‘The Muppets Mayhem’ Review: Back In The Groove
When Disney purchased The Muppets outright in 2004, after years of co-productions with The Jim Henson Company, they might have imagined that they could pick up right where Henson left off. After all, family entertainment is Disney’s bread and butter, and nobody knows how to better manage a brand of colorful talking animals. The Muppets recipe, however, proved difficult to reproduce, and the new ownership has struggled for nearly 20 years to build momentum behind Kermit, Miss Piggy, and company. The 2011 film requel The Muppets starring Jason Segel was a genuine treat, but the gang hasn’t returned to theaters since its disappointing sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, in 2014. Neither ABC’s The Office-inspired sitcom The Muppets nor the Disney+ sketch series Muppets Now received a second season. For a franchise built on relentless positivity, its outlook for the 21st century has been fairly grim.
Happily, the latest effort from The Muppets Company and creator Adam F. Goldberg is the funniest entry into their kooky canon in at least a decade. The Muppets Mayhem, whose entire first season debuts on Disney+ this week, is a musical sitcom starring Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the house band from The Muppet Show. Kermit and Piggy are nowhere to be found, but the Muppet mixture of silliness, irreverence, and sincerity is on full display. Like many sitcoms, it takes about three episodes to find its groove, but absent a straight revival of the original variety show, it’s the best version of a new Muppets series that you could ask for.
The season opens with human protagonist Nora Singh (ascended YouTube personality Lily Singh) searching for a way to save the record label where she works as an assistant. Her boss is prepared to sell the decrepit business to streaming mogul JJ (Anders Holm of Workaholics fame), who happens to be Nora’s ex. In a pinch, Lily digs up an outstanding recording contract with legendary rock & roll road warriors Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, who have been on tour nonstop since 1972. Posing as the music biz big-shot she aspires to be, Nora stakes her career on her ability to do the impossible: make these six weirdos sit still long enough to finish an album. In the process of teaching these delightfully out of touch rockers how to function in the modern world, Nora learns to adapt to their carefree lifestyle and give in to the Muppetty madness. Functioning as a sort of ambassador between the human and Muppet worlds is Moog (“Smart Guy” Tahj Mowry), a lifelong Mayhem fan who wants nothing more than to be part of the music.
The flesh-and-blood characters drive the plot, but the story belongs just as much to the Mayhem themselves, with each member of the Muppet Show band developing into their own distinct character with a unique comedic utility. Dr. Teeth (Bill Barretta) is the face of the group, fond of extendifying words and making grand philosophical proclamations. He’s a consummate musician and good-vibes machine, but otherwise kind of a flake. Janice (David Rudman) is a granola-crunching Vegan who loves solving other peoples’ problems to the extent that she ignores all her own baggage. Sgt. Floyd Pepper (Matt Vogel) is the heart of the group, an old soul despite the band’s perpetual youth. Zoot (Dave Goelz) is totally clueless, Lips (Peter Linz) is mostly incomprehensible, and Animal (Eric Jacobson), well, you know his deal. These decades-old characters begin the season as components of a single gag and come out on the other side as lovable individuals.
As you’d expect from any Muppets series, this season is chock full of celebrity cameos. In addition to musicians like Lil Nas X, Kesha, and Susanna Hoffs appearing as themselves, practically every bit part is performed by a familiar face. In the same episode, Ben Schwartz has a subplot opposite Animal, and 94-year-old legend James Hong appears in a single shot and delivers a single line (which, needless to say, slays). The involvement of recognizable entertainers in Muppets media has always helped this incredibly silly world for children play to the adults in the audience—if Morgan Freeman is here goofing off with a bunch of fuzzy felt people, it’s certainly not beneath you, the viewer. The Muppets Mayhem takes place in a heightened, cleaned-up Disney Channel Original atmosphere, but a lot of the humor is aimed at grown-ups, particularly those with a love of pop and rock history. The Mayhem themselves are a relic of a bygone era, which allows them to be the butt of jokes about perpetually stoned ‘70s rockers and a contrast against today’s hyper-produced, social media-driven Top 40 pop.
It doesn’t all land; The Mayhem are traditionally a cover band, so the series milks a few moments using some of the greatest songs from the classic-rock library, which by their nature outshine the originals they eventually come up with (written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes). One episode dedicated to riffing on the Get Back documentary never gets past retreading the same material as other, better Beatles parodies from The Rutles to The PowerPuff Girls’ “Meet the Beat-Alls.” On the other hand, the episode in which Animal has an existential crisis about being replaced by a drum machine is one of my favorite half-hours of TV so far this year. (It’s “Track 3: Exile on Main St.,” and if you only want to sample one episode of the series, make it this one.)
The final essential ingredient to the Muppets alchemy is unembarrassed sentimentality, which The Muppets Mayhem includes in careful measure. There are a handful of genuinely emotional moments in the midst of the cartoon insanity, usually centered around the notion of found family, a Muppets staple since the 1979 film. The father-and-son bond between two weirdos made of felt might not outright bring you to tears, but it will tug your heartstrings a bit, and that’s really the most you want a show like this to do. At a time when so much corporate entertainment fails to make an honest emotional connection, it’s remarkable that a puppet with practically no resemblance to a real human being can, when operated by a talented artist working with a clever story, become a person you care about. That’s the magic of the Muppets, and it’s great to have it back.