An open letter to ABC:
Months of anticipation led to tonight. The Muppets were back on Prime Time. I would get to introduce my childhood companions to my own children properly in the way I experienced them as a child: around the TV, as a family, my very own childhood lived again through theirs. For a variety of reasons I was excited, but tonight, that was quickly turned to heartbreak as my husband and I hesitantly watched the episode, kids tucked in bed, after I had heard that the initial reviews were sketchy.
It indeed had all gone terribly wrong.
You see, the Muppets defined my childhood. I was 9 months old when my Emmy Award winning Muppets debuted on Prime Time... we literally grew up together. They taught me to share, to laugh and play nice, to figure any crisis out in out in 30 minutes, and they taught us to gather our family around the TV once a week and pause to be together. As a 6 year old, because it was my favorite song, I recorded “Rainbow Connection” at a studio outside of Atlanta. It was one of the first my sister and I learned to perform as a duet: she on guitar, me sticking out my little elementary school tummy and singing at the top of my lungs. We loved the Muppets and in a 1970s and 80s world growing up, it was one of the most important things to us. To this day, I wear a bracelet given to me by my sister for my 40th birthday that has the final refrain of “Rainbow Connection” engraved on the inside acting like a secret language between us. That refrain is a language of love, reminding us of our beloved Muppets and the cherished days of our youth.
The Muppets and the Muppet Show to us meant familiarity. We knew every word to the opening song. As the drumroll started, anticipation would build as Kermit would announce the human special guest and then give the overly-excited cheer that only Kermit could. We faithfully watched. My family bought the books, the toys, the records and soundtracks and supported them in theaters and as they made appearances on other shows. It was a treat to find out they would be featured in a parade or an event and we would gather to watch, to laugh, and to celebrate with them. Watching the Muppets was something we simply didn’t miss. If there was a special on Saturday night, we watched it. If they were on Prime Time, we watched it. There were loads of things we loved about them: the Muppets had running gags (as in - 25 YEAR running gags). They were the best in the business at having deeply developed characters with complex back stories that we KNEW and LOVED and somehow made us feel like we could relate to them all - even if they were blue or full of feathers or lovable but larger than life. They encouraged us to keep believing, keep pretending and to do just what we set out to do. In May of 1990 when Jim Henson died, my world literally stood still. I remember calling my parents crying and then us all bawling our eyes out when we, again as a family, watched the Muppets tribute to Jim and his life. Once again, the Muppets united our family. The Muppets and Jim were our family.
Yes - there were jokes that were above my head. Yes - there were things discussed that were fully intended to keep the attention of the adults in the room. But the reason we as kids loved them was not because of that... we loved them because they were just like us: Kids. Innocent. Fun-loving. Entertaining. Tonight, the reason I am so heartbroken is that they were nothing like I remembered them. They were all grown up with grown up baggage and issues. They were not innocent, fun-loving kids. They didn’t sing. ABC... they are Muppets and They.Didn’t.Sing. They had morphed into some reflection of current culture... so counter from the way I remembered them. They were not my Muppets at all.
I am not crazy - I do fully understand it’s a TV show. They.aren’t.real. They are fluff filled felt puppets that are manipulated by humans. But to me, and millions of other 40-somethings, they were real. They were my very best friends growing up. I knew at some point they would experience life just like me, and if I was scared or nervous or simply not wanting to be patient...they would teach me how. Because of Jim’s gentle nature, he knew that if they were just like me, I would learn more easily. The friends he created for the Muppet Generation weren’t threatening in any way and were intentionally made to be so child-like in nature that if he had them walk through really hard things and succeed, then I knew I could easily get through any problem....we would just do it holding hands....and hope that something better comes along. In my mind and heart, they were as real as you and me. As we welcomed them into our homes each week, they became more and more like real family. We celebrated when they learned to count to 10 without stopping, cried when they felt like they were the only Weirdo on the planet, and learned from them when they had insane Muppet-like conflict that was resolved by a conversation, an apology and a hug. In my heart, they were real like me in every way, but tonight I barely recognized them and it absolutely broke my heart. Where were my friends? Where were my precious companions who had taught me that I could be whatever I wanted and that friends and love and good stuff was just around the corner and even when it wasn’t easy being green, I was reminded that it would do fine and it was beautiful and it was just what I thought I wanted to be?
ABC, was it too much to ask to give us back our Muppets just as we remembered them? We were not adults then ... we were just children. Was it too much to ask to have 30 minutes of our childhood back? Was it too much to bring innocence back in the midst of a culture that clamors for our attention, that screams at us constantly, that reminds us of everything that is backwards and not-quite-right and off in the world? 30 minutes was all we were after. 30 minutes. We didn’t need to be reminded about broken relationships, how hard life is and what we’re facing - that’s our every day reality. We didn’t need Kermit and Piggy to break up in order to be relevant. We just needed a single Muppet-sized crisis that could be solved before the last commercial. As the Muppet Generation, we just wanted to be reminded again that simple innocence isn’t completely lost, that a running gag, even if it is predictable, is good for the soul, that relationships are worth working on and that at the end of the day, lots of things can be solved with a little song where everyone sings along.
Sadly, these Muppets will not be for my kids. These Muppets won’t even be for me. These Muppets will be just another something that I will choose not to watch with my family. My Muppets will be remembered only in vintage VHS recordings and worn out cassette tapes and a scratched 45 that sings my childhood. These Muppets are not my Muppets and I couldn’t be more heartbroken.
So today, September 24th, on what would have been Jim’s 79th birthday, I celebrate him and am personally grateful for what he achieved for a generation of children. I am, however, saddened that his legacy is being displayed in this way, particularly on this day. Jim always said, “Simple is good”, but in this case, I can’t help but think that Jim would agree that these Muppets we saw tonight are neither simple nor good. ABC, you got it all terribly wrong... but life’s like a movie, you can write your own ending. Please, for the love of the Muppet Generation, the lovers the dreamers and me, write a new ending.