Jim Henson didn’t operate alone. There are solo-project exceptions within the staggering body of work he produced from the mid-1950s until his death in 1990—animated inserts from the early days of Sesame Street, for instance—but even an intensely personal work like the Oscar-nominated short film “Time Piece” was the product of the many partnerships Henson fostered throughout the years and across the globe. His was the above-the-line name, but that name was applied to projects that required input from whole teams of filmmakers, puppeteers, writers, and production designers. After all, the song doesn’t go “Someday I’ll find it / The Rainbow Connection / Me / myself / and I.” The Muppet Show needed head writer Jerry Juhl. Ernie wasn’t Ernie without Frank Oz playing Bert. Somebody—or several somebodies—needed to don the elaborate combination of puppetry, costuming, and animatronics that brought the worlds of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to life.
So it’s a bit jarring to see the late Henson’s name as the first two words in the title of a reality competition series. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge pits 10 creatives against one another in a fight to secure a job at the place named for the man who presumably taught the competitors the meaning of cooperation. (Perhaps in an attempt to mitigate this impression, the first episode’s task is a team challenge.) It’s a prize that will require the winner to work as one of many hands in an organizational beast; it’s a concept that’s so at odds with itself, it would self-destruct were it not for the talent and inventiveness on display. The first-season cast comes to the show with a diverse set of skills and experience, but all 10 very quickly demonstrate that the rise of CGI has not stifled the drive of artists working in foam, felt, and fur. Someone has to go home at the end of the series premiere, but there’s no obvious loser among the full-body sea monsters who slither and slink in front of the judges’ panel, which is lead by Jim Henson Company chairman Brian Henson.
But that sequence highlights Creature Shop Challenge’s other major bit of cognitive dissonance: For a series that encourages imagination at every turn, the proceedings are frustratingly cookie cutter. The premiere is a Project Runway clone all the way down to the volatile group-challenge pairing that receives the loser’s edit, then helps viewers cover the “Thrown under the bus” square on their Reality Cliché Bingo cards. There’s no effort to redefine the genre here, which is particularly irksome given that Syfy already has a phantasmagorical, process-oriented Runway clone in Face Off. When it comes to establishing a unique identity for Creature Shop Challenge, the legacy of The Jim Henson Company does a lot of the heavy lifting, resulting in moments of hero worship that reach well beyond wanting a cool job. “My childhood was created here!” declares one contestant upon entering the studio, the leftovers from Dinosaurs and Where The Wild Things Are temporarily distracting from the fact that the Hensons haven’t owned the rights to the word “Muppet” since 2004. The devotion to and praise heaped upon the brand can verge on unsettling.
There’s also a disconnect in the way the contestants’ work is displayed, through “screen tests” that are presented to viewers as is—but judged both in-person and through a monitor mounted near the judges’ table. What’s the legitimate mark of quality here: How a design looks to the naked eye, or how the camera sees it? That’s never fully clear in the course of the premiere, and the judges at home can only go by what made it into the final edit.
But demonstration and adjudication are typically the least compelling elements of a competition series; the true thrill of Creature Shop Challenge is in the way the creatures come together. For the first hour, at least, the emphasis is squarely on creation, as the contestants do in two days what full-time Creature Shop staffers have weeks or months to accomplish. The sense of urgency is old hat, but there’s an intriguing wrinkle in accounting for the movement and comfort of the performers who inhabit the creatures at episode’s end. The first elimination hinges on some cartoonish construction, but it’s the puppeteer’s lack of oxygen that truly sends the designer packing. That’s one Project Runway parallel working in Creature Shop Challenge’s favor: The quality of a design only matters so much until it’s on a human being. Like the models on Project Runway, the puppeteers of Creature Shop Challenge have a tremendous, unspoken amount of control over a contestant’s fate.
No one’s alone in this endeavor. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge will depict its winner as a lone survivor achieving their dream, but that dream will be realized part of a pack. Besides, the genuine realization won’t be captured on screen: It’ll take place behind the scenes, on a larger production that grants the winner the time and freedom to see a vision to completion. Creature Shop Challenge is about doing the most in the least amount of time, and while there’s some impressive work on display in the premiere, the impulse to keep watching comes from the sense that the best, most stunning creatures are yet to come.