Monday 18 December 2017

Television review: Mourning for the Muppets

* The Muppets, 8pm, Monday, Sky1
* Angela Scanlon's Close Encounters, 10pm, Tuesday, RTE2
* Face of Britain, 9pm, Wednesday, BBC2

Illustration: Jim Cogan.
Illustration: Jim Cogan.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Are we suffering from TV reboot fatigue yet or will we soon? That was the question niggling somewhere at the back of my mind this week even as I did a little involuntary jig at the return of the Muppets to the small screen. Somewhere along the way of bringing back The X-Files, the Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks (among others), the revival of beloved '80s and '90s franchises stopped being special and started becoming humdrum.

But suspending cynicism for Kermit and the gang seemed like a duty not a chore. For people of my vintage - late Seventies - the Muppets are inextricably interwoven with our childhoods. Miss Piggy was our first feminist icon and Kermit our first popstar. When my uncle died in 1980, before I had a chance to meet him, one of the albums that we inherited from him was This Is the Muppet Show. I have a friend who sat resolutely dry-eyed through every tearjerker from Titanic to Brokeback Mountain but lost it completely at The Muppets Take Manhattan. Statler and Waldorf might want the other Muppets to fail, but I would cheer them every note of the way.

Or would I? This version dispenses with much of the music and some of the antics of the original Muppets and instead channels series such as Modern Family for a mockumentary-style and distinctly adult humour. There are wry, sardonic gags aplenty and future episodes will reportedly deal with issues such as abortion, all of which has caused uproar in the US. The shock news that has served as the news hook is that Kermit and Miss Piggy have split up.The central question that emerges from it all seems to be: should we be grateful that the Muppets have grown up with us and now have a clever-clever script or do we mourn their lost innocence like our lost childhoods?

Maybe the recent claims of prime ministerial hijinks have inured me to claims about human-pig relations, but I'm inclined to say grown-up muppets with decent jokes are a good thing. It's tempting to hark back to the innocence of the original muppets but our childhood is gone and perhaps only a few good jokes will ease the pain.

From one childhood obsession to another. WWE (formerly WWF) star Sheamus once confirmed that he is related to a Muppet: fellow titian-haired prankster Beaker. And Sheamus, who was born Stephen Farrelly, was the first subject for another ginger - Angela Scanlon - and her new series of interviews. For the initiated, WWE is kind of like UFC fighting mixed with panto, and Angela Scanlon these days seems to be a one-woman commissioning green light. As Sheamus says to her at one point: "Sure you have about 60 jobs!"

"Which would suggest none of them are that well paid," she quickly retorted.

Sadly this was probably the most interesting exchange in a 40-minute documentary which focussed on a conversation between Angela and Sheamus, as they discussed, among other things, his ring look, his lack of a love life and the rather rude American meaning of the phrase 'Irish curse'. It was also a kind of travelogue through the insanity of a mostly male, mostly juvenile subculture. Despite this, Scanlon resolutely refrained from looking down her nose at any aspect of the WWE travelling circus and dealt with the fake v real aspect of the spectacle summarily ("the passion of the fans is certainly real"). Her interviewing style is friendly and flirty but you get the feeling that would work better in a straightforward chat show. Given that she was tackling such an inherently ridiculous milieu, this piece would have benefited from a more wry, askance look at the whole production, and I came away feeling I still knew very little about how a bearded Irishman became the Playstation generation's favourite panto villain.

The fans of WWE, like fans everywhere, memorialise the moment with selfies. But for Simon Schama, historian and curator of The Face of Britain exhibition, selfies represent 'the quick dumbness of the instant'. A good portrait he says can defeat time, absence and death, but portraits are the music and selfies are the white noise. Here he focussed on portraits of love through history: the miniature love lockets of Georgian England, the last portrait of John Lennon and the line drawings of Lewis Carroll, which like the Muppets in their own way, seemed redolent of a long lost childhood.


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