THE SERIES "The Muppets"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 8 on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Miss Piggy (voiced by Eric Jacobson) is the star of a late-night talk show that follows "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Ratings are OK, and she gets good guests, but -- alas -- she and Kermit (Steve Whitmire) have broken up. Not good: He's the show's producer.

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This mockumentary in the style of "The Office" stars lots of other beloved Muppets who work on Piggy's production staff. There are also plenty of real-life human star cameos.

MY SAY Over there in the universe next to ours is an Earth inhabited by Muppets and humans. Besides those Muppets, everything in this world is exactly the same as the one we live in. And not just the big stars (Elizabeth Banks) or ex-"Tonight" hosts (Jay Leno) but also those basic human traits that tend to rule show business -- including ego, insecurity, paranoia, fear and (occasionally) talent. These traits just happen to be shared by Muppets in this world, too.

Keep this thought fixed firmly in mind as you watch Tuesday's launch, and you too may begin to see what this newcomer appears to be: a raucous, smart, gentle, imaginative and consistently funny comedy that scores early and often. A Bill Prady ("The Big Bang Theory") and Bob Kushell ("Anger Management") creation, "The Muppets" -- which of course relies on the glorious, dysfunctional menagerie created by the late Jim Henson -- does everything right, including the really hard stuff.

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Take one example: star cameos, which here include Banks, Leno, Josh Groban, Laurence Fishburne and even Tom Bergeron. On many network series, star cameos tend to be either clutter or sweeps gimmicks, and (as a result) expendable.

Not here. They're key to the plot and punchline.

Of the Muppets themselves, they instantly emerge as fully realized characters. An obvious reason for this, of course, is that we know them well already, and have for half a century. But here, newish personality quirks reveal themselves: Piggy's hidden emotional life, Kermit's insecurity, even Fozzie's kleptomania.

By the way, next week's episode is even better than Tuesday's. That's usually a good sign, too.

GRADE A