Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock

It was probably HBO’s best original series ever. It could have whacked Tony Soprano and massacred the Starks and Lannisters, but that is not how Fraggles and Doozers roll. The endearing Jim Henson puppetry series was all about singing and working together—and it still is. Somehow, HBO lost the franchise, but it was quite a shrewd pick-up for Apple. After releasing a collection of shorts, the franchise makes a full return with the first season of Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock, which premieres this Friday on Apple TV+.

The basic premise is the same. Gobo’s Uncle Traveling Matt explores the human world, reporting back to Fraggle Rock through postcards, offering satirical “Nacirema”-like commentary on our human adult world foibles. He mails them to Doc’s apartment, through which the world of Fraggle Rock can be reached via a hole in the wall. The Great Hall of Fraggle Rock is supplied by water from a well maintained by the ogre-like Gorgs, who try to stomp on Fraggles whenever they see them. Fortunately, Gorgs are dumb as well as big.

It is the same world, but in this slightly rebooted series, Doc is now a young woman PhD student. The change of casting from an old white guy might check a lot of woke boxes, but it doesn’t work so well on a practical level. It used to make sense that the old absent-minded professor Doc was oblivious to the little Fraggle creatures constantly running through his garage-workshop, but it makes the young new Doc look pretty dim-witted (seriously, she is supposed to be a scientist). However, Doc’s Muppet dog Sprocket is still cute and endearing.

The same is mostly true for the new series, but the writing sometimes tries a little too hard. For the next season, the battery of writers might want to ease off on the teachable moments and pick the ones to really emphasize. Those that truly worked this time around include an incident in the third episode, “The Mergle Moon Migration,” wherein Red gets lost in an echo chamber. Frankly, it should be required viewing for everyone on Twitter.

However, the series takes a bit of a Roland Emmerichian turn with the last five episodes, featuring multiple catastrophic threats to the extended Fraggle Rock eco-sphere. First, the Fraggles inadvertently dry up the neighboring Craggles water supply. Then the Doozers start building Doozer stick-structures with a terrible tasting goo, so the Fraggles stop eating them, causing a sustainability crisis. Then Junior Gorg dams up the Fraggles’ own water source. It gets so bad, the oracle-like trash-heap also starts ailing. Yet, the tone is never too intense or dire for young viewers.

Despite the constant schedule of lessons learned,
Back to the Rock has nice energy. It is also more brightly lit and features more vibrant colors than we remember from the original series (although that could a trick of the memory). Perhaps most impressive is the consistently high quality of the original songs, a number of which have generally catchy melodies (in a good, non-earworm kind of way).

However, some things will have to change in future seasons for the franchise to have continued viability. The new Doc will have to discover the Fraggles and come to terms with them, or she will lose all credibility as a STEM role model. Admittedly, it is only seen a few times in passing, but Doc’s wall of inspirational “Sheroes” also needs greater political diversity. Margaret Thatcher ought to be up there with RBG and Michelle Obama, but if they can’t bear to go that far, they should at least add the likes of Clare Boothe Luce and Margaret Chase Smith (they might also consider adding Marie Curie too, since she actually accomplished unprecedented scientific breakthroughs).

Be that as it may, the Fraggles remain likable critters and their musical chops are better than ever. There is some great design work and the Henson studio’s puppetry is as energetic as ever. Frankly, big, furry Sprocket might be the best of show, so to speak. Recommended for young viewers and nostalgic fans of the 1980s series,
Fraggle Rock: Back to Rock starts streaming Friday (1/21) on Apple TV+.