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Muppet Meta Mania, Revived for the Streaming Era

What is a Muppet made of? One of the first corrections I ever had to make in this newspaper, and still the best, involved my review of the 2015 ABC sitcom “The Muppets.” I referred to the covering that makes up the outside of Jim Henson’s creations as felt; a reader informed me that it was, in fact, fleece. Noted.

That truth, however, is only skin-deep. What Muppets are really made out of is television.

This goes back to the earliest days of “Sesame Street,” in the 1960s, when the creators conceived a kids’ show with the metabolism and spirit of “Laugh-In,” full of TV parodies and faux sponsorships. It continued through that ill-fated ABC comedy, an unsettlingly edgy behind-the-scenes look at a talk show starring Miss Piggy.

And that maniacal meta spirit powered “The Muppet Show,” a comedy about a faux variety show that was also, itself, one of TV’s best variety shows (and the inspiration for a series of movies). Stressed-out Kermit, melodramatic Piggy, hyperactive Animal and the rest lovingly embodied the craziness of showbiz, for a mass-media era when TV delivered dance, romance and seltzered pants for audiences of all ages under one big tent.

As the show’s original pitch reel to TV executives promised, accurately: “Small children will love the cute, cuddly characters! Young people will love the fresh and innovative comedy! College kids and intellectual eggheads will love the underlying symbolism of everything!”

Cut to 2020, when TV is splintered and siloed, and so are the Muppets as a property. The kids’ end of the franchise, “Sesame Street,” belongs to HBO Max, after a move to the gentrified neighborhood of HBO in 2016. The kids-of-all-ages end, populated by “Muppet Show” alumni, wear the sigil of House Disney.

So what, in the streaming era, is a Muppet now? That’s the question of, appropriately, “Muppets Now,” on Disney+, which recaptures some of the bomb-throwing brio of the 1970s “Muppet Show,” but in a more compartmentalized format.

Like its forebear, this is a show about the making of the show that you’re watching. This time, the puppety pals are not putting on a giant theater-scaled production but uploading a package of mini-episodes, on an unforgiving deadline, to a streaming service. Goodbye, Rainbow Connection; hello, broadband connection.

Kermit and his lieutenant Scooter still sweat deadlines and suffer fools, but virtually, through a teleconferencing screen. There are so many chat windows in the new show, you might think it was developed under coronavirus quarantine. It wasn’t, but it all seems awfully familiar right now.

Each half-hour episode collects a handful of recurring, Quibi-sized segments. Miss Piggy hosts a lifestyle (rather, “lifesty”) mini-show, with sporting appearances from Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini (the latter joined by a talking hunk of brie). The Swedish Chef is ruining dishes and endangering lives on a celebrity cooking-competition show. Gonzo is shooting a wilderness survival show that we may never see because bringing along a camera “would be cheating.”

“Muppets Now” improves on the ABC sitcom because it understands what the Muppets are and why we love them. They’re not mopey stand-ins for us but wild, demonic imaginings of ourselves, unburdened by impulse control and the laws of physics. Like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, the bespectacled scientist of Muppet Labs, this show knows there’s no point in getting access to a budget and a camera if you’re not going to blow things up.

But with the segmented format of “Muppets Now,” you lose the big-scale interaction among characters that animated the 1970s variety show. The connective tissue here mostly consists of Kermit and Scooter teleconferencing. There are some nice throwaway jokes there. (Scooter’s shared computer desktop includes the random folder “UFOs?”) But just like all the Zoom webinars you’re attending these days, it’s not quite the same.

The best segments don’t lean too hard into the “Now” part of “Muppets Now, but use the premise of quickie reality TV to resurrect the old-fashioned appeal of entertainment made by maniacs. Pepe the King Prawn steals the new episodes as the host of a game show whose complicated rules and questions he invents on the fly. (“What was Christopher Columbus’s maiden name?”)

The Muppet Labs update, “Field Test,” finds an apt reality-video corollary: the alleged science show whose real purpose is creative destruction. Features include “Will It Melt or Will It Burn?,” a question to which the only legitimate Muppet answer is “Fetch me a blowtorch.” You may retain the odd scientific fact from it, but Honeydew captures the show’s, and the Muppets’, true spirit: “Let’s stop learning and let’s start burning!”

HBO Max, meanwhile, is putting its intellectual property to use in a show for younger viewers that calls back to an older form of TV. “The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo” imagines that, for around 15 minutes before bedtime, the ticklish young star of “Sesame Street” hosts a full-on talk show from his home. (Far-fetched? Tell John Krasinski.)

You may remember Elmo as the adorable/exasperating toddler-Muppet who gradually hijacked “Sesame Street” starting in the 1980s. If you’re not a fan to begin with [raises hand], “Not-Too-Late” will not convert you.

But it’s charmingly true to the character, who in retrospect has the kind of insistent energy, nosiness and thirst for attention that makes him perfect for late-night. “Not-Too-Late” is actually closer than “Muppets Now” to the format of the old “Muppet Show,” with chaos backstage and Bert and Ernie squabbling in the control room. But the spirit is all Elmo.

Each episode has a featured guest, a well-chosen group that includes Andy Cohen (in disguise as Grover) and John Mulaney, fresh off his own brilliant “Sack Lunch Bunch” kids’ show sendup. There are also musical guests, delivering sweetly oddball covers of lullabies and “Sesame Street” standards, like Lil Nas X taking “Elmo’s Song” down the Old Town Road.

Elmo, however, remains the star. He high-fives his M.C., Cookie Monster; he croons a good-night song; he tells knock-knock jokes. (“Who’s there?” “Tank.” “Tank who?” “You’re welcome!”) Like Jimmy Fallon (who visits the first episode), he challenges his guests to games and goofy races.

Part of me, I will admit, fantasizes a more snarky, more adult — more “Muppet Show” — version of this series that looked at Elmo as a Larry Sanders-esque needy diva, exploring his hunger for attention, his thirst for validation, his insistence on seeing all the world as Elmo’s World.

That version will have to wait for another reboot. TV will keep morphing and evolving. But the Muppets, it seems, will always be there for it — sometimes with a lullaby, sometimes with a blowtorch.

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