that such love affairs have occurred consistently and forever since the Muppets’ inception. How many of the male guest stars on the original Muppet Show did Piggy lust after? Did we forget her fantasy involving Charles Grodin serenading her while she swam about in a silver swimsuit in a synchronized swimming routine during The Great Muppet Caper? Did we forget Kermit’s budding romance with Juliana Donald’s waitress character in Muppets Take Mahattan?
Yeah. Yeah, I guess we did.
Claim #3: They Threw Piggy Under the Bus
Okay, yeah – Piggy is a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic in the new show. She is the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.
Except that she’s always been a narcissistic, delusional, fame-addled lunatic who has been the target of fat jokes and played up as crazy.
Piggy has never bothered to remember Gonzo’s name (not since The Muppet Movie), she has never bothered to care about Kermit’s feelings, and she has always, always, always been portrayed as a character with less talent than aggressive self-interest. She is the quintessential diva and has always been thus.
Now, you can say that this is an unfair depiction of a strong woman, and I would certainly agree with you, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is her portrayal. Piggy ditches Kermit as soon as she gets a phone call from her agent in The Muppet Movie (in the middle of a date). She lies about her identity in The Great Muppet Caper to impress Kermit and to indulge in her own delusions of grandeur. She lies to Kermit again in Muppets Take Manhattan when she claims to leave town but, instead, sticks around and stalks Kermit out of jealousy. In the original show, she is constantly locking herself in her dressing room, making unreasonable demands, screaming at people, and Kermit is there nodding and trying to calm her down and taking the heat. In The Muppets, they have Piggy playing a corpse on a gurney in a mock episode of Scrubs and she refuses to play dead and inserts herself in the scene to the frustration of the rest of the cast. She is that person.
I will readily agree that Piggy has good qualities. She is tough, smart, willing to take risks, assertive, and has a mean karate chop. She saves the frog’s bacon (pardon the pun) on several occasions, granted. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, Piggy is a good person and does the right thing. Which, of course, is actively demonstrated in the pilot episode when she and Kermit apologize to one another and promise to be honest.
As for the fat jokes, well, they are artifacts from a previous era and should go. Mocking Piggy for her weight and size was a giggle in the 1970s, but not anymore. If I have a critique of the show, that’s the primary one – that joke landed as crass and mildly offensive.
This is the first episode of a series that, presumably, will build upon the emotional relationships and allow characters to evolve. To claim they “ruined the Muppets” is both inaccurate and premature. If you think this Muppet Show was dark and sarcastic, you just haven’t been paying attention to the Muppets overall for the past 40-some-odd years.
Now, what is missing from this pilot is the feel-good, hopeful songs – things like “Rainbow Connection” and “Somebody’s Getting Married” – as well as the zany vaudevillian stuff. If that was your primary draw for the Muppets, I’m sorry about that. Let’s not pretend, though, that these Muppets aren’t the Muppets we’ve always known and loved. They’re just doing a slightly different act.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about positive role models for girls. I can say with a fair degree of accuracy that this has come about thanks to my daughter, Madelyn, who is just about two years old now and completely awesome. This is a toddler who, from a shelf of at least forty movies or so, selected Back to the Future, insisted we watch it, and loves it – nuff said.
She also likes a wide variety of princess-y movies, Muppet-based properties, and Disney animated films, which we tend to watch slightly more often than I’d like. My wife and I try to shake it up by hiding certain over-watched films on the shelf and removing others as ‘suggestions’ to see if they’ll pass the Madelyn Watchability Test. This is how I came about watching Labyrinth two or three times over the past week. The good news is she likes it and the even better news is that it is an excellent film for a young girl to watch, and that I don’t mind her watching it from now until whenever. Indeed, I sincerely hope she still likes it by the time she’s in her preteen years, because I think it will be important for her.
Let’s face it: most female characters in fairy-tale stories are disappointing at best and downright offensive at worst. Even
the ones that seem positive really aren’t when subjected to mild amounts of critical scrutiny. Belle from Beauty and the Beast, for instance, might seem like a spunky, independent woman who lusts for adventure, but then consider this: she settles down with the first rich man she meets who (1) treats her like crap for the first few days she knows him, (2) holds both her and her father hostage, and (3) doesn’t offer her anything more exciting than a domestic life in a big castle as opposed to a small provincial house. If I were Belle’s father, I’d be pissed at my daughter’s poor judgement.
Belle, of course, is nothing compared with this generation’s worst offender for weak female masquerading as strong:
Twilight’s Bella Swan. Here’s a girl that falls for a guy who essentially stalks her, who orders her around, who is obviously bad for him (she is his food, for crying out loud!), and yet she marries him (while ridiculously young) and the stated and understood condition of that marriage is that she is no longer a member of the human race. Jesus H Christ! Were I Bella’s dad, I’d have a stake through that fucker’s heart before he knew what was happening. I’d even do it if it meant she’d never speak to me – better that than watch her become a monster for some moody asshole.
Now, getting back to Labyrinth. I realize that, as a 30-something year old man, my ethos for discussing what is good/not good for girls is somewhat weak, but I do have a pair of eyes, fairly sound judgement, and am no slouch at reading between the lines, and I think that the character of Sarah in Labyrinth is the polar opposite of what characters like Bella Swan represent. On a metaphorical level, Labyrinth is a basic coming-of-age story as a young teenage girl is forced to learn responsibility and selflessness to save her baby brother from the Goblin King (played by a simply spectacular David Bowie). There is more to this coming-of-age story, however, than simply Sarah learning how to think of others before herself. There’s a lot more, in fact – so much so that I would argue that this isn’t the point of the film at all.
Labyrinth is a film about a girl just about to enter the world of dating, boys, romance, and sexual awareness. Sarah’s journey is a quest to define her own needs and wants in a potential companion and, furthermore, to establish herself as a strong, independent, confident woman. Each of the characters she meets throughout her journey are male (with the exception of the hag/garbage woman, who potentially represents a woman who has sworn off companionship in favor of childish attachment to material objects, but I digress…), and each of these characters represents a different kind of suitor.
The first and most important of these suitors is Jareth, the Goblin King. As if David Bowie’s representation of this character didn’t make it clear enough, the dialogue between Sarah and Jareth cement the idea that they are mutually attracted to one another. Jareth routinely references Sarah’s beauty, he is holding a baby hostage (use your imagination there), he attempts to seduce her after giving her the poison peach, he sings to her, and, at the very end, he essentially begs her to stay with him in what can only be described as a dominant romantic relationship. The thing is, though, that Sarah knows he’s bad for her. She rebuffs him at every encounter, despite being consistently tempted. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, she seems to recognize the ‘prince’ within Jareth somehow but, unlike Belle, isn’t won over by pretty words and grand gestures. In the end, she essentially breaks his heart with the line ‘you have no power over me’, a line which she hadn’t grasped the significance of until that final moment.
As for the rest, we are left with a who’s-who of well-meaning but not altogether desirable boyfriends. Hoggle the dwarf is the on-again, off-again sort-of jerk who a girl dates because he’s there and he’s fun or friendly, but not because of any significant romantic attachment. Their relationship might continue in a positive direction if they become simply friends, but otherwise won’t end well for either of them. Ludo is the big, strong, sweet dummy who, while adorable and charming in his way, cannot challenge Sarah intellectually and forces her into the role of mother or caretaker, which she rightly rejects as a healthy model for a long-term relationship. Sir Didimus, the dog-knight, is the man who sets the woman up on an unrealistic pedestal, boxing her into the role of ‘Lady Sarah’ which, likewise, she recognizes as not right for her. Then there are the Goblins, who, in addition to being the main antagonists, we might also think of as the seething mass of assholes that any girl has to wade through to find the handful of halfway decent guys with which to pursue relationships.
None of the characters (aside from Jareth) are actually bad for Sarah. They are good people whom Sarah decides to maintain as friends at the conclusion of the film. None of them, though, are her ‘knight in shining armor’, nor are they able to secure her hand in marriage at the end for ‘saving’ her. She saves herself (and Toby) and, at the conclusion of the film, pointedly orders her companions to stay behind as she faces Jareth alone. At the end, Sarah is an independent woman who knows her own mind and is able to stand up for herself. This is a show of independence, bravery, and self-esteem that we don’t often see from the fairy tale/fantasy genre, as it isn’t coupled with overly aggressive or angry statements or actions by Sarah. She isn’t weak, but nor is she violent or shrewish; she is simply confident in herself.
This, I feel, is exactly what every father should hope his daughter will become – brave, kind, confident, and willing to say ‘no’ to trouble, no matter how stuffed their codpiece might be.