Muppets in the Age of Streaming

As a child of the 80’s, I grew up watching the Muppets. The movies, the merchandise, the catchphrases and songs (Someday we’ll find it – the rainbow connection) were a part of my childhood, and I loved the antics of the frog, the pig, the… Gonzo.

Kermit and crew have had a solid run of entertaining kids and adults alike: The Muppet Show ran in syndication from 1976 – 1981, and the felt creations enjoyed cinematic success with The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). The Muppet Babies cartoon soon followed, then more movies: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), and Muppet Treasure Island (1996).

Muppets Tonight, which debuted in 1996 on ABC, was a return to TV and a spiritual successor to The Muppet Show, but it got mixed reviews and lasted only 2 seasons. In 2004, Disney acquired the Muppets; since then, they have been trying to find their groove. The movies continued, with relative success – though the general sentiment was that the Muppets had passed their prime.

But ever the lasting property, 2011’s The Muppets movie with Jason Segal and Amy Adams seemed to give the puppets the shot in the arm they needed to grab America’s attention again. A few more movies later, and ABC once again took a gamble on the small screen: in 2015, The Muppets debuted. This mockumentary-style (post-The Office and Modern Family) sitcom showed the behind-the-scenes workings of a Muppet variety show, along with the ‘pets personal lives.

This time, however, reviews were not mixed – the show was pretty much hated by all. No one really wants to explore what would happen if Kermit and Miss Piggy were forced to work together after they break up, do they? Drama and Muppets don’t mix… unless they’re parodying it, a la “Veterinarian’s Hospital.”

Since their last TV venture, the television landscape has changed dramatically; gone (thankfully) are the mockumentary style sitcoms, and multi-cam comedies with laugh tracks are on the decline. In their place are shows that drop full seasons at once, are binge-watched in a weekend, then promptly forgotten until the next binge-worthy show premiers.

Enter Muppets Now, a new Disney+ show that debuts on July 31, with new episodes releasing weekly.

Still owned by Disney, in case you forgot

The new show is the Muppets for the digital age: short segments in a YouTube-esque format with celebrities, your favorite Muppets new and old, and of course, comedy. This show feels like old-school Muppets, adapted for the digital age.

The premise of the first episode is that Scooter, most beleaguered of all the Muppets, is at his deadline: Muppets Now needs to go live; you’re meant to believe the Muppets have been hard at work creating this show and now it’s being released for the world to see (so, what’s really been happening, I guess?).

I found myself laughing at each of the segments (but again, I may be biased here):

LifeSty(le) with Miss Piggy is a show where the host gets to impart her wisdom on all things style to her viewers. She gets by with some help from her friends, including Taye Diggs and Linda Cardellini.

Even the Muppets have mastered Zoom

The next segment has Walter asking Kermit how he became a great photographer; Kermit explains he’s actually a great photobomber:

Kermit is not in fact making a rude gesture. Plus Sam the Eagle!

Next the Swedish Chef (one of my personal faves), in the Okey Dokey Kookin show, cooks alongside YouTube chef Carlina Will… with interesting results.

Carlina Will shows Beverly Plume how not to cook like the Swedish Chef

And finally is “Mup Close and Personal” with RuPaul, where Kermit’s one on one interview goes off the rails.

Kermit can’t catch a break

I really liked the first episode of Muppets Now, and think if they can keep up the antics while mocking the YouTube/TikTok/Twitch content we’ve come to know and love (and sometimes loathe), the show can be a great success.

Some things people post are just begging to be parodied, and the Muppets have always been great at taking ridiculous things and making them even more ridiculous. Here’s hoping a new generation of kids, and kids at heart, get to enjoy the Muppets and learn all the words to “Rainbow Connection.” M

On Doom Patrol

“I’ve seen a lot of s***. But this? Y’all ain’t right.”

Roni Evers sums up the series in one sentence.

[Potential spoilers for Doom Patrol seasons 1 and 2]

The DC Universe (and now HBO Max) show Doom Patrol is about a group of unconventional heroes. Led by Dr. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton), aka The Chief, the Doom Patrol consists of:

Rita Farr (April Bowby): a golden age era actress with elastic skin who is unable to fully control when and where she becomes elastic. When she is upset, for example, her facial skin starts to droop.

Larry Trainor (voiced by Matt Bomer): a pilot with a being of energy – the “Negative Spirit” – in his body; his body was irradiated and burned, requiring him to wear bandages from head to toe.

Cliff Steele (voiced by Brendan Fraser): a race car driver who’s brain was transplanted into a robot by The Chief.

Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero): Kay Challis, a young woman with 64 personalities, each with a different super power.

Cyborg (Joivan Wade): Vic Stone, a young man with cybernetic enhance-ments including an operating system/supercomputer called GRID.

The Doom Patrol (minus Cyborg, who was out being heroic somewhere)

Each of our heroes has a tragic backstory, and when they cross paths with The Chief, he takes them in to live at Doom Manor in Ohio. When they decide they’ve been cooped up in the mansion for too long and venture out into the nearby town of Cloverton, hijinks ensue. Rita ends up becoming unstable and her body morphs into a giant blob; Larry’s negative energy releases from his body and fries everything in its path. Jane becomes a giant entity with a flaming head ready to incinerate Rita, but Cliff grabs the road and lifts it up to block Rita’s path. The team retreats, and when they return to Cloverton with The Chief, find a donkey roaming around. The donkey farts, and the visible gas that rises forms the words “The mind is the limit.” Season 1’s big bad, Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), a fourth wall breaking narrator able to time travel and warp reality, creates a giant sinkhole in the middle of town which sucks in everything around it… and that’s the end of episode 1.

The Doom Patrol has faced adversaries, among others: a goat who can transport people to different dimensions, Doctor Tyme – a man with a clock for a head who controls spacetime, a giant sentient cockroach, a cult bent on bringing about the end of the world via a huge eyeball in the sky, Beard Hunter – a man who eats facial hair and can track down its owner, and recently Scants – pink mite-like infections that cause their victims to have terrible ideas. Their allies are just as strange: Flex Mentallo (Devan Chandler Long) is a strongman who can flex his muscles to alter reality. Danny the Street is a sentient street on which colorful residents – Dannyzens – live. Willoughby Kipling (Mark Sheppard) is a magician and member of the Knights Templar. And Roni Evers, who so succinctly summed up the Doom Patrol, is an ex-soldier who had cybernetic enhancements grafted into her body; though these were forcibly removed.

The Chief as seen by Cliff Steele

Doom Patrol is delightfully odd, and leans into that oddness whenever possible. A team called Sex-Men tasked with clearing out sexual ghosts? Sure. A man who, because he wants super powers, undergoes “treatment” and becomes a being with a human head, a second dinosaur head, and tree limbs? Absolutely. Wall-crawling butts with limbs and razor teeth? You betcha. Season 2 goes a bit crazier, introducing Niles’ daughter Dorothy Spinner (Abigail Shapiro) and her ability to manifest imaginary friends.

It is so unlike any super hero show that’s come before it, much to its credit; it’s not afraid to be at the same time weird and strange and moral and cringey and taboo. It asks “What would happen if people stumbled into becoming super heroes?” Can people who are deeply flawed and struggle with responsibility, guilt, remorse, and even sanity really help the rest of humanity? At this point several members of the team don’t have full control of their powers; Rita and Larry struggle, but are making strides while also battling their personal demons.

The performances are incredible all around, but the true star of the show has to be Diane Guerrero as Crazy Jane. Jane changes personalities on a whim, and each one has not only a specific super power, but physical appearance and personal affectations as well. Guerrero effortlessly flits between each personality while making them all seem distinct – you thoroughly believe you are watching different people housed in Jane’s body. Karen, the homemaker and hopeless romantic, is worlds apart from Baby Doll, the young girl who just wants to play and make friends. Hammerhead is the tattooed tough as nails enforcer, while Penny Farthing is a shy British girl with a stutter. Silver Tongue can create sharp metal words from her speech, which she uses to throw at people, while Lucy Fugue can control electricity. It’s all incredible to watch as one personality switches into another, and hopefully they can touch on many more of the residents of The Undergound – the metaphorical place in Kay’s mind where the personalities reside.

If you’re sick of the same old super hero tropes, check out Doom Patrol (and its polar opposite, DC’s Stargirl). I’ve never read the Doom Patrol comics (though I’ve read through a bunch of wikis for some context), so I’m usually pleasantly surprised where the stories go, and there’s quite literally nothing the show can’t do in its universe. Its mix of action, absurdity, humor and outright weirdness are really something to behold.


Come Dine With Me

Over the past few months, working from home, I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in my obsession with television. I’ve re-watched shows like Cougar Town and 30 Rock. I’ve watched popular shows I’d never seen before like Scrubs and Happy Endings (finally understanding why people are still to this day upset it was canceled!) And I’ve stumbled upon shows that I’d never even heard of; the most entertaining of which has to be a little British show called Come Dine With Me. It’s a game show. It’s a reality show. It’s pure genius.

The premise is simple: 4 or 5 people who live in the same area each take turns throwing a dinner party for the others. At the end of each night – in the taxi on the way home – the guests give the host a score from 1 – 10. Whoever has the most points at the end of the week wins £1,000. The show is hosted by a never-seen narrator (Dave Lamb) and has been on the air in England since 2004 (!).

The show starts by introducing the contestants; the narrator will give some exposition: “First up is Karen, an estate agent from Essex” for example, and then will go through the menu for the first dinner party. The rest of the contestants are introduced, while reading the menu and giving their comments. “Black pudding, as a starter?” or “What on earth is venison – is it lamb?” The show proceeds to show the host preparing for the dinner party, by cooking or preparing the food to be cooked that night. The guests arrive one by one (usually with gift in hand), introduce themselves, and the dinner party gets underway. Each meal has an appetizer, main course and dessert, and can be whatever the host chooses. It is also completely up the host whether or not he chooses to make everything from scratch, or buy things from store to serve – and this becomes a main topic in almost every episode. “Is this shop-bought pastry?” is a common question on CDWM. The diners will take turns in confessionals commenting on the night’s events, and how they think things are going (they’re usually wrong).

At the dinner table, the diners come up with their own banter: “Which celebrity does Kevin look like?” “What do you do for a living?” “Have you ever met the queen?” While the host is preparing the food, the others will have a look around the house, and this often leads to interesting dinner conversation. Sometimes, if they aren’t meshing well there will be awkward silence – broken for us viewers by the narrator yelling “Someone say something!” For the most part, the diners get along and have fun conversations. When one diner refers to another as a fiery dragon (on Couples Come Dine With Me – a topic for another time), or when one asks another if he’s gay because he has a pink refrigerator, it can be a little cringey, but ultimately very entertaining. Even when diners don’t get along, it’s not all that serious, and at the end of the week they just decide to never see each other again.

The food, and prep, is a whole topic itself. I find it thoroughly entertaining to watch these definitely-not-professional chefs prepare meals, and implement what they think are good ideas. Pink unicorn fairy cake for dessert? Sure. Dauphinoise potatoes are apparently on everyone’s menu (We know these as potatoes au gratin, and I don’t know where they’re popular?). There are kitchen mishaps, food burnt, and dodgy cooking techniques that really must be seen, and not described. Though narrator Dave Lamb seems to have a lot a fun describing, commenting and insulting. “Hands!” he’ll shout, if a cook puts his hand in something. Or if something is store-bought, he’ll make a comment like “Well, you didn’t make that from scratch.” It’s a lot more hilarious than it sounds, trust me. The fist clip I saw of the show, which got me hooked immediately, was of a contestant named Tina, who didn’t make anything for her main course. The narrator explains: “Curry from a jar, microwaved rice, and a shop-bought flatbread. This could be interesting.” The diners ask her how things were prepared and she fumbles through telling them that she didn’t actually do anything herself. My favorite part of the night is when dinner is over and after a possibly awkward comment or encounter the narrator yells “Taxi!”, as we cut to the taxicab scoring.

In most cases where the diners don’t like a host’s food, they generally do not let the host know when they’re eating it; they usually wait until a confessional or taxi ride home to rip everything apart – sometimes savagely. But in some cases a diner will harshly criticize a host, then turn around and score them a 7 out of 10. It’s a funny battle between being nice, honest, and cutthroat – this is, after all, a competition. The scoring is based on the diner’s overall experience and seems completely arbitrary, though they all usually break it down into food, hosting, and entertainment. Yes, some hosts provide entertainment for the dinner party; examples: karaoke, salsa dancing lessons, aviation simulation, or a song sung by an X-Factor contestant.

When all the diners have taken turns hosting, the winner is revealed, and it’s the last host’s duty to do so. They bring out the £1,000 cash under a silver cloche, with a scroll that lists the contestants and their places. The host reveals each place, last through first, and the winner gets the prize. In one infamous clip, a salty final host throws a temper tantrum because he didn’t win – Google “Enjoy the money, Jane”. But usually, the show ends happily to catchy (and appropriate) song while the credits roll. Episodes of the show can be found on YouTube and all around the internet, and if you’re a fan of reality shows, cooking shows, or British humor, you should give it a go.

According to Wikipedia, there were 2 failed attempts to bring this show to the US: Dinner Takes All in 2006 on TLC, and Come Dine With Me on Lifetime in 2013. I haven’t seen the American versions, so I can’t say why the show failed here, twice. A few possibilities: either people were too polite and the show was boring, or people were too rude and the show came off as trashy. The show has been exported to over 30 countries, so food with side of snark may just be the true universal language.


(Star)Girl Power

[Some spoilers for Stargirl season 1 below]

When it was announced that there would be (yet) another DC superhero show, I have to admit I rolled my eyes.

I’ve watched the Arrowverse shows almost since the beginning. I missed season 1 of Arrow and caught up on Netflix before season 2. Since then I’ve watched every Arrowverse show, and have only stopped watching Supergirl (midway through season 3). I even sat through the entire first season of Batwoman, which at best was mediocre, thanks to now former series lead Ruby Rose. I have loved what Greg Berlanti & Co have done with the majority of these characters and shows. The early seasons of The Flash were great. The last few seasons of Legends of Tomorrow have been really great. But The Flash has become tiresome, and while Arrow ended strong, the road there was… bumpy. As I mentioned, I stopped watching Supergirl for a few different reasons, none of which was Melissa Benoist – I think she’s great in the role, but the show was ill-conceived, aimless and little nonsensical (yes, even for a show where Martians live among us, and an alien prison ended up crash landing on Earth).

So when I heard about DC’s Stargirl, my expectations were not high. I wasn’t even sure I could watch it, as I didn’t subscribe to DC’s streaming service DC Universe. Then I heard it would be airing on The CW and I decided to give it a shot. Since this was another Berlanti show, I thought I knew what to expect. Surprisingly, though, the show broke the mold in a few different ways.

The show starts with an epic battle between the good guys: the Justice Society of America (JSA) and the bad guys: the Injustice Society of America (ISA) – clever, right? Evil actually wins as the JSA, including Starman (Joel McHale), is defeated and its members killed. Starman’s sidekick Stripesy, aka Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson), retreats and gathers up the fallen heroes’ weapons and costumes, and escapes to fight another day. Though he doesn’t – at least not yet. At some point he has a son named Mike (Trae Romano) and moves to LA… like you do. (Full disclosure: I don’t remember if they spoke about Mike’s mom, but let’s say she died, because she’s not ever really mentioned.)

Enter Barbara Whitmore (Amy Smart), a transplant to LA from Blue Valley, Nebraska. She is a single mom with a teenage daughter named Courtney (Brec Bassinger). Pat and Barbara meet (in Blue Valley, actually), get married, and move back to Blue Valley – one big “happy” family. What they don’t know is that nefarious things are going on in the quaint little town.

Here’s where Stargirl does things differently. Courtney is not an adult. She goes to school; she probably has a curfew. This show is the first to tackle a teenage hero, and with that comes a different set of parameters. Does it make later fight scenes with actual adults a little cringe-inducing? Yes. But Stargirl leans into that cringe – these are villains. They are dark, evil people who don’t care who gets in their way. If they have to beat up and kill a few kiddos to get what they want? So be it.

In the Arrowverse shows, the protagonist has an origin story that usually involves several other people, who end up becoming that person’s Scooby gang. There’s love, hate, super powers/skills, and the hero sometimes reluctantly takes on the role, saving lives, protecting innocents, blah blah. Oliver Queen wanted to carry out his father’s quest to right wrongs in Starling City. Barry Allen wanted to help stop meta-humans from terrorizing his city. Kara Danvers wanted to stop aliens from terrorizing her city. Kate Kane wanted to stop her homicidal twin sister from terrorizing her city.

But Courtney is chosen by Starman’s Cosmic Staff (which I refer to as Staffy, because it really needs a name). Staffy reveals itself, and its abilities – shooting bursts of energy and flight, among them – to Courtney and she excitedly decides to become a super hero. She does some research and thinks Starman is her father, for reasons, and decides she needs to avenge his death. Courtney finds and alters the Starman suit (in her new high school’s sewing class) and Stargirl is born.

Stargirl encounters Henry King (Christopher James Baker), aka ISA member Brainwave , a telepath and telekinetic, and ends up accidentally putting him in a coma after he learns her secret identity. His son Henry Jr (Jake Austin Walker) is a classmate and is involved in a sexting scandal with fellow classmate Yolanda Montez (Yvette Monreal). Yolanda sends Henry a picture and jealous girlfriend/mean girl/queen bee Cindy Burman (Meg DeLacy) sends the pic to… everyone. Yolanda is ostracized by her friends and even super religious family; she ends up befriending new girl Courtney and she recruits Yolanda to her cause by giving her the costume of JSA member Wild Cat, effectively creating a new JSA.

Turns out sociopath Cindy’s dad is also a member of the ISA – the hooded Dragon King. Cindy decides she wants to follow in daddy’s footsteps; we learn because of his experiments on his daughter, she is somewhat cybernetic. She fights Courtney but gets sidelined by her father when she goes off the rails, demanding to be a part of the ISA.

Speaking of the ISA, head honcho Jordan Mahkent, aka Icicle (Neil Jackson), returns to town to pick up where they left off, restarting Project New America, which at this point hasn’t been fully detailed to us viewers. We do know it involves mind control and six surrounding states… We also learn Barbara now works for Jordan and Jordan’s son Cameron (Hunter Sansone) is also in Courtney’s class, and a possible love interest.

Through a series of events, fellow outcasts Beth Chapel (Anjelika Washington) and Rick Tyler (Cameron Gellman) become the new JSA’s Dr Mid-Nite and Hour Man, respectively. Beth’s Dr Mid-Nite goggles are basically a supercomputer (and sometimes deus ex machina), and Rick’s hourglass pendant gives him super strength for an hour at a time. It turns out Rick’s parents were also heroes and killed by the monstrous Solomon Grundy – who even the ISA keeps locked up – and Rick is out for revenge.

The creation of the new JSA/Courtney’s own Scooby gang felt very organic, and even shows the team struggling to be superheroes. Courtney and crew stumble; Yolanda even threatens Henry Jr as Wild Cat, and in a possibly unprecedented scene, Henry immediately recognizes Yolanda – because of course he would. All too often superhero shows gloss over this bit of realism, and it was refreshing to see this play out this way.

With Pat, who now pilots a huge battle ready robot called S.T.R.I.P.E, as their mentor, the kids are now investigating the ISA, the ISA members’ kids, and trying to figure out what’s really going on in Blue Valley. Along the way there are some fights, deaths, and revelations that make this show one roller coaster ride. Mysteries are sprinkled throughout as you would expect, like the truth about Courtney’s parentage, and the creepy (or is he?) high school janitor that for some reason has a sword and possibly remembers using Staffy.

So far, Stargirl feels like a fresh superhero-show experience. The writing is quick and authentic, the action sequences and special effects are well done and satisfying, and storylines are playing out a little more realistically (dark?) than the norm: Icicle kills [spoiler] to send a message! Barbara finds out about [spoiler]! Brainwave kills [really big spoiler]! I’m anxious to see how the season wraps up, and having already been renewed for a second season (relocating solely to The CW), here’s hoping Stargirl keeps things interesting and never becomes another superhero slog.