By Jordan Walsh
Fake reality has dominated our comedies for years, but what happens when the “fake” overpowers the “reality?” Over the last decade, mockumentary-style television has not only provided some of the most popular and successful situational comedies of our time, but has actually become an essential phenomenon in describing the modern era of the medium. With shows like Parks and Recreation, The Office and Modern Family showcasing some of the most popular and long-running network comedy from the last ten years, it seems necessary to question the reasons for America’s interest in fake reality. This question is especially relevant considering the most recent, and undoubtedly the strangest, addition of The Muppets to the mix.
The Muppets premiered this past Tuesday, Sept. 22 on ABC—but a 10-minute preview of the series has been around since July. The preview provided a glimpse of the new generation of Jim Henson’s iconic puppets, one that is decidedly more adult and subtle (if subtlety is even possible when the main characters are vibrantly colored stuffed animals).
In the preview, the series comes across as very similar to The Office in format and tone—starting off with a business meeting while cutting intermittently to “talking head” asides (where one character talks directly into the camera, away from the others, as if they’re being interviewed). Intertwined with the narrative of a network purchasing a reality series focusing on the Muppets is a b-plot in which Kermit the Frog deals with his recent breakup with his long-time girlfriend, Miss Piggy.
This fusion of the Muppets’ amusing nature and this recent trend in primetime television sitcoms seems to work surprisingly well in the preview, but the question is how we got to the point where this fusion would make sense in the first place. Strangely enough, the arrival of The Muppets, whether the end result is successful or not, seems to mark a perfect meeting point between American television’s modern trends. The Muppets is a mockumentary, a nostalgic reboot, and an absurd comedy all at once. The idea walks a fine line between fascinating and gimmicky, but its mere existence on network television speaks volumes about television comedy in 2015.
So where’s the attraction in plopping already-famous characters into a “reality” framework? It helps to think about what makes mockumentary shows with human characters so appealing.
In the cases of shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation or Modern Family, mockumentary shows cover mostly mundane portions of American life: dead-end jobs, bureaucratic government work, extended middle-class American families. What sets these shows apart is the “reality” format’s ability to bring the events of the show closer to their audience through these “talking head” portions and sensible breaking of the fourth wall.
In other shows, a character’s direct address of the audience is a rare and absurd moment in which the rules of the show’s world are broken to acknowledge that the characters are, indeed, fictional. But with the element of the documentary in place, the option for this is always there because the camera exists within the show’s world. The characters know they’re being watched by you—this establishes a special kind of connection with the viewer.
What remains to be seen is how this will work with The Muppets. The danger of “jumping the shark” on the mockumentary trend is ever-present as the show launches—it’s possible that The Muppets will go down as an important moment in the art of the American sitcom. Bringing these clearly fictional characters closer to the audience could easily shatter the illusion of closeness that other shows thrive off of.
On the other hand, it also has the potential to inject a little more absurdism into primetime television. If The Muppets plays its cards right and is self-aware of the strangeness of its existence, network TV could be looking at a new, weirder future.
The Muppets airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Jordan Walsh can be reached at Jordan.firstname.lastname@example.org.