Earlier this week, One Million Moms launched a courageous campaign against one of the greatest social evils of our time: the Muppets.
The focus of the Christian advocacy group's ire is The Muppets, the "perverted" new sitcom starring the puppet troupe created by the late Jim Henson, which premiered last night on ABC. (FYI: Fusion is partly owned by ABC.) On this mockumentary series, Kermit the Frog produces his now ex-girlfriend Miss Piggy's late-night talk show.
1MM has encouraged parents to protest the show, declaring it a disturbing departure from the "family-friendly" Muppets of the 1970s:
The mature version of "The Muppets" will cover a range of topics from sex to drugs… It is not the show it once was. ABC has ruined "The Muppets." How many parents want to explain the punchline of sexually charged jokes to young children?
While the logline for The Muppets does bill the reboot as a "more adult" show, the suggestion that this TV show is a blemish on "what Jim Henson imagined and created" is laughable. Should you go back and actually watch the so-called family-friendly Muppets of yore, you'll discover that they were often downright subversive.
One of the very first Muppets pilots ever produced, back in 1975, was an ABC special called The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. In 1977, Kermit ogled an elaborately tattooed pig doing a dance that, in today's parlance, we'd probably call twerking. Alice Cooper convinced Miss Piggy to sell her soul to Satan on The Muppet Show in 1978, the same year Raquel Welch told a quivering Fozzie Bear that he was both "very sexy" and "sexsational" before asking him back to her dressing room.
Believe me: I could go on.
This off-color streak may be surprising, but it's actually key to the Muppets' enduring appeal. There are invariably two shows happening at once: one for pint-sized fans who like puppets, and especially puppets who talk in funny voices and karate-chop each other, and another that exists under the radar, for grown-ups' eyes only.
Throughout the decades, the Muppets franchise has honed an unparalleled ability to play simultaneously to children and adults, a magic trick it pulls off with no shortage of playful self-awareness. When Billy Bones (Billy Connolly) passes away in Muppet Treasure Island, Rizzo can't believe it. "He died?!" the rat cries, "And this is supposed to be a kids' movie!" In The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, Pepe the King Prawn takes a moment to address the audience directly: "Those of you who have Dark Side of the Moon, press play now."
This sensibility isn't missing from last night's debut—it's the driving force behind most of what's good about the episode. If anything, I wish there were more of it. In what's probably the strongest joke in the Muppets premiere, Fozzie tells the camera, "When your online profile says 'passionate bear looking for love,' you get a lot of wrong responses." He corrects himself: "Not wrong. Just wrong for me."
This bit might as well have been engineered in a laboratory to maximally piss off One Million Moms, who, brace yourselves, are something less than tolerant of the LGBT community.
If your kid gets the joke—well, for one thing, congrats on raising an unusually perceptive child. But any viewer, no matter how young, who has the prerequisite knowledge about both gay culture and internet dating to wrap his or her brain around that objectively harmless reference isn't learning anything new from it.
The same could be said for Sam the Eagle's announcement that the standards department has banned the words “crochety, twiddle, and gesticulate” from the broadcast, or the moment when Zoot, the Electric Mayhem's sax player, mistakes the morning production meeting for AA: “I’m Zoot, and I’m…,” he says, before his bandmates cut him off.
My least favorite moments in The Muppets premiere are also among those that rankle conservative watchdogs, but for a different reason.
Now that he and Piggy have split, Kermit is dating Denise, a brunette pig who works as a network marketing executive. Kermit explains that they met at a "cross-promotional synergy meeting," and that they "ended up… cross-promoting?" This clunker of a punchline is immediately followed by a lingering shot of Denise sucking on a straw.
Get it? Sex stuff. In the timeless words of Fozzie, wocka wocka.
These moments don't work because they're devoid of artfulness. Jokes that are crafted with enough sophistication to whizz over the heads of children are exactly that: jokes crafted with sophistication, no matter how exuberantly dumb their subject matter might be. If nail-on-the-head double entrendres are how The Muppets intends to become "more adult," I'll be disappointed.
The Muppets just woke up from a cryogenic pop cultural sleep, so it's only fair to give them a few weeks to finish defrosting, but the sitcom will need to calibrate its tone. More, not fewer, jokes for grown-ups—delivered stealthily, with the deft hand this franchise is known for—is the way to please children of all ages, if not one million of their moms.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.