Today’s Fraggle review was written by JD Hansel, owner and restaurateur of @BadHensonBistro. Be sure to stop by for a snack and let JD know how much you loved his article! (And Camilla’s chicken wings are to die for.)
This series has been quite the trapeze artist, carefully balancing the new and the nostalgic without letting either be its downfall. That could have easily changed with this episode, which serves as a grand introduction to a totally new supporting character. In this, however, the writers create a nuanced commentary on nostalgia itself.
Gobo and Wembley journey to the Ice Caves and find the legendary “Icy Joe.” She’s been frozen and preserved in ice for many, many years, just like one of America’s favorite heroes*.
This Fraggle is a sight to behold. She’s big enough that she could easily eat Wembley, if she wanted to. Her hair is like a mad scientist’s, her tongue is as blue as her skin, and her eyes are in a constant dance of squinting and un-squinting thanks to some impressive eyelid mechanisms. The puppet may have even been constructed from differently shaped patterns.
She’s played by the incomparable Karen Prell, who very much deserved another big role (which, again, the designers took literally). We all love Red Fraggle and Maureen the Mink and Mouse Who Begs Ebenezer Scrooge for Cheese, but our love for these characters has made the severe lack of other Karen characters S U C K. Now she finally has another prominent character, and this one is highly complex, both physically and psychologically. Icy Joe required a master puppeteer, and she got one.
Oh, and Icy Joe is mean. Very mean. She’s greedy and thoughtless and treats all the Fraggles terribly, but Gobo takes a while to see past his nostalgic idolization of his hero and recognize that she’s not a very good person.
This is an odd story choice. We’ve already seen Gobo learn to take off his rose-colored glasses and face his hero’s imperfections on Fraggle Rock: TOS, and we’ll probably have to see him learn it again in this series. Uncle Traveling Matt is back in this show and seems to be less kind than before, and that makes Icy Joe seem redundant.
With that said, the writers deserve credit for continuing their focus on critical thinking. When the Storyteller (yay) sings, “We know that she’s a hero ‘cause the stories tell us so,” it’s sort of a Fraggle equivalent to, “I read it on the internet, so it must be true.” During the song, the Fraggles are essentially playing out Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (on a literal cave!), foreshadowing (with literal shadows!) that they’re going to see the inaccuracy of this story when they meet the Icy (with literal and figurative iciness!) Joe.
It’s very brave of a show that’s so dependent on nostalgia to call out the way we glamorize and romanticize the stories we love, sometimes putting their characters and creators* on a pedestal. Back to the Rock reminds us that our rose-colored memories are often inaccurate and our heroes are always at least somewhat flawed. They’re human… except for my hero, Sprocket, who is both inhuman and without flaws.
What’s bizarre is the application of this narrative to one of the few heroines (and, yes, one of the few main female characters) in the Muppet universe. It’s kind of a bummer. Further, with the way this Fraggle storyline is juxtaposed with the related Doc storyline, one narrative seems to comment on the other, calling into question Doc’s reverence for her heroes. What the heck is this show trying to tell us about Jane Goodall, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, and Another Michelle Obama? Am I supposed to believe that Rita Moreno is actually a jerk like Icy Joe? I refuse!
As obsessed as I am with this reading of the text, it’s best to view this narrative dyad as one truth approached from two opposite directions. The Icy Joe story reminds us that brave heroes can still be imperfect humans. The Doc story reminds us that imperfect humans can still be brave heroes.
Maybe making Joe “icy” would have been the wrong character choice for a one-episode appearance, but this show is serialized, which presents an opportunity to develop supporting characters in new and exciting ways. It definitely benefits the show to give Karen a sophisticated character who’s going to grow and evolve over time. Icy Joe could have been simply perfect, but that would have felt boring and untrue. As she is, we see a fully-realized person with multiple layers and some baggage to sort out. Sure, she’s a grouch, but I can’t wait to watch as the metal of her heart slowly turns to gold.
Strongest Moment: There are so many great puppetry choices I’d like to highlight, but I get the biggest laugh out of the way Storyteller Fraggle runs toward Icy. It’s so small, but it’s the perfect example of what a great puppeteer can do with the simplest stage direction.
Weakest Moment: Nothing in this episode comes close to being “weak,” but the Doc and Sprocket business, as per usual (in my highly unpopular opinion), doesn’t totally work for me. Doc’s so much peppier than an exhausted college student could ever be.
MVF (Most Valuable Fraggle): Storyteller Fraggle, of course. Donna Kimball is crushing it. This character has changed performers before, but this take is wildly different. She’s got the voice of Jennifer Coolidge with a touch of Joan Cusack. It’s strangely perfect.
The Grand Return Of…: Fraggles in tiny winter clothes!
Classic Musical Moment: I’d forgotten about “Share and You’re Not Alone,” but it’s a total banger.
New Musical Moment: “Legend of Icy Joe” feels like it was written for the original series. It slaps! The whole scene is easily one of the best things to come from the Henson Company in my lifetime. From the wonderful Rupert to the cool shadow puppets to the way Gobo and Wembley do their dorky little dance, it’s a blast.
Coolest Puppetry Effect: While hardly an effect, it’s always impressive to see how many puppets they can keep in a frame and keep in focus in one shot. Every minor performance is detailed and embodied, so you can watch this episode again and again and notice new things. There’s loads of Inkspot business, and at least one Fraggle gets thrown in the air like a Muppet penguin. Keep your eyes peeled for shots with Fraggles waaay in the distance, which I have to imagine makes puppeteering far more difficult.
Darkest Moment: Icy Joe asks if any of the Fraggles she used to know are still around. Gobo more or less says they’re all dead.
One More Thing…: The DoozerTube from Rock On is canon. I have too many thoughts about the implications of this information.
Okay, One More Thing…: In a way, this feels like the first proper episode of the series to me. It’s all because this one has a scene in Gobo and Wembley’s room, which I remember as the main location on the original show. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, isn’t it?
*Yep, I’m talking about Walt Disney!
Click here to pin a picture of Sprocket to the ToughPigs forum!
by JD Hansel