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‘The Muppets’ Reboot: What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Family Entertainment

There’s so much that’s wrong about ABC’s The Muppets reboot, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Even before the premiere last month, there were plenty of red flags signaling that these were not going to be the Muppets children of the ‘70s and ‘80s grew-up with; or even, for that matter, the Muppets in the charming 2011 blockbuster.

One ad campaign featured Kermit the frog with the tagline “Finally. A network TV show with full frontal nudity.” A message like that doesn’t exactly scream, “Hey, here’s something you can watch with your kids!” (And by the way, who even says that?)

But the problems with this series are hardly an isolated data point, but it serves to illustrate a much bigger problem that seems to plague much of Hollywood: i.e. they just don’t understand family audiences, much less how to serve them.

  1. Writers don’t respect their audience.

Ahead of the debut of this latest incarnation of The Muppets, Executive Producer Bob Kushell made all kinds of excuses for the “adult” content in the show.

Of course, what ABC and the creative team behind this Muppets series are calling “adult” is really pretty juvenile. Jokes about breast lifts, “dirty drawings,” drug use and alcohol abuse: this is what passes for sophistication in a junior high school locker room. To call it “adult” is an insult to real adults everywhere.

Kushell continued: “Yes, there will be jokes that are pitched that are a little too risqué, and then we have to find a way to make it more clever, I guess you would say, so that it works on two levels. That’s the fun challenge of what we do…. already, the writers are thinking in a way where you don’t go to the more racy joke first, you go to the clever way to say the racy joke. It’s becoming second nature very quickly.”

But why begin with risqué? Why make “racy” your goal? Why assume that “risqué” is the only thing adult audiences can or will appreciate? Do they really think so little of the average adult in the TV viewing audience? Do they assume that the adults are incapable of deriving pleasure from innocent, but intelligent writing? The original Muppets writers were successful at engaging adult audiences while entertaining kids without having to resort to double-entendres and drug references. Why can’t the current writers?

  1. Many executives just don’t understand what families want

Here, too, Kushell reveals how out-of-touch he is with what families are looking for.

“Part of the excitement of doing this show… is to see where we can push the envelope but never push it so far that the adults feel embarrassed to watch it in front of their kids. That will never happen.”

But they have already pushed it so far that adults feel embarrassed to watch in front of their kids, and he and his team of writers have clearly deluded themselves about where the line between fun and uncomfortable lies. An analysis by the Parents Television Council reveals that in just four episodes, the new Muppet series delivered 33 instances of adult-themed content; or one instance every 3 minutes and 38 seconds. Forty-six percent of the adult-themed content was sexual; 55 percent was drug and alcohol related. No wonder the ratings are falling off so precipitously.

  1. You can write for the grown-ups, too; just don’t forget about the kids

Looney Tunes, Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Flintstones — all could be enjoyed on two-levels, as Kushell describes above, but the other level wasn’t the gutter. They poked fun at pop-culture with caricatures of famous film stars; they parodied high-culture and literature. You didn’t need to know who those old screen stars were to laugh at Bugs’ antics. You didn’t have to know anything about classical music or literature to enjoy the absurdity. The fact that as children we were not yet clued-in to those cultural references didn’t diminish the pleasure we derived from watching the cartoons, and there was nothing in there that I would blush at now, or that would give me a moment’s hesitation about sharing them with my own child.

  1. There is a market for family programming, as ratings and box office numbers prove.

Though programs like American Horror Story or Game of Thrones might get a lot of critical buzz, those aren’t the programs drawing the big ratings numbers. But give audiences something like The Bible miniseries, or The Voice, or even a 60-year-old rerun of I Love Lucy, and audiences will flock to it.

The week it debuted, The Muppets beat the highly anticipated new Ryan Murphy horror-genre parody, Scream Queens, proving yet again that viewers will generally opt for the more family-friendly option. But The Muppets lost many of those viewers in week two, once folks who tuned-in with their little ones realized what they were in for. Ratings numbers tumbled from 9.01 million the first week to less than half that, 4.34 million in week four. The show that beat The Muppets in the ratings in week four? It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

  1. You don’t have to resort to bathroom humor to entertain kids.

The same lack of respect that’s accorded to adults in the audience can also be seen in the way many film and TV writers try to engage children. There’s an unfortunate, but all-too-pervasive attitude that the only way to engage kids is with gross-out humor. You see it in children’s books like “Captain Underpants,” and “Sir Fartsalot,” but it is also too common in movies and television programs targeted at kids and families.

It’s nothing less than vulgarity for kids. But because kids are naturally inclined toward bathroom humor, we’re supposed to excuse it. But all it does is to train kids to accept and respond to lowest-common denominator writing, instead of inspiring them to raise their sights higher. Children can understand and appreciate the beautiful, the heroic, the sublime – but it requires training them up. Filling children’s entertainment with crass and vulgar humor deadens their appetite for the worthwhile just as surely as eating junk food spoils the child’s taste for healthier fare.

Melissa Henson is Director of Grassroots Education and Advocacy at the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.parentstv.org)

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