In 2005, the Jim Henson Company had just sold Kermit and his Muppet Show castmates to Disney, but were left with the “third wheel” of Muppet television projects: Fraggle Rock, the late Jim Henson’s most personal creation. Without control of Henson’s most well-known characters, his namesake production company forged ahead to reimagine Fraggle Rock for a new generation (the word “edgy” was involved), beginning work on a feature-length film project. The movie would go through numerous iterations—way too many of which involved the phrase “live-action/CGI hybrid”—but never managed to escape the terrible tunnel of film development for one reason or another.
Debuting a year after Apple TV+ launched a series of pandemic-set shorts featuring the core Fraggles, Fraggle Rock: Back To The Rock suggests that the mistake was thinking Fraggle Rock needed to be “reimagined” at all. Yes, Back To The Rock reflects how the world has changed since the original series about the fun-loving creatures living behind the wall of Doc’s workshop debuted in 1983: Doc has been transformed from a grizzled inventor to a young Black PhD candidate (Lilli Cooper) studying ocean pollution, for instance, and the episodic lessons bear the marks of a more progressive world, like an early episode built around teaching consent.
But Fraggle Rock was already deeply ahead of its time, committed to universal stories that would transcend borders and communicate key principles about society to young audiences. By abandoning the concept of “updating” the Fraggles and simply inviting a new generation of kids into a lavishly produced version of their world, Back To The Rock reinforces the scale of Henson’s original achievement while (subtly) broadening the scope of the series’ storytelling.
Although a “reboot” by definition, Back To The Rock will be eerily familiar to adults who grew up with the original and kids who have streamed it: in the premiere, Gobo Fraggle is saying goodbye to his Uncle Traveling Matt as the latter embarks to explore “outer space” (read: human society), and he and his friends Wembley, Red, Mokey, and Boober live in imperfect harmony with the miniature, work-obsessed Doozers and the self-obsessed, monstrous Gorgs. The show’s formula from there is basically unchanged: a core lesson told through the dynamic among the Fraggles, supported by a postcard from Traveling Matt and stories featuring Doc and her dog Sprocket, the entrepreneurial Cotterpin Doozer, and/or the dunderheaded but goodhearted Junior Gorg.
While Doc’s stories about her research offer some modern touches like a brief foray into becoming a YouTuber, the rest of the show is almost shockingly unchanged from the original series despite the fact many of the key creative forces behind that series—Henson, head writer Jerry Juhl, and puppeteer Jerry Nelson—have passed on. (Jocelyn Stevenson is the only writer to return, credited as a consulting producer.) Although many of the show’s characters have new performers, and Mokey has a new haircut, showrunners Alex Cuthbertson and Matt Fusfeld (New Girl, Community) have otherwise left the characters as Henson created them, correctly recognizing the Fraggles as the kids version of the hangout sitcoms they cut their teeth on.
Each Fraggle has a clear personality—Wembley is indecisive, Boober is introverted, Red is extroverted, etc.—with vulnerabilities that are unveiled with new combinations of characters or escalating situations. And the world of the Fraggles is filled with mysterious caverns and eccentric visitors, and a spirit of play that makes every day a new adventure. It thus serves as the perfect setting for a seemingly endless set of episodic adventures into the lessons of friendship and community, much as it did nearly 40 years ago.
However, the first season of Back To The Rock—arriving as a binge release—embraces the increased serialization of contemporary television to move beyond episodic storytelling. In the spirit of the original series’ emphasis on the interconnected nature of the Fraggles, Doozers, and Gorgs, Cutherbertson and Fusfeld expand this principle to an even wider range of communities —the enchanting Merggles, the off-brand Craggles—who the Fraggles learn depend on one another in ways none of them realized. The episodic problem-solving is still very charming, but seeing the problem snowball into a larger plot with cliffhangers and converging storylines adds an extra layer to the show’s appeal for both parents and their kids.
For fans of the original series, seeing this ambitious story brought to life with such reverence and production value will be a distinct thrill. Fraggle Rock is blessedly still a physical world inhabited by felt puppets, with forty years of technology used to enhance—rather than replace—the show’s original aesthetic. And although there is some cognitive dissonance as old performers (Karen Prell as Red and Dave Goelz as Boober and Uncle Traveling Matt) intera ct with new ones, the cast gels quickly, and the environment and its characters come alive under the guidance of puppetmaster/executive producer John Tartaglia, who plays Gobo and Sprocket alongside a range of recurring characters.
On the subject of cognitive dissonance, though, Back To The Rock stumbles slightly in its choice to bring in famous guest stars throughout the season. With its focus on music—including reworked versions of several Philip Balsam and Dennis Lee songs from the original series and tuneful new music in every episode from Harvey Mason Jr.—it’s easy to see the appeal of bringing in Tony winners like Cynthia Erivo and Daveed Diggs, but the guest voices always feel conspicuous in a way that distracts. None of the guest stars give bad performances—Ed Helms asserts himself well as the leader of the Craggles, for example—but it’s hard for them to integrate into the show’s world, and the chemistry that allows the new cast to gel never materializes.
But it’s hard to fault Back to The Rock too much for its guest stars when the creative team is otherwise so committed to keeping the show’s world intact. There’s no gratuitous pop culture references to try to make the Fraggles more relevant, and even Uncle Traveling Matt’s adventures in outer space remain cheerfully old-fashioned. And while fans of the original series may struggle a bit with some voices that stray far from their originals, or lament the fairly minimal development of the Doozer and Gorg storylines over the course of the season, there’s a real joy to seeing these characters alive and thriving without feeling like a group of executives have tried to turn them into something they’re not.
It probably wasn’t objectively necessary to reboot Fraggle Rock: while some of the show’s messages about community and culture feel amplified in a contemporary context, explorations of colonialism and climate change were part of the original’s DNA, and are simply highlighted by how Back To The Rock’s creative team embeds them into this new chapter. But while decisions like maintaining the show’s iconic theme song make clear producers share fans’ nostalgia for the series, they also clearly saw this as an opportunity to see what a combination of modern technology, a healthy tech company budget, and a fresh set of writers and performers would bring to an evergreen world.
The answer, based on Back To The Rock’s first season, is a charming, inventive, and most welcome revival of a deserving and underserved franchise that in its leveraging of the original’s timeless qualities creates the foundation for another generation to grow up wishing they were able to dance their cares away, sneakily learning a lot in the process.