DVD Review: The Muppet Show, season two
The delayed release of the second season of The Muppet Show was a matter of great concern and debate among Muppet fans. It's all too easy, after all, to assume that something is being delayed because of lack of interest, poor sales, or any number of unfortunate reasons that would end up terminating the DVD sets altogether.
But, two weeks ago, The Muppet Show: The Complete Second Season hit shelves after all. There was a collective sigh of relief. And then, soon afterward, a huge swell of well-deserved satisfaction.
The first season of The Muppet Show (see our review) certainly had its share of flaws, both with the DVD release and with the show itself.
I'm going to deal with the improvements for this DVD set first, because it should be made known right off the bat that these episodes are completely unedited.
(Okay, I can qualify that a bit by saying that, as with the season one release, the ITC logo at the end of each episode is not the same as the logo used on original broadcast. Satisfied, now, phantom nit-picker?)
There is not one song or skit missing in the entire set, and that, my friends, turned out to be the delay in releasing season two. The good people at Disney (that's the only time I've ever used that phrase, by the way) saw it fit to take the public reaction to the season one set into account, and they understood that people wanted uncut episodes more than anything else.
Unfortunately, this necessitated a much longer wait, because the music rights were scattered all throughout the industry (the Muppets, after all, were famous for performing all kinds of songs...originals, show-tunes, parodies, classical music, rock and roll, barbershop, pop hits...) and some songs take longer to clear than others.
My assumption with the season one set was that certain artists must have blocked the inclusion of their songs. I see now that it's much more likely that the release date arrived before the paperwork and legal-issues could be sorted out. This time they bumped the release date back, and back again, and back a third time, in order to get the rights to every musical number sorted out. That's the sign of some real care being put into the release, and it's very reassuring for sets to come.
Likewise, a greater care was invested into the writing and performing of season two when compared to season one. The characters have developed--seemingly overnight--into the familiar voices and personalities that have earned them their places in entertainment history. Ostensibly that's down to season one's gag-loving head writer, Jack Burns, being replaced by Jerry Juhl, who was much more interested in character development and consistency of interaction. It was a significant change, and it's easy to believe that, had it not happened, the Muppets wouldn't be remembered as anything more than another one of yesteryear's novelty acts.
Many Muppet regulars from season one were either discarded or relegated to non-speaking background status. In their place, however, we have some crucial additions, such as Beaker, whose appearance immediately brings a purpose to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew that he did not have before. Miss Piggy is also given a male counterpart with Link Hogthrob, who is, essentially, the Muppet version of Zapp Brannigan.
It seems almost as though all of the writers and performers locked themselves into a cabin between seasons one and two and spent that time hammering out what made each character tick, because season two is so remarkably assured and confident. It's light-years beyond season one in terms of overall quality and, without any question, it's a far better starting-point for a casual fan.
Every episode features the newer, flashier opening titles. Season one featured a few Muppets scampering around the stage singing the theme-song. Season two blows that modesty away with a massive, impressive set of arches through which dozens of (already) recognizable Muppets appear, singing a very-slightly adjusted version of the theme (there's even an instrumental break so that Statler and Waldorf can get a nice dig in early). It's as though Henson and co. wanted to make it clear from the very first second of season two that the viewers were in for something completely new.
As would remain the format for the entire run of The Muppet Show, the idea is that Kermit and the rest of the crew are performing a live, weekly variety show that consists of songs, sketches and special guest stars. While season one had some impressive guests indeed, the Muppets were a well-established brand by season two and they were able to attract bigger, better names.
Just a few of the truly great stars you'll find sharing the stage in season two: Peter Sellers, George Burns, Steve Martin, Elton John, Bob Hope, John Cleese, Milton Berle, Don Knotts...the list goes on. The star-power is strong this time around, and, at last, it doesn't seem at all like the guest stars are confused about what kind of strange show they agreed to do.
Between skits we get a peek at what's happening back-stage and, unlike season one, there is often a story that unfolds over the course of the episode. In the Steve Martin episode, for example, Kermit cancels the show because he schedules auditions for new acts on the same night--a despondent Steve Martin then keeps signing up to audition himself in hopes of getting back on the show.
In another episode, Sam the Eagle redefines the format of the show to better suit upper-class guest Rudolf Nureyev, whom Sam believes sings opera. (Nureyev, it should be noted, ends up in nothing but a towel, singing "Baby It's Cold Outside" with Miss Piggy as she schemes to get him to drop the towel and expose himself to her. I'm not joking.)
There's also a great episode in which The Muppet Show is taken over by pigs, and an eerily candid moment between Peter Sellers and Kermit during which Sellers "admits" that there is no more Peter Sellers...there used to be one, but he had it surgically removed. With what little I know about Sellers' personal life, that scene sent chills down my spine.
On the whole, there's some really fantastic stuff here, and the new skits (such as Pigs in Space) fit perfectly alongside the returning skits from season one (such as Rowlf's hilarious showcase, Veterinarian's Hospital).
Not perfect, but so much improved that it deserves to be mentioned. Though it contains four discs, just like season one did, the design is just so much better. There's a slipcase and then the DVD set inside folds out just once. Do you hear that, whoever the heck designed the Simpsons DVDs? One fold please.
The DVDs themselves are still arranged in that irritating one-beneath-the-other-sort-of way, but since the set is so much less cumbersome to unfold that's okay. You can actually get a DVD out of the set using the two hands god gave you. With season one you'd either have to lay the thing out on a table or give it to your friend the octopus.
The slipcase itself features an extreme closeup of Miss Piggy, and, as with season one, it is available in a limited edition fuzzy variant. I intentionally skipped out on the fuzzy version of season one, but this time around all I could find was the variant. So every time I want to watch an episode from season two, I end up covered in glittering pink fur. I am not a fan of these fuzzy variants, and I can't expect they're going to look very good in a few years' time (especially at the rate the fur seems to dislocate itself), but we'll let time be the judge of that.
Season one was Kermit's chest, season two is Piggy's face. I'm guessing season three will be Fozzie's ass?
In seriousness, though, I wonder what they'll do next. I kind of wish they'd done either all chests or all faces, because otherwise they're going to end up with unrecognizable body-parts just to keep up the pattern (The Swedish Chef's inner knee).
My guess is we'll see Fozzie, in some respect, on season three's cover, and Gonzo on season four's. The only real wild-card is season five. I'm really, truly hoping they give it to Scooter...
Anyway, no collector's booklet this time, but that's fine, because they saved space, saved paper, and the booklet was pretty worthless anyway.
In season one, if you took too long to select an option, Statler and Waldorf popped up and made fun of you. Live puppets, too...not just voices. Brand new, authentic Muppet material. In season two they've done you one better: Kermit and Fozzie keep you company the entire time on discs one and three, and Animal and Rizzo bother you for discs two and four. It sounds to me like Frank Oz doing Fozzie and Animal, too...which is a rarity these days.
It's a great effort, and I appreciate it, but things like this really only make me realize how much I hate Steve Whitmire's Kermit. He does a decent impression of the voice, but he gets none of the attitude right. It's not Kermit. It looks like Kermit and it kind of talks like Kermit...but it's not Kermit.
I know, I know, Jim's gone...but I can't imagine Whitmire's the best one out there. I respect him as a puppeteer and I enjoy his other characters but his Kermit is Kermit Lite and I am definitely not a fan. (Eric Jacobson, on the other hand, does a fantastic, absolutely flawless Fozzie, and I feel kind of bad that he didn't get to perform him on the DVD menu. He's definitely the best of the "replacement" performers.)
Season one featured images of Beaker on its main menu, despite the fact that he wasn't introduced until season two. Season two features a live puppet of Rizzo, despite the fact that he wasn't introduced until season four. I expect season three's menus will consist of a giant rotoscoped Pepe the Prawn urging you to "Make a selection, okay."
No cuts this time around! With the exception of the ITC logo at the very end, these episodes are presented with nothing missing from the original broadcast. And, again, as an extra bonus for American viewers, all of the UK spots (additional songs and sketches written especially for the UK market to fill up their longer running times) have been edited back into the appropriate episodes. And, again, these UK spots are always as good as or better than the rest of the episode. No lazy writing or performing, here--the level of quality is consistent, and sometimes I have trouble telling which segments would have been left out of the American broadcast. Let's hope this remains the pattern for the next three sets.
Instead, then, of griping about what's missing, let's instead celebrate what's included.
Rowlf singing a lovely version of "What a Wonderful World" to a real puppy. Zero Mostel performing a fantastic poem about fear. Milton Berle being heckled worse than Fozzie during his comedy act. Every single installment of Veterinarian's Hospital. The Judy Collins version of "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." Jim Henson performing "Time in a Bottle." Steve Martin attempting to out-banjo the resident Muppet jug-band. Sam the Eagle telling the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Elton John getting eaten alive by crocodiles. Jaye P. Morgan being wonderfully miserable through her performance of "Tweedle Dee." Fozzie and Rowlf playing "English Country Garden" (twice). Peter Sellers performing a hugely entertaining (and percussive) version of "Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild Wild Women." Bob Hope in the intentionally awful Cowboy Sketch. And absolutely every single second John Cleese is doing anything at all.
On to the special features:
The Muppets Valentine Special:
Another of two pilots produced for The Muppet Show. The other was called Sex and Violence, and it was included with the season one set. It's great to have this here, but it's more a curiosity than any kind of real achievement. Sex and Violence was actually a truly great 30 minute program in itself. This is...well...not.
I think the premise is that the Muppets all live together, or something, but they don't like each other, so they waste a half hour of your time in order to punish you for their miserable lives.
Actually it's just an assortment of skits based around the theme of love...and it's not devoid of laughter or entertainment...but neither is it anywhere near as good as the other pilot. The "Froggy Went A-Courtin'" sequence is genuinely hilarious, though, and deserves to be pulled out and placed into a much better episode.
Weezer's Keep Fishin' Video:
There was some rumor that the making-of documentary would also be included, but that did not happen. I'm not too worried, though...I get the feeling they're saving it for a future release. After all, if the making-of includes the music video in its entirety, then that'd make it redundant.
Anyway, this music video/comedy sketch has to do with Weezer turning up to play a song on The Muppet Show, only Miss Piggy wants to have sex with the drummer, so Animal fills in and Beaker's head explodes. It's actually pretty funny, and well worth watching (if only to see all of your favorite Muppets back in action). The song is a bit forgettable, though. I've watched it a few times now and couldn't even begin to tell you how it goes.
The Muppets on the Muppets:
A sequence of interviews with the Muppets themselves. There are classic Muppets (Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Piggy) and newer, not-quite-as-funny Muppets (Rizzo, Pepe, Johnny Fiama) but it's good to see them included. On the whole, this is good stuff and worth a watch; it'll get a few good chuckles out of you...and you'll get to hear Eric Jacobson doing his truly admirable Fozzie. (What a shame he's teamed up with such a vanilla Kermit.)
I'd rather have a real set of interviews with the actual writers or puppeteers or set-builders or costume-designers but that's the fault of the Red Dwarf DVDs for giving me all that stuff and making me want it from everyone.
We're missing the Muppet Morsels, which was the on-screen trivia feature from season one...and, I admit, it's a feature I miss sorely, but the increased quality of the program itself, coupled with the miraculous fact that the episodes are completely and totally uncut, has to make up for it.
After all, don't think of the Muppet Morsels as missing...think of them being offered up last time in place of uncut episodes. When you look at it that way, you'll see that this is definitely the superior release...though I do hope they make a return for the season three set.
Pick this up. Don't hesitate. These are the Muppets the way you remember them. These are the characters that defined a generation. This is some of the most creative, resourceful television ever broadcast. It's a cultural necessity. And it's damn funny taboot.
Roll on season three!