The newest Muppet Baby is a straight-up “Cousin Oliver.” And that’s not great. What’s a “Cousin Oliver” you ask? Well, Cousin Oliver Syndrome refers to the ubiquitous television trope where an older series will introduce an adorable child character in a shameless bid to attract a younger audience and stay on the air. It takes its name from Cousin Oliver, a bespectacled moppet played by Robbie Rist who appeared in the final six episodes of The Brady Bunch in a failed attempt to inject fresh blood into the long-running sitcom. Needless to say, Cousin Oliver failed to keep The Brady Bunch on the air and wasn’t included in any subsequent incarnations of the show, including the ill-fated variety show spin-off. But Cousin Oliver lives on in the vernacular and the public imagination as the cornball personification of pandering creative desperation.
By design, Cousin Oliver types are younger and cuter than the casts they join in a pathetic, often unsuccessful effort to stave off cancellation and reach new audiences. What do you do for a Cousin Oliver type when a show’s cast consists of cute baby versions of some of the most beloved and enduring characters in pop culture?
If you’re the third season of the rock-solid CGI reboot of Muppet Babies, you introduce a new character who is even cuter, even younger, even smaller, and even more of a baby than all of the other cute, young, small babies in your regular cast.
That seems to be the thinking behind Rozzie, the newly introduced adopted baby sister of Baby Fozzie Bear and a character the Disney Junior hit is pushing about as aggressively and shamelessly as Itchy & Scratchy pushed Poochie in the classic Simpsons episode “The Itchie & Scratchy & Poochie Show.” Everything about Rozzie is not just cute but excessively, even oppressively adorable. She has the huge, expressive doe eyes loved by animators everywhere, with long, delicate eyelashes and a smile full of innocent mischief. Rozzie mispronounces words like a hippopotamus and repeats what everyone around here says as babies sometimes do. In that respect, Rozzie reminds me of two other Cousin Oliver types from Sesame Street: Mr. Snuffleupagus big-eyed, long-lashed baby sister Alice and Baby Bear’s baby sister Curly. As with Rozzie, the problem with Alice Snuffleupagus and Curly Bear was not that they weren’t cute enough. They actually suffered from the opposite problem. Even in a cartoon realm where cuteness is next to godliness, Alice and Curly were way too cute.
Alice Snuffleupagus and Curly Bear’s cuteness was so extreme and so overwhelming that when they were in a scene it became damn near impossible to focus on anything else. Alice and Curly Bear’s cuteness was so vast and all-encompassing as to be distracting.
Kids are connoisseurs of cuteness by nature but even they found Alice and Curly to be a little much. They were both promoted aggressively the way Rozzie is in hopes of scoring a standout character that could be merchandised relentlessly and join Sesame Street’s gallery of beloved family favorites only to be phased out after a few years when they failed to catch on.
For all of their adorability, Alice Snuffleupagus and Curly Bear did not take off the way the show had hoped. But that does not mean that Sesame Street Muppets was wholly unsuccessful in its attempts to attract attention, ratings, and sweet, sweet merchandising money by introducing an adorable new character to its cast fairly late in its run.
In fact, Sesame Street has easily the most successful Cousin Oliver type in all of television, a kiddie icon so popular and lucrative that his existence comes close to justifying the rightfully mocked archetype as a whole. Sesame Street had been on the air for decades when a furry red menace named Elmo who was cuter and younger and more baby-like than the rest of the gang became one of the most popular characters in the history of children’s entertainment.
Elmo is the perfect level of cute: appealing enough to become a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon, fad, movie (Elmo’s Adventures in Grouchland), and toy sensation (the gazillion-selling Tickle Me Elmo Doll) and attract an even younger audience but not so oppressively adorable as to become distracting and oppressive.
The same cannot be said of the baby version of Elmo, who was introduced via a project called Sesame Beginnings in 2006 and was so insanely adorable that he made other adorable baby characters seem physically repulsive by comparison. With his diaper, baby talk, and irrepressibly sunny personality, Baby Elmo was cuter than even people with a very high tolerance for cuteness like myself could bear. Like many of the other Cousin Oliver types discussed here, Baby Elmo was ultimately too cute for his own good and too cute for any kind of longevity.
Elmo is certainly an anomaly among Cousin Oliver types in succeeding where others have failed and either been forgotten or remembered for the wrong reasons. The much-loved original version of Muppet Babies had a less successful Cousin Oliver type of its own in Baby Bean Bunny, the animated baby version of a bunny rabbit character that was being given a big push in live-action Jim Henson productions at the time.
In a meta twist, Bean Bunny’s shtick was that he was so adorable that even other Muppets found his cuteness excessive and irritating. He wasn’t a bad character, necessarily, just an uninspired and unnecessary one.
Like most Cousin Oliver-types, Baby Bean Bunny failed to catch on or stave off cancellation. Baby Bean Bunny was introduced in season seven of Muppet Babies and only appeared in two episodes of the show’s eighth and final season.
These days Bean Bunny is more than half-forgotten, although in a neat little Easter egg a picture of him hangs on a wall of the playroom in the Muppet Babies reboot as a cheeky nod to the show’s past. Rozzie is so in your face with her cuteness that it seems unlikely that she’ll be forgotten like Baby Bean Bunny or Alice Snuffleupagus. The danger instead is that Rozzie will become so popular so quickly that she’ll throw off the show’s balance the way Elmo’s rocket ride to superstardom ultimately hurt Sesame Street by side-lining deeper, richer older characters like Grover and Bert, and Ernie.
Rozzie is still a very new character but she embodies very old show-business cliche audiences and critics are rightly wary of. At this point, it’s too early to tell if Muppet Babies will become the Rozzie show the way Sesame Street became primarily a vehicle for Elmo at the height of his popularity. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Rozzie and her positively negative impact on Muppet Babies and not just because she’s just so gosh-darned adorable that I can barely stand it.
New episodes of the contemporary Muppet Babies air on Disney Jr.
The 2018-2019 seasons on are Disney+.