I think I’ve mentioned before that I watched very little television as a kid. Among the things that I missed out on was the Muppets as a mass cultural phenomenon. I watched some Sesame Street, of course, but I didn’t really have a sense that Kermit the Frog was as much a cross-platform star as Michael J. Fox. So when the trailer for Jason Segal’s revival of the Muppets dropped earlier this week, I figured it was time to catch up:
Mostly on a whim, I picked The Muppets Take Manhattan. And oh my goodness should the movie be required viewing for people who are graduating from college:.
The blitheness of the Muppets’ conviction that they’ll make it without much effort on Broadway is proof that post-graduate entitlement isn’t just a Millenial phenomenon. Setting them up in a bunch of bus terminal lockers is a wonderfully clever little riff on the terrible first New York apartment. After Manhattan Melodies, their show, fails to find a producer, there’s something wistful and realistic about the letters the Muppets write each other about their first jobs. It’s true that New York has always been the place dreamers come to dash themselves on the rocks (Todd VanDerWerff’s summing up of Glee makes this point nicely), but the fact that all the characters end up struggling feels particularly relevant to this moment, one where 85 percent of college grads may move back home — it’s not like one character is an investment banker, and one’s a publishing assistant, and there’s just one person in a group of friends who hasn’t quite found what they want to do.
Whether they’re ushering at horror movies, getting fired from makeup counters for worrying too much about their love lives, worrying at a kennel, waitressing in a diner along with a bunch of rats, or giving up and heading home to hibernate, all the characters try to make it sound as if they’re doing just fine, when clearly they aren’t. Miss Piggy gets harassed by construction workers and mugged in Central Park. The only thing that hasn’t aged very well is that Kermit appears to get totally excellent medical treatment when he’s hit by a city cab, despite the fact that as a frog with only part-time employment, he probably doesn’t have much in the way of health insurance. Otherwise, it’s more deflating than I would have expected.
Certainly, Avenue Q is a very direct variation on the theme, sharpened by disappointment, and in some ways, a refutation of the happy ending of The Muppets Take Manhattan. But if Avenue Q is the show that you watch as you look back with nostalgia and a little bitterness on your own post-college naivete, The Muppets Take Manhattan is a sweetened warning about the challenges of entering the labor force, especially at a time when it’s hard to find an entry-level job in what you hope will be your field, complete with visual references to the New York Observer and Ed Koch wishing he could find a frog to balance the budget.