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Review: Fraggle Rock on Apple TV+ is the Muppet series Disney+ wishes it had

The Fraggles are back, clap, clap. And they're a blast to watch again, clap, clap.
Enlarge / The Fraggles are back, clap, clap. And they’re a blast to watch again, clap, clap.

Jim Henson Company / Apple TV+

The video-streaming world has long suffered from content fragmentation, and modern-day Muppet access is no exception. If you want to revel in all things Jim Henson, you’ll need subscriptions to no less than three streamers: Disney+ (which has the most Henson films and series), HBO Max (which has a lock on Sesame Street), and Apple TV+. In a fairer cosmos, a unified Henson+ service would let fans feast upon the entire Muppet-verse like giddy Cookie Monsters. Alas.

Those streaming services don’t just divvy up classic Muppet content, either. They each feature brand-new series from the Jim Henson Company, either with newly invented characters or old favorites reliving their glory days. Keeping up with all that content has been tricky, but we at Ars have done our best, always with the hope that one of the new properties will deliver a good-enough mix of nostalgia, production values, and freshness.

This week, Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock nails that exact combination and breathes new life into the formerly HBO-exclusive universe.

Dance and sing all day

For the uninitiated, Fraggle Rock began life in 1983 as a wholly new Muppet-filled, live-action universe with a twist few of its viewers realized: it had different video segments in different regions. Hence, the “Silly People” (humans) on HBO in the United States differed from the humans on televisions in France, Germany, or the UK. (All other Muppet voices were dubbed for different languages.)

So the oblivious human character Doc looked different depending on where you grew up. But the rest of the colorful Muppet cast of the original Fraggle Rock looked the same everywhere, and the series’ premise—about an underground world of furry, singing, radish-chomping critters—was also the same everywhere. The show targeted a slightly older audience than Sesame Street while seldom veering into the rated-G-for-adults absurdity of The Muppet Show. It resembled an ’80s sitcom in terms of bumbling hijinks and tidy, heartwarming resolutions—though with the standard Henson addition of at least two song-and-dance sequences per episode.

Back to the Rock isn’t the first time Apple TV+ has resurrected the Fraggles: the streaming service brought us a half-dozen episodes of Fraggle Rock: Rock On in 2020. Each five-minute episode revolved around familiar characters like Gobo and Red videoconferencing on the Fraggle version of Zoom—and though the series underwhelmed, it was arguably a welcome way for children to learn how to cope with the weirdness of a humanity-wide lockdown. This week’s new series, conversely, is a full return to the Fraggle-verse of old, complete with a massive underground lair built by tiny, beady-eyed characters known as Doozers.

Each of the reboot’s 13 episodes clocks in at roughly 25 minutes with a setup that will sound familiar to series fans. Uncle Traveling Matt sends a new “artifact” from the world of the Silly People to his nephew Gobo, and this object’s discovery leads him and the rest of his familiar Fraggle friends (Boober, Mokey, Red, and Wembley) to get up to some kind of caper. Back to the Rock comes out of the gate with a surprise twist: Uncle Traveling Matt actually shows up at Fraggle Rock for once, and he has a special request that shakes up the rest of the Fraggle cast.

While this leads to non sequiturs and good-spirited chaos—not to mention the aforementioned song-and-dance numbers—episodes typically end with a Fraggle having an epiphany about themselves or their fellow furry friends. (Revelations are usually set to a somber, Full House-style piano.) It’s all good-natured stuff meant for the 10-and-up set, with a mix of adult-friendly gags and cheesy song lyrics like Hip, hip, hooray / We’re gonna dance and sing all day.

Five-point star of personality clashes

While reviewing the series’ first few episodes without any children nearby, I groaned at some of the lyrics and dialogue meant for little kids. Yet each episode’s most saccharine, kid-friendly content never veers into fingers-on-chalkboard territory. FR:BttR nails this the same way its forebear did—by bouncing its wacky archetypes off of each other to comedic effect. The five-point star of personality clashes amongst the lead Fraggles remains a series highlight: Gobo’s plucky-yet-insecure urge to adventure; Red’s exuberant-yet-impatient desire to pull off extreme tricks and games; Wembley’s kind, trembling unease; Mokey’s hippie-dippie spirituality and connection to deeper forces; and Boober’s mix of neurosis and chill.

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