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.
You Know What Orpheus Got
So in that sense, superficially, My Muppet Show is like playing out a profoundly simplified version of the films. The main difference is that while usually that whole 'back together getting' of 'the team' would be Kermit's job, here he, too, is effectively being held for ransom. He's the hardest character to attain in the first screen (and yes, I said 'first' screen...), but more importantly, he, like all the other Muppets, lacks the defining qualities that you possess: A mildly conductive skin surface and the dexterity to press a screen.
On and on and on, with the quotas for progression rising at every step up the chain. Unless, of course (as the app continually reminds you, even on its opening screen), you just give up and use real-world money to purchase Muppet-world diamonds, using them to buy whatever you want.
(Has there ever been a genre of games more self-depreciatingly overt in acknowledging their own redundant design model? 'Tapped Out'? 'The Quest for Stuff'? The recent South Park episode skewering the freemium model seems relatively tame satire when the games themselves often appear to be declaring, 'Yep, we're essentially a hamster wheel for your gambling impulses and undiagnosed OCD...')
So it's a game (perhaps 'game' is a misleading term; 'animated dollhouse' or 'interactive diorama' might be better) where the little progress possible is based entirely upon waiting around and gathering money – or just leaping-straight-to-the-bit-where-you-give-the-program-cash. But this struck me as rather antithetical, because when you think about it, it's hard to conceive of two things less representative of the Muppets than patience and the acquisition of money.
Firstly, if there's one thing that the Muppets distinctly are not, it's patient.
They are by definition madcap and chaotic, doing anything for attention. They have explosives experts and avant garde performance artists and unrehearsed vaudeville comedians and kung fu divas and incomprehensible chefs and people hurling fish. They swing off chandeliers and set things on fire. They're shambolic and gleeful and overeager, leaping about in a wild spray of colour and sound, each act piling on top of the last in their giddy desperation to please. Consequentially, watching them stand in place while a timer ticks down seems to entirely miss the point.
And secondly, the Muppets are famously terrible with money.
In their films they are constantly trying to raise cash in some last frantic effort to stop their group from going under, or trying to fend off some cartoonishly evil businessman with a sponsorship deal or some sneaky contractual chicanery. The minutia of finances, indeed, even simple transactions, are only ever depicted in the world of the Muppets as fanciful extremes: it's Orson Welles offering them a 'standard' Rich & Famous Contract, or a giant glowing telethon sign ticking its way up to an arbitrary $10 million (a number that ends up being wrong, anyway).
And it's not because the Muppets are stupid; it's because money is stupid. It gets in the way. Gums things up. For the Muppets, money is a necessity (again, someone has to pay for all the fish that guy keeps throwing around), but it's not a goal.
Instead, the Muppets are about unfettered self-expression: creativity at its most chaotic and raw. Songs of madness and whimsy; spectacle unbeholden to meaning; bad puns; Gonzo firing himself out of a canon just 'cause. Ticket sales clearly aren't their primary concern; after all, they keep giving the best seats in the house to two guys who do nothing but heckle every show.
So despite the glow of reminiscence the app engendered, I was still almost immediately put off by its mechanics: Gather up coins. Buy stuff. Load up everyone's timer. Try your luck at a slot machine. Rinse and repeat. One hour. Four hours. Twelve hours. Wait. Wait.
And yet I admit, here I was, unable to let it alone, plugging away at this weirdly static game (or interactive diorama, whatever) in spite of the unrepresentative illogic in its premise. All because, I realised, I was so desperate to conjure Kermit into being. Because some formative childhood devotion had been monetised and dangled like a carrot before my eyes.
It took days. Weeks. As I think back on it, possibly months.
I burned through countless Mahna Mahna guys, and seemingly endless Zoot the Saxophone players. I consulted internet wikis. Hummed 'Rainbow Connection' for luck. I would juggle the order of my routine, timing each action out as though there were some secret code that might pop the lock. Gather the money, then buy the food, then try the slot machine... Or money, then roses, then slot machine, then food...? I questioned my sanity. I mean, this was the very definition of madness, wasn't it? The same thing. Over and over. Expecting a different result?
The front of stage, where he was destined to reside, I left empty. His little swamp set decoration, sitting in place. Waiting. And every day, with every failure, that in-app purchase screen kept taunting:
'Whatcha doin', guy? Don't you know you can have Kermit right now for 250 diamonds? Why wait? Why keep doing this to yourself? Sure, 40 diamonds cost $1.99, but don't think about the math. Just give up. Give in. Look at Animal! He's got a whole mess of diamonds in his mouth for you. All for you. Just click. It's easy. You've been clicking for months, after all. What's one more, just to speed things along?'
But Kermit would never have bent, I reminded myself. Kermit would never have just given in. Because Kermit is not about the money. The Muppets – in total opposition to the design model of this app and it's urgency to sell out – are about persisting at failure, refusing to change, no matter what.
Even into madness.
So I kept going. Through the looking glass. Do do dee doo... Spinning and gathering and clicking and cycling and bopping along and roses and singing vegetables and several Miss Piggies and a laser light show and Jax F**king Strumley coming out the yang.
And then suddenly, from out of the pixelated blur, there he was. At last.
Kermit T. Frog. On a little stool, banjo in hand, tapping his foot and plucking away at the strings.
And when you clicked him, he said, 'Hi ho!'
And as I stared in at him, just as cheery and hopeful as he'd lived in my memory, just as he has always remained, I thought: Maybe this was the point. This elation. Maybe all this was the secret genius of the game. Dollhouse. Diorama. Whatever. Suddenly, I understood. It all made a frenzied hypercolour sense.
Maybe the app itself was designed as a test – a gauntlet through which you are led, to be beaten down and tempted at every angle. It may as well have been programmed by Doc Hopper or Tex Richman, or any of those other scheming businessmen who've tried to swindle the Muppets in the past. You'll never succeed, it says. Don't you know it's hopeless? You Muppets will never win! Just enable in-app purchases already!
But if you persist, if you hold on to your own irrational, impossible hope, ignoring the cash and persisting toward that purer, 'not-easy' kind of green, then the journey will mean so much more. You too, in embracing that happy lunacy, will be free to let go. To become a Muppet in your mind...
...for about two minutes.
Because then the next stage looms ahead, with several more behind it, and there are whole new rosters of characters to unlock, and more decorations to buy, and endless stuff to collect, all at a steadily rising cost, and the madness swirls again, and there's no way out, and hey, those diamonds in Animal's mouth are a major choking hazard, and is anyone else having trouble catching their breath?!
It was vertiginous. Stretching infinitely away. Forever... And my tapping finger was a' twitchin'... I was losing myself... But then –
I peered again into his warm, unblinking eyes, saw him sway in place and warble his pre-programmed melody. And this time I saw the truth. Of course, I already knew that this stiff little animatio wasn't the Muppet Theatre of the show, and that despite the app proclaiming it so, I was in no way their manager; but suddenly, in that moment, a greater realisation rushed over me. That Sisyphean nether space I mentioned before? That wasn't a joke.
This was the Orpheus myth. The tale of a musician who descended into the pitiless eternal depths of the underworld to reclaim his lost love. I really had followed Kermit into Hell. You just had to swap out Orpheus for me; Eurydice for a frog; a lyre for a cartoon banjo; and Hades for the iTunes store (which, if you've read their user agreements is not such a stretch).
Like Orpheus, I had descended into the Underworld hoping to retrieve what was dearest to me – only to be thwarted by the cruelties of fate. But in this version, I didn't get to win his freedom. Instead, Kermit told me to run. Flee! Escape and don't look back! This way oblivion lies.
In one revelatory jolt, the discordance of those two sensibilities – the eternal, grinding regress of the freemium model and the unfettered hopefulness of the Muppets perennial leader – broke the spell, and my time with My Muppet Show came to an end. Kermit, my hero, had done it again; he had stared into the abyss and had not been changed (sucked in, Nietzsche); and with a smile had set me free.
As I closed out of the app for the final time, looking down at the reflection of my face in the tablet screen, I remembered another version of the Orpheus myth. In his Symposium, Plato tells a version of the story in which Orpheus never actually sees his lover again. Instead, the gods offer him only an apparition of the woman he lost (179d). Plato means it as a criticism. Orpheus was too fickle to die for love, and so was 'rewarded' only with a phantom, an image.
It struck me that My Muppet Show, when it indulges its worst impulses, is doing much the same as the gods in Plato's version: cynically offering images of beloved characters as bait. But this as much misunderstands the Muppets themselves as it does the audience that holds them dear. After all, the Muppets already are images. Bits of felt and ping pong balls and funny voices held together with string and imagination.
And as Kermit reminds us: rainbows might only be visions, sure, but illusions still have power. They move us. Tempt us to dream. Its why he and the Muppets have lived on, for decades and across mediums, even beyond their original creators and performers. They remind us of who we are, and what we can be. Vital. Madcap. Filled with unbridled creative glee. They're chefs. Artists. Scientists. Dancers. Chickens. Workers. Actors. Lovers. Dreamers. Me.
They don't live in My Muppet Show. They can't be bartered for or imprisoned. They're not freemium. They're free.
And that makes them heroes. Especially the naked guy with the banjo that lives in the swamp.