By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
What would Christmas be without a Muppet special? Well, we'll have to wait until next year to find out -- or longer. "A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa," tonight on NBC, at least has the virtue of being nominally new, not a re-re-re-rerun like so many holiday shows.
Not that it won't seem comfortingly familiar. The whole gang appears to be back again, including, of course, Kermit T. Frog and his girlfriend Miss Piggy. The swine. There are fairly dreadful new songs by Paul Williams (still writing songs!) and others, plus seasonal standards and a piece of pure gold from the Phil Spector Christmas album, ironically or not one of the best ever recorded.
First among guest stars turning in cameo appearances is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, waiting in line at the post office. With a sly little smirk, Bloomberg observes that "the one thing New Yorkers are known for is being polite." Pardon us while we split a gut. Whoopi Goldberg is seen briefly as a cabdriver, Jane Krakowski (of "30 Rock") drops by, and Uma Thurman turns in a delightful performance as Joy -- not Joy Itself, though she could certainly handle the role, but Joy, the airline ticket agent.
A couple of tough guys from "The Sopranos" also make the scene -- do young "Muppets" fans know about "The Sopranos," and if so, how? -- and Nathan Lane is remarkably subdued as an airport security guy who still longs for the shiny red tricycle that he didn't get on a Christmas morning long ago. It's his Rosebud, apparently.
Why did Santa pass him by before? Because, Lane confesses, he was a bully in school and as a result, "I got put on the 'naughty' list!" Say, there's the longest list in the world, and it certainly got a lot longer in 2008.
Gonzo sits alone in the forest to sing the inevitable sensitive ballad about love and loneliness and hearts and feelings and -- whatever. After clinging to the wing of a North Pole Airlines jet, several of the Muppets make it to the North Pole and there encounter its most famous resident -- or are we giving away too much of the nail-biting plot?
That the Muppets remain basically unchanged, despite references to Web sites and such, makes them encouragingly timeless -- if you're in the right mood. It makes them stubbornly and unimaginatively old hat if you're not. Chances are, the former mood will prevail -- if not at the outset, then after just three or four minutes of infectious Muppet merrymaking.
Who among us, after all, can really resist a pink pig in a blond wig, and why even bother trying?
A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa (one hour) airs tonight at 8 on Channel 4.