My Muppet Show is the Orpheus myth. You just have to swap out Orpheus for me; Eurydice for a frog; a lyre for a cartoon banjo; and Hades for the iTunes store.
I blather on a lot about heroes. About Buffy and Batman. About the Doctor, and the warriors of Homeric poetry, and Femshep (well, at least until Bioware turned her into a Choose-Your-Own-War-Criminal patsy in the punch-line of their trilogy). Heroes embody those aspects of ourselves and our culture that we most admire, or would like to emulate. Cunning. Fortitude. Valour. Bowties. Some fade with the passing of whatever age they best reflect, others seem to live on indefinitely, revitalised as each new generation reconnects with the universality of their struggle, becoming portraits of our elemental better natures.
So with that in mind, I'm not sure what exactly it says about me to admit that my ultimate hero has and always will be a banjo-playing nudist emcee with a penchant for flies and a notoriously unprofessional relationship with his leading lady...
Yep. My hero is Kermit the Frog.
As a child I would have followed Kermit into hell and back (...and I've watched The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, so many would argue I already have). To me, he remains one of the most important figures in contemporary culture. And not just because whole generations have him engrained in their psyche through mass media osmosis, or because he taught many of us what the letter 'B' stands for; it's because unlike countless other icons, he's never been forced to sacrifice the characteristics that have always defined him.
And that is no small feat in a world where 'gritty reboot' is the routine kneejerk reaction for any franchise with the smallest amount of nostalgic cache. (cough) Michael Bay (cough)
Oh. Sorry. I had something in my throat. What I meant to say was: Michael Bay makes horrible, lazy movies that shamelessly strip mine collective nostalgia, reducing it to his signature brand of asinine, cynical slurry.
From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Alice in Burtonland, more often than not bland brooding gets mistaken for characterisation, playfulness gets bogged down in contrived moral 'compromise', and wonder is traded in for ham-fisted three-act quest narratives copy-pasted from Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey for Dummies. It's a world of narratives in which we've become hard-wired to follow even the laziest of 'transformative' character arcs, so habituated to even the most hackneyed of these plots that now even Superman has to trash a city, shrug off the death of millions, and murder a guy before he can learn why killing is wrong ...or something. Honestly, that film was so stupid it's impossible to know what they were trying to say.
But thankfully, not so for Kermit. He remains constant. Familiar. Even though he's had multiple careers across several different mediums – in Sesame Street he was the guy in the snappy trench coat and hat, reporting from the frontlines of nursery rhyme controversies and just plain weird stuff; he's been a stage manager; a host; a musician (just you try to find me a catchier song than 'Caribbean Amphibian' (yeah, didn't think so); a producer; a criminally unsupervised baby in a sailor suit – he has always retained his essential enthusiasm and optimism.
He's often the straight-man of the Muppet ensemble. He's the one reminding them to stick together; to rehearse; to, maybe, not eat the guest stars or fire the chicken cannon into the crowd. But he's never the wet-blanket. He gets exasperated and panicked, he screams and waves his arms about, but he never loses hope. He doesn't give up. In a very real way, it's the reason he's a hero: he doesn't change. Because sometimes you want your heroes to remain strong for you, no matter what the circumstance. To remind you the value of resolve.
It's no surprise then that his famous refrain is a welcoming 'Hi ho!' salute, and his signature song, 'The Rainbow Connection', is an exquisite rumination brimming over with longing, all about believing that one day, if we strive, we might understand the incomprehensible. Or at least be united in the communal dream that we can. He has faith in others, and he encourages them have faith in themselves. Heck, he gives them a stage and offers the introduction.
I've admired all this about Kermit for years – for so long, in fact, that I can't even recall when I first became enchanted. He seems to have always been imprinted on my psyche (and yes, as a consequence 'Pictures In My Head' from the 2009 movie destroyed me when I heard it the first time). But it was only recently, while playing one of the Muppets' forays into new media – the iPad app My Muppet Show – that I realised how devoted to this amphibian troubadour I am, and just how far into an unfamiliar landscape I will quest in the hope of finding him...
For those not familiar, My Muppet Show is a licensed freemium game in which you are tasked with 'managing' the Muppet Theatre. The premise, such as there is one, is that one of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's experiments went wrong, leaving the Muppets all 'digitised' into a videogame nether-space. Your job therefore involves downloading them back into being, and building up a display of characters on stage, where they eventually together sing as a chorus.
I would encourage you to not think about the ramifications of that concept for too long though, or you might become paralysed by the realisation that despite your input, you cannot save them from this digital realm. That you are but the ghoulish ringmaster of their Sisyphean nightmare, staring in through the inky black of your iPad screen to prop them on display like withered scarecrows and stir them into soulless song. That they are but chattering puppets, stagnating in a ceaseless limbo where 'freedom' is but a cruel fantasy and even the reprieve of death is denied them.
You know. Something like that.
I can only speak for myself, but when starting the app there was a genuine (if transitory) glee in seeing a tiny rendition of the Muppet Theatre in all its chipped brickwork, rickety lighting rigs, and signature dank splendour. And I did get a jolt of giddiness seeing Rowlf (always one of my favourites) waggling his head along to a tune as he pounds on the upright piano and croons, or watching the band members of Electric Mayhem assemble one by one around Animal (who, it must be said, remains uncharacteristically restrained on the drums).
And there is some thematic sweetness to watching the crew all gradually recombine under the influence of my prompting. After all, there is a reason those Muppet movies keep rehearsing the 'getting the whole team back together' trope, and that the main threat confronting them is always dispersal. This band of misfits belongs together, and the idea of them splintered apart is heartbreaking. There's even a lovely conceit in the way they reassemble to make music together – even if that mostly involves just cleaning up the stage, 'upgrading' dressing rooms, and having every song ultimately being just one long, looping riff, devoid of the anarchic energy that characterises most of their material.