When a series like The Muppet Show drops on a streaming platform like Disney+, most people have a tendency to consume it in one of two ways. The vast majority probably head straight for their favorite episodes. In this case, “The Stars of Star Wars” and appearances by Carol Burnett, Alice Cooper, and Paul Simon are almost certainly going to be zooming their way down the Information Superhighway to thousands if not millions of homes this week. And chances are good that, after getting their Greatest Hits nostalgia kick, a lot of folks will forget that the beloved variety show is even there for the streaming by the end of the month.
Another approach is to start with the first episode and binge right through to the end. But let’s be honest with ourselves, Muppets fans: The first season of the series was not its best by a long shot. It took a while for Henson and crew to find the
vibe they were shooting for.
So, how should you approach the five seasons’ worth of episodes now streaming on Disney+? I think you should go way off the beaten path. Start with Glenda Jackson’s appearance in Season Five.
Who? Yeah, no, I don’t know, either. Apparently, she was an actor of merit back in the ’70s, but I’ve never seen either of the films for which she received Academy Award nominations (1970’s Women in Love and 1973’s A Touch of Class). Call me an uncultured oaf. I’m OK with that.
For me, though, Jackson will always be the actor who appeared in the most off-the-rails episode of The Muppet Show ever made. Legend has it that most celebrities slated to appear on the show were a bit diva-ish in their demands, and most wanted to work first and foremost with Miss
MUPPETS AT A GLANCE
The show hits Disney+ in its original edits, uncensored (although not free of warnings).
Despite being 1970s video upgraded to HD, the images are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy), but marred by some really egregious edge enhancement.
The mono soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic.
Piggy. Jackson, on the other hand, left the writers to their own devices, resulting in a ridiculous romp that strains the boundaries between Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral. It’s a glimpse at what the show could have been had it not been a cultural phenomenon and a bit of a vanity project for the celebrity of the week. Of course, had it not been a cultural phenomenon, odds are we still wouldn’t be talking about it today, nor would Disney+ be spiffing it up for a big streaming release.
Well, “spiffing” might not be the right word. The video masters have been upsampled to HD, but given that the show was shot on videocassette in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, you should keep your expectations in check. There are no original film elements to restore here.
Still, colors are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy at times) and aside from some really egregious edge enhancement in spots (an artifact of the master tapes or the work of a heavy-handed archivist, I don’t know), the show looks better than you might expect. It’s certainly an upgrade over the DVD releases, even if things like the occasional aliasing in blue-screen comps and some moiré artifacts and chromatic aberrations are more noticeable in 1080p.
So I’ll give the video a solid B. It’s easy to appreciate that The Muppet Show looks as good as it ever has and significantly better in spots. But it’s also a little distracting at times to watch at cinematic proportions. If you have a TV in the den or family
room, it might be kinder (to the show and your eyes) to do your watching there rather than in the home theater. Thankfully, though, the monophonic soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic, despite the lack of stereo mixing.
Hardcore fans of the series will appreciate that Disney+ presents the original UK edits of most of the episodes. Remember, US networks originally rejected the show, so it was produced in England by ATV and aired in the US in first-run syndication, where one short musical number was generally cut for length, since we in the Colonies have to suffer through more commercials per hour. One or two of the episodes I spot-checked seemed a bit short to be the full UK originals, but it could be that other edits had to be made due to music rights issues. Only a couple of episodes seem to be missing entirely, best I can tell. The bottom line is that this appears to be the most complete and intact presentation of the show to date.
Interestingly, even episodes that have been outright
censored on all previous home video releases are presented in their entirety here. (Although I did notice that the Jim Nabors episode, one of the few I’ve had a chance to stream from beginning to end, does start with a brief textual intro about racist stereotypes and the decision not to censor those segments. When I returned to that episode to transcribe the content advisory, it didn’t appear, so such warnings seem to be a “first time you watch it” sort of thing.)
At any rate, that’s not the point of this diatribe. The point is, The Muppet Show is such a delightfully offbeat time capsule, a snapshot of a bygone era before Jim Henson’s creation became a little too safe and a little too kid-friendly and its alignment started the inevitable shift toward Neutral Good for a few decades—ironically due in part to the influence of Disney. So I implore you not to approach it the way you’re probably inclined to. Start with an episode from a guest star you’ve never heard of. There has to be at least one.
Hell, take my lead and start with Glenda Jackson’s episode, just to get a taste of what head writer Jerry Juhl was capable of when allowed to run wild. Whatever you do, though, don’t treat this Disney+ release like a Greatest Hits collection. There are some truly amazing deep cuts here I think you’ll find legitimately surprising and occasionally shocking.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.