Assuming that nothing has changed since I cancelled my subscription last month, there are two Henson-related series original to Disney+ currently streaming. Muppets Now was originally meant to be a series of shorts but was instead expanded into a series of full-length episodes for some inexplicable reason. Earth to Ned is a Creature Shop production made in association with the Walt Disney Company. Each sounded at least vaguely interesting to begin with. Having seen them both, the former is worse than I expected, and the latter is far better.
“You can’t hate what’s invisible, you can’t hate nothing.”
Yazmina Reza, ‘Art’
Muppets Now seems to have gotten some positive reviews from critics, but the reviews I’ve read from self-identified Muppet fans range from apologetic to lukewarm to outright hostile. One of the main criticisms I’ve seen is that, where the 2015 series was too edgy, Muppets Now is too tame and safe.
To be honest, I initially thought that Muppets Now being tamer than the 2015 series might work in its favor, since my main issue with the 2015 series is that it pushed the boundaries way, WAY too far. Despite the Schism and everything, I actually thought, being the Muppet heretic that I am, I might even end up liking Muppets Now more than the 2015 series.
I was wrong. The 2015 series frequently made me feel disappointed, appalled, sad, and frustrated, but at least it made me feel SOMETHING. Muppets Now didn’t make me feel anything because, with the exception of a very few, very brief bright spots, it’s basically just a giant wad of nothing. I don’t hate it because there’s nothing TO hate. It’s not a Muppet series; it’s extruded Muppet-like product. If anything, it’s just a whole lot of wasted potential.
As advertised, it’s made up of a handful of recurring sketches. There’s a cooking show in which the Swedish Chef is supposedly competing against famous real-world chefs, and each segment focuses mostly on the real cooking, with the Swedish Chef largely relegated to the background. Beverly Plume, a turkey character created specifically to be the host of this segment (played by the delightful Julianne Buescher) gets more to do than the Swedish Chef, which is good for the Muppets’ representation problem but causes one to wonder why the Swedish Chef is there at all.
Another recurring segment has Bunsen and Beaker performing real science experiments instead of making up goofy, pretend inventions. They spend the majority of one segment flinging pizzas at a wall in slow motion, which was supposed to illustrate the scientific principle of … something or other. It’s a bad sign when animations in your Muppet segment are upstaging actual Muppets.
There’s “Pepe’s Unbelievable Game Show” in which Pepe is the host of a game show and makes up the rules as he goes along. In theory, this seems like it should be the best and funniest sketch: Pepe off the chain improvising in his silly accent. Yet for some reason it falls flat, perhaps because it’s less improvised than we were initially led to believe.
And every single freaking episode has an installment of Miss Piggy’s “Lifesty(le)” segment. It’s here where I really curse the long-form format because if this was a series of shorts, like it was supposed to be, I could skip these segments altogether. The only funny thing that happens during any of these bits is that the graphics team gets the title wrong every time. Uncle Deadly, the MVP of the 2015 series, is there, but even he can’t save this miserable segment. And speaking of wasted potential, each of these segments has a subsegment in which Miss Piggy videoconferences with at least two other Muppets but ignores them so she can talk to Linda Cardellini. This is acknowledged in one of the final episodes to be an intended joke, but that doesn’t make it funny.
There’s also “Mup Close and Personal,” a series of three segments in which a Muppet interviews a celebrity. It’s okay.
The only part of Muppets Now that comes close to being funny is “Muppet Masters,” in which Walter interviews other Muppets about an art form in which they’re supposedly proficient, and then it turns out that Walter knows more about it than they do. There are two of these segments, and the first one with Kermit ostensibly talking about photography is so-so, but the second one with Uncle Deadly talking about stage combat is legitimately funny. Being that it’s the only segment that even approaches the Muppets’ usual comedic standard, it figures that it is also the least recurrent segment, in that there are only two installments.
One thing that’s noticeable in Muppets Now is that there’s really very little Kermit in it. There are whole episodes in which he doesn’t appear at all. In another time, that would have annoyed me significantly, but now I think it is to the series’ advantage. There are people who could harrumph and say that people are never going to get used to the new voice if Kermit doesn’t appear. I think those people are right, but I don’t want to get used to the new voice,* so Simula-Kerm’s prolonged absences don’t bother me.
*there’s a whole other blog post in there waiting to happen
Earth to Ned
“I had once an infection in my outer colon, and my doctor gave me a few rimshots and it absolutely helped me.”
Jiminy Glick (Martin Short)
Back when news of the Schism went public in 2017, people who accepted the Hensons’ version of things argued that they didn’t have anything to gain from lying about Steve; ergo, they must be telling the truth. At the time, I didn’t have any evidence to the contrary, but two years later, Earth to Ned was announced as a Henson Company original for Disney+. Now, there’s no evidence concretely demonstrating that Disney made a deal to stream JHC original content in exchange for the Hensons’ support for the Schism. However, the argument that the Hensons were entirely disinterested and had no motive to side with Disney is a lot less defensible than it used to be.
All of which is just to say that, given what I suspect Earth to Ned has cost us, I really wanted it to be good. And fortunately, it is!
The Muppet fan conglomerate doesn’t seem to know what to think of Earth to Ned. They seem to be hung up on the whole talk show idiom. If you’re expecting Earth to Ned to be like a regular talk show, except with alien puppets, then you’re going to be disappointed (or confused). The talk show thing is just a conceit, an excuse to get Ned and Cornelius (and sometimes BETI) to interact with humans and explore a different theme about life on Earth every episode. At its heart, Earth to Ned is really a fish-out-of-water story, and understanding that is crucial to appreciating it. This is a reference that is probably going to date me, but Earth to Ned is what Perfect Strangers would have been if Balki had had four arms and Cousin Larry had been played by a couple of different people every week.
I don’t know if this was intentional, but Ned reminds me a lot of Jiminy Glick, a character that Martin Short developed in the mid-to-late ’90s. His schtick is that he’s an interviewer who loves the idea of Hollywood glamor and hobnobbing with celebrities, but he doesn’t bother to find out anything about them before interviewing them, so he gets everything wrong. Martin Short once said that the idea for Jiminy Glick came from press tours in which he would promote projects, and he often encountered interviewers who clearly didn’t know who he was but tried to fake it anyway. (He talks a little more about Jiminy Glick’s origins at the end of this video. Ordinarily I would link directly to the relevant section, but I want you to get a taste of Jiminy’s interviewing style so you can better understand the comparison that I’m making.)
Ned is similar to Jiminy Glick in his voice and his mannerisms, but especially in his interviewing style. But his ignorance is more understandable because while Jiminy is just too lazy to do the research, Ned is genuinely ignorant because he is not of this world and is really encountering human customs and concepts for the first time.
Admittedly, the first few episodes of Earth to Ned are a little slow because they have to establish the premise. That’s to be expected, however. I can’t think of a single show that I really like that wasn’t a little clunky to begin with. It’s to Earth to Ned‘s credit that it only took a handful of episodes to find its groove. Sometimes it takes multiple seasons. In my opinion, the first really good episode is Episode 5. The theme is pets, and the guests are Jenny Slate (aka, Miss Nanny on Muppet Babies) and Bindi and Robert Irwin.
Most episodes end with Ned recording a mission update, ostensibly for his father, the military leader of his planet, but really for himself because his father never views them anyway. In the update, he shares something that he’s learned about humanity and the value of life on Earth, and it’s often something that echoes Jim Henson’s philosophies about understanding and acceptance. It would be quite touching if I had any confidence that the people in charge behind the scenes still believed in those ideals. But I digress.
The first half of the first season premiered back in September 2020, while the second half made its debut in January of this year. It wasn’t entirely clear at first that it was all one season, which was annoying. Also annoying was the fact that the first season ended on a cliffhanger. It’s such a tired ploy to get a second season that doesn’t always work. If it doesn’t get a second season, we’ll never know what happened. And it if does, the conclusion is certain to be anticlimactic. I’d say that I expected better if I had any expectations of JHC whatsoever.
I’m trying not to compare Earth to Ned to the Muppets or think of it as a replacement or trade-off. It’s a completely separate thing, and it should be judged on its own merits. Ultimately, I’m satisfied that it turned out as well as it did.