There’s a new Muppets show launching on Disney+ and I don’t think it’s going to be very good. I’m sure you’re bothered what I think, but the thought set off a little squall in my head about criticising shows before you’ve even seen them. Quite clearly, this is completely and totally unfair.
Tough. There is so much television –– and so much is so very good –– that you can’t watch everything. I am judging Muppets Now before seeing it, I am criticising it, but ultimately I think what I’m really doing is triage.
You do this all the time. Someone could tell me very convincingly that, say, a given football game is the epitome of human drama and the best they’ll get out of me is a uh-huh. On the other hand, I’m obsessed with time so if your story mucks about with that, I’m in. At least for the start. I’ll at least watch the first episode, or really at least mean to watch the first episode.
This is something outside of a show’s control. You can do a time travel series that I walk away from and there is one single sports series I like. (Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. Remember its strap line was: “It’s about sports. The way Charlie’s Angels is about law enforcement.”)
Since a show can’t know what happens to be a trigger for me, or the reverse, and since there is such a volume of television to watch, it has to present something. There has to be a hook, really, something I can be told about the show that could make me want to watch. The whole reason Hollywood pays its stars millions is that it used to be having a star name means your film opens, it gets a great audience for its first weekend. If it’s rubbish, it dies immediately afterwards, but it opens on that person’s name.
I have never chosen to see a film or a show because of the actors in it. Nor the director. Except the poster line “From the brother of the director of Ghost” was enough to make me watch The Naked Gun 33 1/3. And for a long time I did make the annual pilgrimage to watch Woody Allen’s latest films, but that was back when we thought of him as a writer.
Here’s what Muppets Now has.
I’ve seen the trailer, I’ve read the blurb, and it was the fact that it was the Muppets that got me to do that much. It has a history, I’ve liked it before, I could be in, I was in enough to watch the trailer. Here’s what the blurb and the trailer has, other than the Muppets.
I’m not knocking improv. You say the word improv and I think first of Tina Fey, who is unquestionably a finer writer than I will ever be. If I hated improv and she said to give it another go, I’d tune in.
But “unscripted” is all I’m offered here. There is something boastful about it, there is something about how brilliant it is that there’s no script. I do see this a lot, as if the idea that there’s a script is somehow bad. I do see that somehow it plays into the notion that for some reason audiences want to think the actors made it all up.
I’m a writer, I love scripts, I would be biased here anyway, but I am more than biased against unscripted shows, I am wary. Because it’s an empty boast. It’s a trigger line that means nothing. Telling me a show is unscripted feels like telling me it’s in colour. It’s doubtlessly factual, but it is of no use to me whatsoever.
I’ve worked on plenty of live shows in theatre and radio, I’ve worked on a few unscripted ones, and it is fantastic. Utterly fantastic, by far the greatest rush and thrill I have ever had. But that’s when you work on it. When you’re making a live show, I don’t think there is anything that comes close to how it feels.
That’s nice for you.
I’m minded of Janet Street Porter’s whole pitch for why people would rush to watch Live TV. She said it’s live. I remember waiting for the second sentence, but that was it. Let’s be kind and assume that the TV interview cut away before she could say anything useful, but the impression I was left with was that she believed live equals compelling.
Live TV launched in 1995 and closed again in 1999. More than twenty years later, Muppets Now still believes that the fact it’s unscripted is enough to make us watch.
Tell me that it’s an unscripted show in which the Muppets do/try/are/will X and I’ll forget the unscripted word and may be interested enough to watch.
Spend an entire trailer telling me solely that it’s unscripted, and I’m bored already. But then I’m a muppet, aren’t I?