This Ain’t Your Grandpa’s Muppets – TV Critique & Devil’s Advocate: The [Modern] Muppets.

The modernised Muppets
The modernised Muppets

From my earliest memories I have been a fan of The Muppets & the works of Jim Henson. I have almost annual viewings of The Dark Crystal & Labyrinth as well as watch other Muppet movies whenever the mood takes me.

Like so many of my generation, my love of The Muppets started with the children’s educational show Sesame Street as well as regular repeats of The Muppet Show. I endured the saccharine nature of Fraggle Rock but fell in love with Jim’s more mature works, such as the incredible first series of The Storyteller (which gave me a love of the actor John Hurt‘s amazing voice & mish-mash of tales in The Jim Henson Hour.

Jim has been dead for 25 years now, so there are a few generations that have missed out on the raw, wild & fertile imagination of Jim Henson & his loyal crew.

His work has been carried on, for the most part, & the Jim Henson Company & Creature Workshop have been involved in pushing the limits of technology to create fantastical creatures for the screen -both big & small.

Through all this, The Muppets have endured -mostly through a strong sense of nostalgia- yet have been tainted by some of the cheap (both cost & emotionally) feeling productions that Disney have pumped out.

The nadir of this was the gods awful Muppets Tonight (1996-1998) as well as some of the straight to DVD stuff that Disney pumped out in order to hold onto the franchise.

Yet the memory of The Muppets -especially the stoicism of Kermit The Frog– has endured. People quietly asked for a new Muppets show, much like the old one (& unlike Muppets Tonight), so Disney & (US) ABC have given us one.

But it’s not the one that people remember.

It’s not like it at all.

& this upsets people & makes them put words into Jim’s mouth like he is one of his own puppets.

I’ve heard people saying “oh, an adult Muppets! It’s not what Jim would have wanted!” & they are both utterly wrong & ignorant of what The Muppets are.

Jim loved adult humour. He loved subversive, risky & dark jokes. He loved innuendo & word plays. You only have to see the original Muppet Show & Muppet movies to realise that fact.

The reason most people take the assumption that Jim wouldn’t like a more adult & mature Muppet show is because they primarily grew up with either The Muppet Babies or the pap that Disney & other companies pushed out after Jim’s death.

Yes, I am assuming that Jim would love that his Muppets have returned to their more adult roots based upon previous evidence of his works & writings. It’s just I’m not sure that he would have enjoyed what the current mature Muppets is.

The premise of the new Muppet show (simply called The Muppets in bad type writer font as you see in the picture at the top of the article) is a show much in the vein of many recent “trage-comedies” like The Office (the awful US version) or Parks And Recreation where there is a supposed documentary crew following characters around. This allows the characters to make asides to the camera, break the 4th wall or intercut the dissonance between words & actions. They’ve also made many changes to the characters, such as having Kermit more bitter & cynics, worn up by his break up to Miss Piggy (which news media & the interwebs went mental over despite it obviously being info released to help hype the show’s premiere).

It’s these changes to well established characters & roles that seems to have many people upset. I can see their points but it wasn’t this new, darker tone to Kermit, Piggy & others that got me. For me it was the miscues of the actual characterisation of the individual Muppets.

The aspects are all there –Fozzie is stll failing at his jokes, Gonzo is still weird, Statler & Waldorf are still heckling, Kermit is trying to be a calm island in a sea of panic- but how they are portrayed feels wrong.

To me, it’s the change in voices. They seems off. Like they are doing bad impressions of the original cast.

I mean, Jim hasn’t voiced any of his creations in 25 years but the new crew just don’t seem to have the vocal cues or forms right -giving it all an askew angle.

Maybe this is good. Maybe it will help break older people like me from nostalgia’s teat. I don’t know.

The thing that really got to me was the lack of spark.

The change of style & setting means that they can do things differently yet they still want to keep the individual characters in their little pigeonholes -such as Sam Eagle still trying to make everyone moral & wholesome & the Electric Mayhem being utterly out of it at the best of times. The same goes with trying to wedge in special human guest stars each week. If they dropped the celebrity aspect or polished it up a bit, it would work wonders for the new formula.

It’s also very cynical & bleak in it’s outlook -which does go very much against Jim’s positivist outlook on life. He believed that people should love each other & get along, where as this new formula relies on keeping the dysfunction going without any resolution or nicety about it.

But let’s not get things wrong, when the show is funny it’s bloody funny.

It still has some incredible wit & the more mature tone allows them to fit in some wonderful little entendre throughout. Great ones being Fozzie talking about online dating & his reaction to meeting his girlfriend’s bigoted parents to Zoot crossing lines of ethics & taste.

Unfortunately, having such moments of brilliance against the mundane formula & plot of Kermit trying to run a show & deal with Piggy post breakup whilst an unseen documentary crew wander around shows how unbalanced it is.

I want to see them work on the core strengths of the Muppets & the humour that they bring. I want this show to succeed & go on. I don’t want another Muppets Tonight situation.

I really do encourage people to watch & give it a go. Don’t let the new formula & mature outlook get to you. If you can look past them to what makes The Muppets awesome, then you’re sure to get a laugh out of it all.


Don’t forget to support our Patreon as well, so we can help deliver more content to this blog.

https://www.patreon.com/andthegeekshall

Advertisements

Between the Prequel & the Sequel -TV Critique: Marvel’s Agent Carter

AgentCARTERTitle: Agent Carter
Series Creator(s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Network(s): ABC (USA)
Original Airing Dates: January 6-February 24 2015
Number of Episodes: 8


Synopsis:

In 1946, Peggy Carter must balance the routine office work she does for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R) while secretly assisting Howard Stark, who finds himself framed for supplying deadly weapons to the top bidder. Carter is assisted by Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis, to find those responsible and dispose of the weapons.


Critique:

When you have a tightly focussed & structured narrative universe like the current Marvel cinematic one, it’s hard to fit in side stories that parallel & enhance larger narratives that play out within a different media space (i.e. movie to television).
HayleyAtwellAsAgentCarter
That was pretty much my issue with the MCU TV line’s 1st show, (Marvel’s) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because it had to adhere to a timeline structured between several movies (mainly after The Avengers & then fitting in overlaps from both Thor: The Dark World & Captain America: The Winter Soldier). This meant that the narrative & scope was fairly stunted because it couldn’t create story conflicts with the larger (& more important) cinematic universe. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been hampered by what it could & couldn’t do & whilst it has been able of late to break out of the MCU constraints with it’s own storylines it’s still tied into the larger idea of the Inhumans & that new movie franchise (since Fox owns the rights to Marvel’s Mutants).

 Agent Carter is fortunate in that it does not have to adhere to a myopic narrative structure but it is still trapped within a much, much larger structure which limits what it can do.

The 1st limit is the big one: Captain America -both the 1st film & the character himself.

Even though the series is about Peggy Carter & her search for purpose & meaning in a world after WW2, everything is still set in her relation (& failed relationship) with him. This hampers both the overall story -because things have to be references to a world after Cap’s supposed death- & the character of Peggy herself, because she’s only really framed in terms of references to Cap. Even though he’s not a physical presence within the series, he basically affects all of Peggy’s motivations, as she does actions in regards to what Cap would do or think.

This is something that is constantly put to her by other characters, such as members of the S.S.R (which is an odd choice of name considering that the Cold War was rolling in) & her friends from the war, like Howard Stark & the Howling Commandos. Peggy isn’t really allowed to be her own woman, she’s always Captain America’s other half. This idea is quasi played with a meta-radio play within the series that has Peggy’s character dumbed down to a field nurse & Cap’s love interest always being rescued & always played juxtaposed against Peggy enacting her own agency (as in: kicking someone’s head in).

It’s not that she’s a bad or shallow character, she’s just reactonary.
peggy carter
She’s always reacting against what others think of her how how they treat her (such as her S.S.R. colleagues turning her into the office tea lady & disregarding her years of combat & field experience) or against expectations of the time (her role as a woman in Post-War USA) or even reacting to the hidden villains’ plans. She has agency within the narrative but she’s never really enacting. Her motivation is to prove herself to her male chauvinist colleagues & proof her worth as an agent but that’s still a reaction. Same with how she chooses to socially & personally isolate herself in the 1st few episodes of the series -this is a reaction against losing Cap & her general experiences during the war.

That is not to say that Peggy Carter is robbed of all development & action, it’s just framed poorly in terms of development. Always leaving her on the backfoot & behind. Done well, this can create great tension in the story but it’s not deftly done her, leaving some parts -such as the threat of the various villains- feeling rather flat. It speaks too much of how poor Hollywood is at depicting female characters who do not fit within comfortable moulds & stereotypes. Even when empowered that they still have to fit typical feminine rolls of love interest, daughter, sister, et cetera as well as fitting the physical form of societally accepted beauty (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer for some examples of the empowerment-disempowerment dynamic & the superstrong Barbie Doll).

Yet, despite this reactionary form of agency, this is actually a very well put together show.

This starts with strong performances of the central characters of Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, James D’arcy as Jarvis (Howard Stark’s long suffering butler) & Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark is what holds so much of it together becuase of the natural yet conflicted chemistry that they bring to their individual roles. I think because they are all British actors with a diverse range of past roles they seem to perform better than their American counterparts (who do come off as fairly 2 dimensional). Add to the mix the other great British actor Ralph Brown as the nuanced Dr Ivchenko, you have a great front line cast.

It does help that Hayley Atwell is so gorgeous!

I need to build a bunk so I can be in it.
I need to build a bunk so I can be in it.

That’s not to sexualise or trivialise her in any way but she just has this dominant presence upon the screen where she just conquers all of your attention. She really inhabits the role, the struggle for acceptance & reacting against a society & occupation that just wants to keep her down. She also twists these expectations, knowing that everyone underestimates her she can do and get away with what others can’t. Her outer & inner strength shine through but she still needs support from friends.

This does lead into a character who was wasted & inconsistent: Jarvis.
carter & jarvis
James D’arcy plays him brilliantly but he’s so weak & wishy-washy in terms of his depiction despite having a strong & determined back ground. He exists almost solely as the Yank’s idea of the stiff upper lip Brit servant who has been a fixture of pop culture since the 1st World War. Jarvis is shown as having great fortitude & determination yet is so weak & easily yielding, lacking physical presence & abilities that Peggy has in abundance but this is in direct contradiction he was in the British army & has been trained to fight (according to his & Howard’s own words at least). That all given, D’arcy plays Jarvis with aplomb, giving him little gestures & habits that endear him to the audience -especially when he talks about his equally love suffering wife & their history together.

The other cast members are a bit of a mixed bag, with many of them not getting any development beyond stock misogynistic G-Men. There are some hints of things deeper, such as with Chief Dooley & how he views Peggy as someone who needs to be protected because of his estrangement but this is pretty much thrown out of the window in order to ramp up the tension & bring the S.S.R. together.

Yet the biggest thing that truly annoyed me about the series is how they didn’t connect it to the larger Golden Age period of Marvel Comics. There is a swathe of classic characters they could’ve referenced & used -such as the hero Angel. They could’ve connected a lot of the superpowered heroes back to the Captain America Supersoldier projects that spawned many other fictional heroes (which in turn can be used to explain superpowered individuals within the larger MCU).

That aside, Agent Carter, despite (or because of) it’s short run stood out amongst all the other superhero TV adaptions of the past few years. It has rich visuals, fairly good acting & a focussed core story (for the most part) without resorting to many choking tropes of TV series (ships in bottles http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LockedInARoom, et cetera).

Hopefully it will get a 2nd series that expands the past MCU a fair bit & introduce other classic characters. Plus more Hayley Atwell on screen is always a good thing.

shield-comamndos-1

Upcoming reviews & style update

Yes, been busy with the academia stuff but still writing out the reviews & articles whenever I can.

Will post them up whenever they are finished.

 

Am also fixing up the style in which I post stuff. My recent writing for The Conversation showed me some more possibilities with the use of links & the like, so will integrate them into future posts as well as go back to fix up old entries.

Will try to make more time for this space but too many other demands in life right now. Will be asking others to submit guest reviews & opinions over a range of nerdy topics, thus expanding a range of things. I’ll also be introducing reviews of webcomic & Western comics, including a few classic favourite storylines. I’ll also be looking at some more live action things, TV & movies.

Unfortunately not enough time to do everything that I want but will get there.

New review to follow.

List of coming Anime (Northern) Winter season 2013

List of coming Anime (Northern) Winter season 2013

Here is a list of upcoming anime for the end of the year and the start of January, complete with video previews and DVD releases.

Some interesting stuff on the list. Am personally looking forward to Witch Craft Works, because it’s a great manga (despite all the fan service).