In its first four episodes, ABC's new version of The Muppets garnered attention for showcasing Jim Henson's beloved felt creations in a modern, "real-world" mockumentary format. Not only do we see the Muppets followed around by shaky cams in their "real" lives and giving Real World-style cutaway interviews, we see them tackling adult issues.
Since their inception, the Muppets have always been targeted toward grown-ups -- the pilot for their original '70s prime-time show was titled The Muppets: Sex and Violence. But in this latest incarnation, the characters deal with mental health issues, drink and do drugs, and most notably, have sex. It's a big enough change that notorious homophobes and haters-of-everything-good One Million Moms called for a boycott of the show. It seems inevitable, then, that the issues of sexual orientation and identity would surface in the wake of this Muppet sexual awakening. And while The Muppets is hilarious, progressive, and refreshingly transgressive, the show's attempts at dealing with LGBT have so far been a missed rainbow connection.
The idea of a gay Muppet is not a new one. In 1994, Bert and Ernie were accused by right-wing radio host Rev. Joseph Chambers of being gay. Steve Whitmire, who has voiced both Ernie and Kermit the Frog since Jim Henson's death, later responded to this allegation with "They're puppets. They don't exist below the waist!" And so the matter of Muppet sexual orientation has lain dormant in the decades since, put to rest by a half-joking sentiment that implies that sexual orientation is anatomical and that gay identity is predicated solely on activities that take place south of one's belt.
This new show changed all that. These Muppets, thanks to some new technology, are often seen walking around with legs and feet. And more importantly, they are being painted as sexual beings. Kermit introduces his new girlfriend thusly: "We were at a cross-promotional synergy meeting, and we ended up uh ... uh ... cross-promoting?" When Rizzo the rat complains that the "magic" was about to happen before they got interrupted, his date responds with "Cool your jets; let's see how dinner goes." In the second episode Miss Piggy strongly implies that she and Josh Groban are porking.
The old reasons for denying Muppet sexuality are gone (they have legs and crotches now!). It seems only a matter of time before one of these zany characters comes out. There are several obvious candidates. Easy money is on Scooter, the well-groomed, spray-tanned gofer who hangs out with Piggy and manages the whole bunch. Then there are Waldorf and Statler, the pair of bitchy seniors who perpetually lob snark at the show. Or Dr. Teeth, flamboyant leader of the glam-rock band Electric Mayhem. None of those Muppets have been outed yet, but the show has intersected with LGBT issues in other ways.
Fozzie Bear explains the trouble he's had with online dating like this: "When your online profile says passionate bear looking for love, you get a lot of wrong responses. Not wrong. Just wrong for me." The joke is fine, but it's pretty much a clone of Seinfeld's "not that there's anything wrong with that" joke that was progressive for the '90s but today clearly derives its humor from the discomfort straight people have when discussing LGBT issues.
Next we have the scene where Pepe the King Prawn mentions that Josh Groban gives him "all the feels," then defends that statement by announcing that gender is fluid. We should probably celebrate this as the first time a puppet has come out as gender-fluid on television, though again, it could have landed better. It felt like a throwaway joke that said more about the allure of Josh Groban than the sexuality of the crustacean in question. It will be interesting to see whether this aspect of Pepe's character carries over into future episodes. So far it has not. Additionally, after Pepe says his line about the feels, the roomful of normally boisterous Muppets gapes at him in a full five seconds of silence (the show takes place in Hollywood, where very little remains shocking). The fact that he has to defend himself is disappointing. Sexuality is treated as a the punch line here; it's too innocuous to be offensive, but it's still underwhelming.
A similar thing happens in a baffling scene where the Swedish Chef reveals that his name is "Meegan." Guest star Christina Applegate, upon learning this, exclaims, "Go girl, live your truth!" The Chef responds with his signature "Okey-dokey" and an uncharacteristic finger snap. Is the Chef a trans man? A trans woman? A man with a gender-nonconforming name? Or is this just another one-off punch line that will have no significance to his character moving forward? What was the point?
Which brings us to this week's revelation that the Muppet scientists Bunsen and Beaker arrived at work after a night of too much drinking wearing each other's clothes. Kermit calls them out on it, and before Beaker can respond, Bunsen informs him that "If it happens outside of work, we don't owe an explanation." If these Muppets are indeed romantically involved, this reveal is a big deal. They didn't nail it. The most politically correct among us could still take umbrage at the moment, including the old-timey implication that homosexuality is the result of too much alcohol, Kermit's inappropriate workplace probing, and the fact that the relationship between Bunsen and Beaker has always been based on a comedically unhealthy balance of power. And we're still left wondering how a group as diverse and liberal as the Muppets would foster an environment where individuals still have to hide in the closet.
The Muppets have a legacy of clever, progressive, sophisticated humor. They can do better than "are they or aren't they" gags that feel reheated from the days of Veronica's Closet. Hopefully the writing will become a little more comfortable with LGBT issues and this can indeed be the show that brings the Muppets into today's reality.