There’s a reason Jim Henson’s Muppet creations endure to this day, and that’s because humor, compassion, and kindness resided at the core of everything he made. That’s it; the magic recipe that makes just about everything he touched timeless and special.
True, some of his projects were technically groundbreaking, others best remembered for an incredible array of original songs, and some were so avante garde and experimental that the masses weren’t quite there to get what he was attempting. But regardless of the specifics, a true Henson project possessed an absence of mean-spiritedness and cynicism, and that doesn’t go out of style. A lot of next-gen creatives who get the opportunity to play in the Henson sandbox often forget that, bringing with them their need to make their mark with the Muppets by making them “hip” for today’s audiences or giving them an “edge.” But classics like The Muppet Show, The Jim Henson Hour, and Fraggle Rock influenced generations because they bucked the ephemeral trends with earnestness, heart, and a genuine intention to touch the lives of everyone who watched.
When it was announced last year that Apple TV+ and The Jim Henson Company would be reviving one of Henson’s classic original TV series into Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock, I’ll admit, this Henson devotee’s internal warning klaxons went off. The original Fraggle Rock (1983) was created to take a child forward once they aged out of Sesame Street. Where would the show be headed in 2022?
Via the raucous Fraggles, who lived just to the side and underneath our reality, the show explored deeper topics like our interconnectedness, the environment, facing down our personal insecurities, and conflict management. It certainly was ahead of its time in the ‘80s regarding eco-awareness and the impact of even small things on all creatures great and small. With those problems even more dire now given climate change, there’s certainly no better time to have some Fraggle values revisited. But what would that look like with so few of Henson’s original collaborators still in the creative mix?
In the hands of executive producers/showrunners Matt Fusfeld and Alex Cuthbertson, Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock is a revival that recaptures the magic of the original and gently pushes the show into a more serialized style of storytelling—one that invigorates and makes more potent the messages threaded into the spine of this 13-episode season. And they are most certainly aware of the concerns parents and long-time fans might have with this new incarnation of the Fraggles to their kids, because they lovingly tease viewers with major changes in the pilot—a seemingly brand-new theme song, new female Doc (played by Lilli Cooper), and various aesthetic changes to well-known characters like Mokey Fraggle, the Gorgs, and the workaholic Doozers—only to close the first episode firmly embracing what worked perfectly in the past as the template for the Fraggle’s future. All in all, it’s a delightful reintroduction to the Fraggle world that includes subtle adjustments to freshen things up without changing anything consequential.
For those who have their favorite Fraggles, fear not, because this series keeps the same ensemble of beloved characters: Gobo, Red, Boober, Mokey, Wembley, and the “outer space” explorer of Silly Creatures (a.k.a. humans), Uncle Travelling Matt. Living alongside them in the caverns are the tiny Doozers, who talk and build even more in this series. And topside, just outside their well are the cranky Gorgs, and the mystical Marjory the Trash Heap oracle (along with her heralds, Philo and Gunge) who helps the Fraggles navigate conundrums with her sage advice.
Undeniably the biggest casting change in this new series is swapping old inventor Doc (Gerard Parkes) into young Doc (Cooper), a grad student, environment scientist working on isolating bacteria that can eat abandoned plastics. Heady stuff in theory, but Lilli Cooper makes it entirely accessible keeping the science talk easy to digest and inspirational. She’s a sympathetic ally for the outdoors and her pragmatic passion for nature is cool and aspirational, just like her “Sheros” whiteboard full of pictures of women achievers. Cooper is also a natural Muppet straight woman, deadpanning with aplomb when needed, and then easily shifting to love and warmth as she interacts with her beloved dog, Sprocket. And this series has the unexpected added bonus of making the trope of Gobo and Uncle Matt scurrying just out of her eye-line more of a mystery to be solved, which gives their appearances real stakes for younger viewers.
Other elements that will jump out are the depth and breadth of the production design and the engaging ambition of the puppetry. The sets are bigger, involve working water features and even more complicated Doozer creations, including bigger vehicles and even a tiny monorail. Fraggles use those creations as diving towers (and yes, snacks) with the puppets coming up from the depths of the pond with wet fur that we then watch partially dry right before our very eyes. It’s a first for the series and a thoughtful trick that just adds to the realism of the characters in their world, while pushing the art form in clever ways.
Each episode has at least one original song and, like the original series, they can range from silly earworms to real heartbreakers filled with confessional lyrics that earn more than a few actual tears. Original Fraggle performer Dave Goelz, who voices several characters in this series including Boober, Traveling Matt and Philo, is especially adept at knowing how to lean into the heart of the quieter songs and make them really speak to the listener. And the same goes for Karen Prell on the other end of the spectrum, who returns as Red Fraggle, and knows how to wring the silly and ridiculous out of every scene that’s meant to make you laugh.
In addition to a set of excellent puppeteers—including John Tartaglia, Donna Kimball, Jordan Lockhart, Frank Meschkuleit, Dan Garza, Ben Durocher, and Aymee Garcia, who delight with their practical craft—Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock also boasts a great line-up of celebrity voices, from Cynthia Erivo to Daveed Diggs and the Foo Fighters. They help expand the world in general, introducing new characters with cautionary tales like Icy Joe, who is central to a potent story about not putting our heroes on pedestals, and a flim-flam Doozer known as Jackhammer, who exemplifies the dangers of listening to those with negative agendas. We also meet different cavern species like the Craggles and mer-creatures who come into contact with one another and prove that connections with those who are different from us are vital.
Everyone involved with Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock should be proud that they’ve brought back the spirit of what Jim Henson and his collaborators always intended with the Fraggle world. These new episodes are genuinely funny, visually engaging, and entirely heartwarming. And the large and small messages put forth in every episode are earnest and needed in our times more than ever. So, if we can’t have Jim Henson back, then this revival is really the unexpected and appreciated next best thing.
Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock premieres Friday, January 21st on Apple TV+.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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