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'Muppets Now' review: 21st century update still a work in progress

"Muppets Now" is The Muppets Studio's first unscripted series and first original series for Disney+. Credit: Disney +

SERIES "Muppets Now"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Disney+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Original Muppets programming comes to Disney+ in the form of "Muppets Now," an update for the streaming age of the variety show format that has been so fundamental since the dawn of Jim Henson's creation.

Now, it's recurring segments that are sent to Scooter for uploading to a file server in interstitial bits, while he contends with a flurry of emails, text messages and other modern tech distractions, set against a cluttered desktop.

The segments include "Okey Dokey Kookin," in which the turkey Beverly Plume hosts cooking competitions between the Swedish Chef and culinary noteworthies such as Roy Choi and Carlina Will. There's "Lifesty(le) with Miss Piggy," where the timeless star investigates the latest health and fitness trends while joined by actor Taye Diggs and a panel of noteworthies including the "Dead to Me" star Linda Cardellini. 

Others range from "Mup Close and Personal," consisting of interviews with A-listers such as RuPaul, to "Muppet Labs Field Test," where Bunsen and Beaker continue their traditional experiments.

The series began streaming on July 31, and there is one new episode released every Friday.

MY SAY The timeless charm of the Muppets has a lot less to do with the particular environment they find themselves in than it does their enduring quirky personality traits. Whether they're in space, adapting Robert Louis Stevenson ("Muppet Treasure Island") and Charles Dickens ("The Muppet Christmas Carol"), or simply being revived for the 21st century in "The Muppets" and "Muppets Most Wanted," they are always riotous, anarchic figures that happen to also be lovable.

Yet, a screening of four of the six episodes of the first season of "Muppets Now" reveals an almost unfathomable neutering of these icons. The format becomes the story and the characters recede to the background. There is so much going on just in terms of the visual detail on-screen — the chaotic sketch transitions are a jumble of digital sights and sounds, the Miss Piggy-led panel discussions unfold on a Zoom-like tableau — that it's as if director Kirk Thatcher is intent on overwhelming his audience.

The show was filmed before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic but the tech-heavy framing device makes it feel like the Muppets are right there with us in some form of quarantine, desperate for the chance to congregate in person once again. This is uncomfortable in the sense that these characters really should not be constrained by anything — they are at their best when they are free to unleash their unique selves on the world around them.

The rigid adherence to the recurring segments means Animal, Fozzie Bear and many other staples barely show up, while a lot of attention is paid to the rather unsettling "Okey Dokey Kookin," in which the turkey host gobbles excitedly over dishes featuring chicken and pork and the Swedish Chef wraps a Muppet mole (yes, the mammal) in a tortilla. 

Miss Piggy is the star, as usual, but there are only so many diva jokes one can handle before desperately seeking a distraction. Far closer to the true spirit of the Muppets is "Pepe's Unbelievable Gameshow," where Pepe the King Prawn throws out the rules and makes up surreal contests as he goes along, and the RuPaul interview segment, which offers positive affirmations about being happy and true to yourself, even as interviewer Kermit gets increasingly frustrated by other Muppets hogging the spotlight.

BOTTOM LINE It's great to have the Muppets back with original programming, but there's a lot of refining necessary before the next season of "Muppets Now."

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