(courtesy IMP Awards)
Pretty much from the start of their Jim Henson-crafted existence, the Muppets have occupied a special and enduring place in our hearts.
And, it should be noted it’s not simply because they are whimsically, charmingly and hilariously adorable though they most definitely are; it’s also largely down to the fact that behind all the surreality and zippy oneliners and inspired visual gags lies a great big dose of truly affecting humanity.
So much so, that not only do we love watching Kermit, Fozzie and the gang but we actually care about them, to the point where no one for a second thinks anything other than they are real living, breathing creations dealing with the same crap we do but with a great deal more whimsy and oddball sweetness than most of us manage.
Case goofily and affectingly in point is The Muppets Mayhem, a new 10-part series streaming on Disney+ that delivers absolutely everything we have come to expect from the Muppets in general, and Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in particular, and happily, a whole lot more.
For a start, Animal (Eric Jacobson who’s also responsible for my fave Fozzie the Bear) goes from a manically loud drummer with some amusingly aggressive though always wackily harmless tendencies to a person with a solid, moving backstory – who knew —– SPOILER ALERT!!!!! —– he’d been fostered by the band’s Floyd Pepper (Matt Vogel) where he learnt to love the drums, bunnies and to actually give a damn about the people around him.
In fact, at one pivotal point in the story where the Mayhem are not quite the band they once were – the story centres on their attempt, engineered by eager label executive on the rise, Nora Singh (Lilly Singh), to record their first album, something that’s never going to go smoothly with the free-spirited members of a band still very much vibing with the Sixties – it’s Animal, who is fiercely loyal to those he loves and quite demonstrably not to those he doesn’t such as Nora’s ex JJ (Anders Holm), who rides in to say the day.
What he lacks in vocabularic expansiveness, he makes up for with some energetic heart and a willingness to do what it takes to look after those in his family which, band aside, quickly comes to includes Nora, her influencer sister Hannah (Saara Chaudry) and tenaciously loyal and sweet #1 fan, Gary “Moog” Moogwski (Tahj Mowry), all of whom find themselves bound into one of the most unpredictable found families ever made.
Of course, The Muppets Mayhem would not be The Muppets Mayhem without Dr Teeth (Bill Barretta), who has a far more dental and emotionally resonant past than you might have imagined, Zoot (Dave Goelz) who’s into photography in a delightfully stoner kind of way, “Fer Sure” Janice (David Rudman) who’s gorgeously happily hippyish and one with the universe, and Lips (Peter Linz) who may mumble up a storm but has a marvellous way with a TED Talk (yes, really).
Together, this wonderfully zany group of people, who somehow find a way to trip on expired marshmallows out in the Californian desert – if you didn’t think the Muppets could ever get stoned and hallucinate, think again; this scene is inspired and packs an emotional punch too in amongst all the tripping hilarity – have to somehow find a way to stay together, realise their band’s potential, which Moog really believes in and which Nora, all ambition and utilitarian can-do attitude at first, comes to touchingly discover too (and which Animal reciprocates in embracably funny fashion).
What powers The Muppets Mayhem beyond the obligatory sight gags and visual high jinkery is the fact that it goes all in on what it means for these six band members to have been together all these years and why they might, like all groups of people, have some issues to resolve.
As we watch them grapple with the digital age – Nora at one point decides getting them active in social media might be a good idea, and while it does liberate them in surprising, and not so surprising ways, it also causes more than a few narrative-propelling problems – and figure out who they are apart from each other, but most importantly because they are family and always will be, with each other, our hearts swell every bit as our mouths laugh because they series always gets the balance between comedy and heart winningly, affectingly right.
It also doesn’t put a foot wrong.
The writing is always tight, the characters are allowed to grow while still staying very much recognisably the same as we’ve known them since The Muppet Show days when they were the house band and the story never once lags with a sharp focus on music, family and comedy that always blends well and never ever feels like it’s outstaying its welcome.
The key there of course is that the series, created by Bill Barretta, Adam F. Goldberg and Jeff Yorkes, pushes way beyond the one-joke idea it could have been; rather than staying stuck solely on the “The Electric Mayhem are wacky and happy-ish fun” track, which is funny but not sustainably so over ten episodes, The Muppets Mayhem folds that into a layered, surprisingly nuanced show that manages to be both crazily frenetic and heartwarmingly lovely.
It’s a reminder at just about every turn that the Muppets have always been more human than many of us are, and that while they live in a technicolour world of silly jokes and visual comedy writ surreally large, they are very much all about the feels and the heart and the soul (both musical and otherwise).
With a vibrant cast of musical and actor cameos such as Paula Abdul, Charlamagne Tha God, Billy Corgan, Morgan Freeman, Susanna Hoffs and Danny Trejo, to name just a small number of many, all of whom acquite themselves perfectly, clearly happy to be working with the Muppets – in that respect, there’s a brilliant The Muppet Show vibe at work here that feels like old times and yet wonderfully fresh and up to date too – The Muppets Mayhem is an absolute JOY to watch, a solidly written and produced, substantially emotionally resonant, character-rich, and extremely, warmly funny show that gets it right without a misstep and which gives the Muppets all of the humanity, hilarity and manic wonder that we have to expect from them and a whole lot more, proof that they are very much 21st-century ready and will likely be around for a good many years yet.