[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Where to Watch ‘Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock’: Apple TV+
More shows should end their pilot with a song that also turns out to be the show’s theme song going forward. Bringing back a retooled version of the original intro isn’t the only reason that “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock” is a lively update of a beloved kids’ classic, but it’s one of the best examples that this is a show bursting with life, always on the verge of a celebration.
As far as shows about an underground species of benevolent creatures trying to better understand the outside world go, “Fraggle Rock” doesn’t toy too much with the template set out in the ‘80s series. It keeps the same core cast of characters largely unchanged. A community of Fraggles live in a cavern underneath a beach house, going about their daily business and dispensing valuable lessons amongst each other. Occasionally, Gobo (voiced by John Tartaglia) reaches the outskirts of the cave, which also happens to be a crack in the wall of the house where grad student Doc (Lilli Cooper) and her dog Sprocket are learning some life lessons of their own topside.
Each half-hour episode is a new parade of creatures also making their way through the Fraggles’ world. Tiny green workers called Doozers delight in building and maintaining the various hydroelectric systems in and around the caves. Up through the skylight in the Fraggles’ cave lies the home of the Gorgs, large cuddly and furry monsters whose well and garden also help sustain the Fraggles in turn. Naturally, near the Gorgs’ domain is Marjory the Trash Heap, a kindly and sentient pile of garbage.
Beyond this revival of the world first created nearly 40 years ago, it’s also just plain fun to see a show with an intended young audience that doubles as a Jokewriting 101 seminar. Puns, timing, callbacks, visual gags: all the DNA that’s been a staple of the greater Jim Henson film/TV family are in abundance here, too. (The Doozers alone are good for a steady stream of laughs.) “Fraggle Rock” is the kind of show that can deliver a punchline — “There are 800 rules. Rule #1: all rules must be read twice.” — that works on its own and invites so much more imagination.
That stretches into the episode-by-episode check-ins with Traveling Matt, what might be the best parts of this reboot. Off to learn the secrets of “outer space,” the white-mustachioed elder statesman Fraggle ventures out into the neighborhood beyond Doc’s house, sending back dispatches about ice rinks, water bottles, bubble wrap, and other artifacts. (His proposal for collecting all these knick-knacks back home is a warmer, gentler version of the Museum of Civilization from “Station Eleven.”) Traveling Matt’s wide-eyed enthusiasm is the greatest kind of magic from a setup like this, the chance to look through fresh eyes at the items and experiences that can be taken for granted.
Of course, one of the tricks of “Fraggle Rock” is that it works the other direction, too. The impeccably detailed main set of the Fraggle home base, complete with a pool and fractal Doozer structures reaching toward the high ceilings, has wonder around every turn. (The walls can talk!) There’s a foundation here that lets the show stay put whenever it wants to, even if the adventurous spirit of the show has it uncovering wild new corners of the cave.
To see all of this brought to life in a practical way (even down to Boober blowing a party favor-style whistle), brings an extra warmth to it all. Nose boops, crab pinches, and scrunched up facial expressions all land with more emotion knowing there’s a human element and an incredible amount of painstaking work making all of it seem fluid.
The on-screen humans of “Fraggle Rock” don’t lose that sense of wonder either. For a show stacked with versatile voice performances, Cooper brings that same energy to the live-action Doc. Whether she’s playing off of Sprocket the dog, waxing about some scientific discovery, or meeting the oddities of the house with an empathetic spirit, Cooper’s Doc keeps the show’s brightness going, even when there are no mythical creatures in sight.
The first episode of “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock” has an updated rendition of “Only Way Home,” a song borrowed from the original. It’s only a couple minutes, but it radiates a kind of love for its predecessor that goes beyond pure nostalgia. It’s also the show in microcosm, a beam of sincere happiness in a TV world that could use a little more of it.