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Sorry, Kermit — In New TV Reboots, The Future Of Friendship Is Female

On <em>The Muppet Show,</em> Miss Piggy was obsessed with Kermit the Frog. But Piggy, her modern incarnation on Disney Junior's <em>Muppet Babies, </em>is BFFs with Summer, a laid back, creative penguin.
Disney Junior
On The Muppet Show, Miss Piggy was obsessed with Kermit the Frog. But Piggy, her modern incarnation on Disney Junior's Muppet Babies, is BFFs with Summer, a laid back, creative penguin.

From Roseanne to Will & Grace to Star Trek: Discovery – television is utterly awash in reboots. It's good business to bring back shows with loyal fan bases. Parents or grandparents are eager to revisit favorite programs, and share them with a burgeoning new generation of potential fans.

But rebooting shows aimed toward young people often means updating friendships between female characters. Remember Miss Piggy, on The Muppet Show? Do you remember her having any female friends? The flamboyant character was defined by her single-minded romantic obsession with Kermit the Frog.

So when Disney Junior rebooted the 1980s spinoff, Muppet Babies, producers introduced a new character to be a best friend for Piggy. She's a laid-back, creative penguin named Summer.

"Surprise, Piggy! I made your crown!" crows voice actor Jessica DiCicco, in a recording studio in Burbank Calif.

"Ooh, thank you, Summer," coos Melanie Harrison, as Piggy. "Moi loves it even more because you made it."

Piggy (whose name has been updated from Miss Piggy) is the character's name in Muppet Babies, a show that's a cable hit among its target demographic of children ages two to five. Updating Piggy for the age of girl power presented something of a challenge.

"Piggy is that person who's a little bit about herself," explains Debbie McClellan, vice president of The Muppets Studio, sitting with Muppet Babies producers one springtime afternoon."

"A little?!" interjects Tom Warburton, the show's executive producer, with a laugh. He quickly adds that Piggy's self-centeredness and impatience is part of what makes her a recognizable — and even relatable — child character.

"Piggy is her bold and brash self," he explains. "And she is obviously the boss of the playroom. She is completely welcoming to another girl coming in ... as long as she knows who's in charge."

Producer Sarah Schechter's given this topic plenty of thought.

I don't know how you could ever tell a story about a female character in 2018 who isn't friends with other girls.

"I don't know how you could ever tell a story about a female character in 2018 who isn't friends with other girls," she tells NPR over the phone from Canada, where she's producing an upcoming show called Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for Netflix.

Schechter helped revamp two big pieces of intellectual property featuring female friendships that, in earlier iterations, could generously be described as underdeveloped. The current TV series Supergirl and Riverdale both feature complex, believable friendships between the main characters.

Riverdale is based on the Archie comic books. But in the live action reboot, Betty and Veronica show less interest in competing for a certain red-headed hunk than dropping references to the Bechdel Test, the September Issue of Vogue and the novel Forever, by Judy Blume. When they fight, it's not over Archie. It's when they disappoint each other, like at a party, when Betty gets mad at Veronica for trying out a drug.

"You know, it's not about avoiding conflict," Schechter said. "We want to give them life and firmly place them in the present."

Schechter says exploring female friendship is essential to updating older intellectual property. Even in an episode when Betty and Veronica kiss she says — well, high school girls sometimes do. The point is showing friendships between girls that are competitive, supportive, freighted, fun ... and above all, believable.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.