“Touch me in the dark / Put your hands all over my body parts,” Lady Gaga demanded in the family special that earned the post-“Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” slot on ABC this year. But there’s getting felt up, and then there’s feeling up actual felt, which brings us to her costars, the Muppets. Alas, there was little suggestion of a love triangle between Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Miss Gaga, interspecies love apparently being a taboo too far for the usually daring pop provocateur.
If the 90 seemingly endless minutes of “Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular” had a predecessor, it might be the long-suppressed “Star Wars Christmas Special,” though nothing here was so outrageously wrong (or right) that people will still be bootlegging this one in 35 years’ time. At least there was a familiar “why is this happening?” question hovering over the star-crossed proceedings, albeit without the benefit of any guest stars as seriously wacky as that one’s to show up and redeem the incongruousness. We knew Bea Arthur — we were friends with Bea Arthur — and RuPaul, you’re no Bea Arthur.
The real reason this show existed, of course, was to promote Gaga’s new release, “ARTPOP,” and little could she have guessed when the special was filmed just how much help the album would need come late November. The project just sank from No. 1 to No. 8 in its second week out, suffering the steepest sales drop-off (82 percent) of any chart-topper in 2013. Courting the turkey-narcotized family audience suddenly seems prescient, and you’d hope any parents tempted to go buy “ARTPOP” for their art-tots will be bright enough to assume not all the songs are as G-rated as the ones scattered throughout the special.
The misnamed “Spectacular” had a distinctly low-budget ‘70s feel, which initially threatened to be charming — family-friendliness as affectionate camp and all that — although eventually it was hard to discern just how much of the downmarket vibe was deliberate. Gaga’s miming of all her “ARTPOP” material could have been read as a tribute to a bygone era of variety specials, if not for the fact that she also lip-synched some of her “SNL” appearance a couple of weeks ago. She clearly has the chops to do it live, but maybe the decision to stick with the recorded versions reflected a desire that the show at least have audio production values, if not visual.
Kristen Bell popped up as a comedic bit player with the Muppets now and again — but only appeared with Gaga once — in what felt like 20-second recreations of “Laugh-In” blackout sketches. RuPaul did not earn any dialogue but showed up for a duet of “Fashion!” notable mainly for how the drag queen towered over Gaga, even with her transparent platform shoes.
The best guest was Elton John; he and Gaga sat at facing pianos for a duet medley grounded in his “Bennie and the Jets” (cornily re-titled “Gaga and the Jets”). Gaga mugged like crazy throughout this segment, as if she were determined to make the hero opposite her laugh. This number featured her finest accessorizing of the night, as she wore what looked like Coke-can glasses, as a possible visual pun on “Coke-bottle glasses.” She also sang live on this one, too, which probably couldn’t have gone any other way, given how John has famously eviscerated Madonna for lip-synching. He seemed to be having a rollicking good time with Gaga, although, seeing as how the Muppets only showed up as a special-effects overlay toward the end of their duet, it seemed possible that he taped the whole thing without ever knowing it was a Muppets special.
Despite the presence of some of the hugest wigs never worn by Tammy Faye Bakker or Jan Crouch, Gaga is finally letting us see her face a lot more these days, and it’s a winning one. The dialogue created for her and her co-stars didn’t do any favors for either mortals or Muppets, but she actually managed a sweet bit of chemistry with Kermit as she sat alongside him at the piano and talked for a few seconds about how lonely it can be at the holidays. (Kermit mentioned his “3400 brothers and sisters,” the one good line of the night.) Between this and “SNL,” we’ve learned Gaga can actually be kind of adorable when she takes off the high-concept beekeeper hoods.
But just as it’s not easy being green, it’s not easy being scriptless, either. Without checking the historical record, I can’t say for certain whether this script was literally borrowed from one of John Davidson’s old ‘70s Christmas specials with the Muppets. I do know he didn’t grope his own bosom during a musical number, though, so at least Gaga established one new Thanksgiving tradition.