Muppets brighten the night TV review: Kermit and the gang put on a smile-worthy show in 'Muppets Tonight!'

March 08, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If "Muppets Tonight!" represents the future of ABC under Disney's ownership, then all of us, especially parents concerned about what their kids see on TV, should stand up and cheer for the Mouse.

Brian Henson's new series is a refreshing change from the smarmy and sexist "Boy Meets World," which it replaces in ABC's popular TGIF kids' lineup at 8: 30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

ABC has guaranteed "Muppets" only a 13-week tryout, but it looks like a series that will be back this fall and for many falls to come -- as long as Kermit can keep the house of cards from collapsing at KMUP, the TV station he's running with a crew of screwball friends.

That's the premise: Kermit finds out during a staff meeting tonight that KMUP has a hole in its prime-time lineup at -- you guessed it -- 8: 30 p.m. Fridays. So, Kermit and his colleagues have to instantly jerry-build a show. The show within the show, and all its attendant backstage chaos, is what we see as ABC goes postmodern with the Muppets.

Of course, the premise sounds familiar. It is much the same one that the late Jim Henson -- Brian's father -- used for "The Muppet Show" in 1976. The 120 episodes of that series, which Henson made for syndication from 1976 to 1981, air in more than 100 countries and have been seen by 235 million viewers, according to "The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows." It is one of the most popular shows in the history of the medium.

In addition to Kermit, other members of "The Muppet Show" gang who are back include Fozzie Bear, Animal, Gonzo the Great, Rizzo the Rat and the magnificent Miss Piggy.

Rizzo is stage manager and all-around sidekick to the host of the new KMUP show, a Rastafarian Muppet named Clifford. Once Kermit gets Clifford out of hiding in the supply cabinet and onstage, he does just fine, mostly.

I say mostly, because there are a few lapses, such as the problem with the guest star. Clifford hired Miss Piggy, who just happened to show up backstage offering to help KMUP out in its moment of crisis despite her "demanding" schedule.

But he also agreed to hire Michelle Pfeiffer, whom Kermit was able to talk into appearing at the last second. Clifford thinks double-booking won't be a problem, as long as the two can be kept apart.

Their collision -- just as they are both headed onstage to appear as Maria Von Trapp from "The Sound of Music" -- is splendid silliness.

Naturally, it is Miss Piggy who seizes the moral high ground, calling Ms. Pfeiffer a "jezebel." But it is Clifford who feels the steel inside Miss Piggy's velvet gloves, when he steps between the two leading ladies and says, "girls, girls," in a way that strikes them as just a bit too patronizing.

It's nice to see a show aimed at kids that is smart enough to undercut what could be sexist messages of a cat fight -- no matter how comic -- the way "Muppets Tonight!" does. But there's no need to get that sociological in order to recommend the series. It is enough to say that it is impossible to watch tonight's pilot without smiling.

Twenty years ago, none of the networks wanted Jim Henson's Muppets in prime time, so he had to raise money on his own and sell "The Muppet Show" city by city to independent stations.

Disney's ABC wants Brian Henson's Muppets now, and Friday nights are looking a lot better for it.

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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