How ABC’s ‘The Muppets’ killed Jim Henson’s vision of making the world a kinder place (COMMENTARY)

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ABC's "The Muppets" stars Miss Piggy. Photo courtesy ABC/John E. Barrett/The Muppets Studio)

ABC's "The Muppets" stars Miss Piggy. Photo courtesy ABC/John E. Barrett/The Muppets Studio)

THE MUPPETS - "Hostile Makeover" - In an attempt to make Miss Piggy happy, Kermit sets her up with Josh Groban who fills her head with ideas on how to make Up Late with Miss Piggy better. Meanwhile, Fozzie is invited to a party at Jay Leno's house and everyone is annoyed that Bobo is selling cookies for his daughter's troop, on "The Muppets." Photo of Gonzo and Fozzie Bear courtesy ABC Television Network. (ABC/Eric McCandless)

THE MUPPETS – “Hostile Makeover” – In an attempt to make Miss Piggy happy, Kermit sets her up with Josh Groban who fills her head with ideas on how to make Up Late with Miss Piggy better. Meanwhile, Fozzie is invited to a party at Jay Leno’s house and everyone is annoyed that Bobo is selling cookies for his daughter’s troop, on “The Muppets.” Photo of Gonzo and Fozzie Bear courtesy ABC Television Network. (ABC/Eric McCandless)

(RNS) The Muppets are back — and they’re having a lot of sex.

So much, in fact, that Franklin Graham and One Million Moms called for “responsible viewers everywhere” to urge ABC to drop the new series. The reboot, warned Graham on his Facebook page, will cover a range of topics, including sex and drugs, with no topic off-limits.

“The puppet characters loved by kids in the 1970s and 1980s,” reads a release from One Million Moms, “are now weighing in on interspecies relationships and promiscuity.”

It’s not every day that either Graham or the Moms find mainstream support, but even the A.V. Club’s Gwen Ihnat found herself forced to explain to her child one of the show’s many sexual innuendos.

As Vulture’s Jenny Jaffe put it, the new Muppets aren’t particularly muppet-y.

Though the original “Muppet Show” had a certain level of mischievousness and grown-up humor, there was something in each episode that is as of yet missing from the new version: simplicity of heart.


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There’s something very simple about a Muppet: a fabric body, googly eyes, an unkempt mop of hair. So simple, in fact, that even children can make them. In 1969, creator Jim Henson appeared on Iowa Public Television to teach them how it can be done — all that’s needed, he explained, are socks and buttons and maybe even a potato.

But for all that simplicity, Henson saw his creations as being infused with the ability to communicate complex truths about reality.

When Henson brought his creative teams together, said Joseph Foy, one of the editors of the book “Jim Henson and Philosophy,” he had something deeper in mind: changing people’s lives.

In the book’s foreword, for example, Craig Yoe, former creative director of the Muppets, recalls a time Henson brought creatives into a conference room and said, “Let’s think of an idea that will bring peace to the world in our lifetime.”

This discussion gave birth to “Fraggle Rock,” the 1980s TV series.

ABC's "The Muppets" stars Miss Piggy. Photo courtesy ABC/John E. Barrett/The Muppets Studio)

ABC’s “The Muppets” stars Miss Piggy. Photo courtesy ABC/John E. Barrett/The Muppets Studio)

Granted, a children’s show about adorable creatures that live and sing in a cave didn’t achieve world peace — but it taught its fans how to live peaceful, compassionate lives. Henson’s hope was that teaching children to consider other perspectives would ultimately result in a kinder world.

Foy said Henson saw himself as a myth-maker who understood the power of stories.

The only stories the new Muppets seem to care about are the ones they tell to get what they want. As a result, the show suffers from what, since the finale of “Seinfeld,” has become an overused writing gimmick: no real resolution to the characters’ problems.

That’s a far cry from Henson’s original hope of leaving the world a little better than he found it.


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Henson was raised as a Christian Scientist, as Timothy Dale, co-editor of “Jim Henson and Philosophy,” explains. But Henson “began to distance himself from the church” later in life, Dale said, choosing instead to emphasize “a broader message of inclusivity and diversity that wasn’t bound by any particular doctrine.”

In his biography of Henson, Brian Jay Jones acknowledges the Muppet creator’s move away from his childhood religion, particularly after the death of his mother.

“When it came down to it, Jim was more spiritual than religious,” he writes.

Henson himself fleshed out his spiritual impulse in “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

“I believe in taking a positive attitude toward the world,” he wrote. “I try to tune myself into whatever it is that I’m supposed to be, and I try to think of myself as a part of all of us — all mankind and all life.”

Those were ideas that always shined through his creations. Muppets have always had weaknesses — Miss Piggy’s a diva, Kermit is passive-aggressive — and part of the humor of “The Muppet Show” was watching them work through their flaws. In the reboot, though, the weaknesses aren’t worked through as much as they’re played up.

As a result, some critics have voiced disappointment with what have become unlikable characters.

But if the new Muppets present us with some new questions to think through, they continue to offer us some old ones to chew on — questions that might even have theological implications.

For example: What is a Muppet?


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For Henson, claims Dale, “what it means to be a Muppet is to be a unique creature that exists at the edge of reality and fiction.”

“Here’s some simple advice,” Henson once wrote. “Always be yourself.”

But that’s easier said than done when you’re on a set peopled by puppets, operated by people hiding outside of the camera’s frame. When Henson manipulated and gave voice to Kermit, who was the performer — the green fabric on Henson’s hand, or the puppeteer?

Dale argues that asking these questions of Muppets allows us to think generally about what it means to be on a stage. “How do we know that we are in control of our own lives?” he asks. “Who are we performing for?”

While the original series took place backstage at the characters’ own variety show, the new one, shot mockumentary-style, is set backstage of a late-night program called “Up Late With Miss Piggy.” The behind-the-scenes feel gives characters in both shows a knowing, self-aware kind of humor.

Two episodes into the series, it doesn’t seem like the Muppets are that worried about keeping their secrets from viewers. Certainly some charges of over-share can be largely blamed on the mockumentary interviews, which are intended to present the characters without filters. But it would be nice to see some of those raw personalities, at least some of the time, work toward improving.

These are, after all, the simple characters that Henson created to help teach the world basic humanistic principles — such as learning to love others for who they are, said Dale, or learning to love ourselves for who we are. “There is something transformative and divine in that.”

It’s a simple idea, really. So simple, in fact, that the new muppets seem to have overlooked it.

YS/MG END AMBROSINO

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  • George Nixon Shuler

    Oh, Please. Slow news day on the religion fron now that Il Papa is back in Roma, eh? I don’t think you’re serving your readers very well by acting as common scolds siding with the notoriously manipulative “One Million Moms” (which number far less than a million and most are not Moms, BTW). So there’s sex! Get over it! If your parents hadn’t made the beast with two backs you wouldn’t be here.

    Perhaps I wouldn’t care so much if Piggy wasn’t the sexiest woman or pig on TV until Melissa McCarthy. Since when is it bad to be a “Diva”? It’s certainly better to raise girls to be Divas than women who think they have got to hook a man to complete themselves. And Kermit’s “Passive-Agressive”? He’s the Boss, Duh! It’s his job to be passive-agressive!

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  • Larry

    My beef with the show is that Kermit and Miss Piggy as ex’es puts a bitter and dark spin on the show which is not appealing to children or adults.

    There was always a little for the adults in various muppet projects. There was always room to go a little dark. The Dark Crystal has genocide, murder and enslavement to the fore. Labyrinth is known today mostly for the ultra tight pants David Bowie was wearing. It even has its own Facebook page!

    The song “Pictures in My Mind” was a major tearjerker in the 2011 film for anyone born before 1984, But one does not have to keep going that route for a little pathos.

    Btw to heck with the “Million Moms”, that is just Bryan Fischer’s intern and a PO box.

  • Larry

    “Sure, the new series has had “crude” humor, but are you really telling me that you’re just becoming “offended” by Ms. Piggy now?”

    Nope. Not at all. She was always a humorous antagonist. My complaints is Kermit lacks the earnest optimism of the past. He’s beaten down too much. Its depressing.

    I just find the tone of the show completely off. It is too much like a regular absurdist sitcom (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Brookloyn Nine Nine) and not muppet-y enough. It needs a little more of a touch of the reality avoiding fantasy that you can do with felt characters.

    I am still going to watch it (or DVR it once Flash’s Season 2 starts)

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  • George Nixon Shuler

    Ya know, Jim Henson demise was somewhat mysterious not unlike Pope John Paul I’s. Perhaps there was a fatwa against him and some Taliban or Jewish League apprentices did the deed with strychnine-laced pulled pork hoagies as revenge for “Pigs In Space.”

  • Excuse me, but I think I missed the part where Franklin Graham, One Million Moms (who probably don’t number anywhere near a million), or anyone else obtained the power to tell a private company what to do.

    Can anyone tell me? Anyone at all? I’d really love to know where they got that authority. I’m really curious.

  • Neon Genesis

    I stopped reading this trashy article after the first sentence. I’ve watched the first two episodes of the new Muppets show and loved it and I didn’t see any sex in that show at all. It’s probably the cleanest primetime show on American TV. And closed minded Christians should take a look at their own holy book if they’re so outraged by the Muppets. It just amazes me so many fundies will freak out about a show like The Muppets because it makes a few double entreade jokes but have no problems letting kids read a holy book with so much violence in it.

  • Jonathan

    This is a really poor article with poor reasoning. Kids today don’t even know who the muppets are unless parents go out of their way to show them.

    Why not keep a show relevant to the generation that loved and cherished it in the first place?
    This writer seems to be living in some fantasy world.

    Also the writers opinion of “That’s a far cry from Henson’s original hope of leaving the world a little better than he found it.” is exactly that, an opinion.
    While the people who actually knew Jim said he would like the direction they went with the muppets.

    Despite all this, Jim Henson himself was determined to make the muppets an adult show. That is a fact you can’t argue and it shows how little this writer actually knows about the history of the muppets.

  • Dave42

    I don’t know about any social or world-saving commentary. I tried the show for its premier and found it disappointing, dark and only occassionally mildly amusing. Not at all entertaining enough to make me want to watch again. Ever. It is disappointing because the Muppets were fun and optimistic and nostalgic and this version is none of those things. There should be no need to start a movement against the show. it will die a natural death, and soon.

  • Kathy Rangisorian
  • Kathy Rangisorian

    In the early 1970s, Jim Henson was worried that the Muppets were becoming typecast as children’s entertainment. So in December of 1974 he produced a pilot episode for The Muppet Show and gave it a name that was about as far away from Sesame Street as you could get: “Sex and Violence.”

  • Kathy Rangisorian

    Jim Henson’s original Muppet Show pilot: “Sex and Violence”

    http://www.openculture.com/2012/02/jim_henson_pilots_the_muppet_show_1975.html

  • Kathy Rangisorian

    “We’ve been able to put together in the script all the elements of the Muppets we’ve wanted to for many years. A lot of our work has always been adult-oriented, so we’ll be working a lot with those aspects of the Muppets. Through this pilot, we hope to be able to demonstrate that puppetry can be very solid adult entertainment.”

    —Jim Henson in the Hollywood Reporter, December 1974 talking about the pilot for “The Muppet Show” which was called “Sex and Violence with the Muppets

  • Mike

    They got the right the same place you got your right to challenge their right. It is called free speech and it is found int he 1st Amendment of our Constitution.
    Got it?

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  • James

    George, there is no need for any hateful remarks like that. Leave the conspiracy theories and anti-Islam/anti-Judaism talk to the drama weavers and hatemongers of the world and try to behave like an adult rather than a hateful, bitter child, please.

    Thank you.