Though they’ve lacked a major win since their 2011 revival, The Muppets have slowly begun to reenter the 21st century. From the continued syndication of 2018’s Muppet Babies reboot to the recent return-to-form Muppets Haunted Mansion, Jim Henson’s lovable troupe of puppeteered performers are starting to find their groove. However, until Disney finally gives in and reboots The Muppet Show, the IP will continue to aimlessly throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks. This is how we get things like 2015’s Office-inspired The Muppets and 2020’s webseries Muppets Now, neither of which fully harnessed the ensemble’s unique charm and offbeat humor.
The Muppets Mayhem feels like the closest Disney has come to recapturing some of Henson’s signature magic, even if it is through unconventional means. Instead of an adventure with the whole gang, the new 10-episode series centers exclusively on the Muppets’ house band, The Electric Mayhem: groovy pianist Dr. Teeth (Bill Barretta), mellow guitarists Floyd (Matt Vogel) and Janice (David Rudman), brass cats Zoot (Dave Goelz) and Lips (Peter Linz), and the always rambunctious drummer, Animal (Eric Jacobson). Though they most positively know how to cover classic rock, it was never certain that they had the potential to carry their own narrative series, let alone 10 half-hour episodes. Thankfully, alongside some human characters and a host of genuinely incredible celebrity cameos, the Mayhem hold their own in what is a charming, if still somewhat held back spinoff.
The story sees the Mayhem, framed as the most successful band of all time to never officially release an album, teaming up with record producer Nora Singh (Canadian comedian Lily Singh) to make good on a record contract they bailed on over forty years prior. The vast majority of the show sees the group’s mellow instincts confront the modern music landscape, from electronic sampling to social media. However, the true appeal of the series isn’t this obvious premise, but rather how it brings out the true dynamics of the Mayhem themselves. The writing throughout all 10 episodes manages to maintain the group’s bizarre but uniquely hilarious sense of humor, as well as reveal part of the group’s backstory, something that a brand as episodic as The Muppets could struggle with.
However, when you put the actual muppet performers in major creative positions, you find that they know these characters so well that just about any concept can find its footing. Bill Barretta, who has been performing the character of Dr. Teeth for over 30 years, serves as one of three showrunners, and you can feel his presence in how the show portrays its titular musicians as more than just caricatures. Flashbacks to the band’s origins show us Floyd’s beginnings as a father figure for Animal, as well as how Floyd inspired Dr. Teeth to follow his dreams of being a musician despite a family legacy of dentistry (yes, really). Janice, previously a silly stereotype of Flower Power, gets many genuine moments of female friendship and bonding with both Nora and her sister, Hannah (Saara Chaudry, also Canadian).
Speaking of which, the show’s human characters do reach some complexity, even if their presence continues the frustrating trend of Disney using real stars as a crutch for characters whose cinematic legacy is defined by starring in their own movies. Lily Singh tones down her typical comic persona to portray the show’s straight-man, which may be frustrating to her fans. However, this is the Mayhem’s show, and Singh’s more humanistic performance allows for the show’s more sensitive moments to shine through. Her strained relationship with Hannah engages some of the show’s most resonant pathos, and her love triangle romance with new friend Moog (Tahj Mowry) and ex-boyfriend JJ (Anders Holm), though underdeveloped, presents a subversive look at how one can potentially find healthy new ground in an old relationship.
Despite the show’s colorful characters, its aesthetic feels very hampered by streaming precedents: low contrast color grading, standard camera coverage, and even some shoddy visual effects now and again. One would like to see a bit more experimentation from a company that has been technologically innovative since day one. However, it’s almost easy to forget all of that when being serenaded by some of the best recordings in the band’s history. Linda Perry’s originals flip-flop between genuine bangs and glorified Christian rock, but the covers are where the band really shines; from Cyndi Lauper to Simon and Garfunkel to The Who, each choice is pitch-perfect for the story, arranged to fit the band’s signature sound that will warrant repeat viewings for years and years to come.
The Muppets Mayhem isn’t daring enough as a show to rope in any newcomers to the franchise. However, for diehard Muppets fans, this show scratches an itch that has long felt absent. It’s unclear if the IP can sustain itself by simply inserting its characters into watered down sitcoms (just do The Muppets: Lord of the Rings already, sheesh), but so long as people like Bill Barretta chip in their creative voice, we can rest assured that our favorite furry friends will still portrayed in the spirit that made them the icons we hold so dearly in our hearts.
All 10 episodes of The Muppets Mayhem are now streaming on Disney+.