The Jim Henson Creature Shop is, by most standards, the best puppeteering studio in the world. The creatures that have been designed there are a part of culture. Now with Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge we get a small taste of what it’s like to be a part of the design. Taking a cue from Syfy’s other practical effects challenge show, Face/Off, the new show puts ten aspiring Henson puppet creators to the test.
Hosted by Farscape’s Gigi Edgley, who is a long time friend of the Jim Henson Studio, Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge is a beacon of hope for movie artisans. We’ll get to the problems that the show itself has, but it’s important that this kind of work continues on as we become more accustomed to CGI characters. The Jim Henson Creature Shop is about imagination, and making what’s impossible possible.
The first episode has Brian Henson tasking the ten contestants to work in teams of two to come up with a newly discovered creature from the bottom of the ocean. Not just an aquatic animal, but something with substance and history. It’s what sets The Jim Henson Creature Shop apart, that extra effort put into the motivation of a creature. The contestants are not just being tested on their ability to machine a puppet, but to create a world in which that now living creature would exist.
Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge is by no means a new commodity in reality television. It takes the same formulaic structure that has been the standard for well over a decade. You have forced drama between the contestants, the design challenge of the week, guest advisors who are luminaries in the puppeteering design world, and a host who is not a designer but is capable of talking a good game because she’s worked with puppets. It’s what you see on Face/Off, Top Chef, and a slew of other reality challenge shows. It’s a bit banal when you consider the source material is some of the most creative work in film and television history.
This rich history is what makes the show stand out. The ten contestants are not all that engaging, which may become a problem for the viability of the series. However, when you’re introduced to Brian Henson and you see the creature shop it is astounding to think of all the wonders that have been created there. And you watch in excitement, no joke, as these struggling artists try and come up with a way to impress and cajole their way into the good graces of the Jim Henson Studio.
That’s what is the most intriguing about the mindset of the participants. Some of them are focused on doing the most Jim Henson-esque creature possible, foregoing any consideration of story or the puppeteers comfort. Others are frustrated with the design, and yet unwilling to offer proper constructive criticism to see the design improved. What is always there, literally and figuratively as there are famous puppets in the studio, is the huge shadow of Jim Henson. This is not going to be a challenge of who can use foam the best, but instead who is the best storyteller. That is what makes Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge a compelling hour of television.
It’d be nice if the formula had been altered in some interesting way, kind of how Chopped took the cooking challenge show formula and twisted it in a subtle enough way to be be new and still familiar. That type of show would have been brilliant here. As it stands, Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge is a boring showpiece of something truly awesome. Get past the silly forced reality show drama, and you get to watch dreamers try to impress their idols. That is a beautiful thing to watch.
Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge premieres Tuesday, March 25 at 10:00 p.m. ET on Syfy.