It’s Halloween season! And in honor of the spookiest time of year, we’re taking a look at a Henson Company series that we’ve never covered on ToughPigs before: Ghost of Faffner Hall. Rather than review the entire series, we’ve paired two sets of ToughPigs writers to compare episodes to see how the series holds up today. To read part 1, click here. Today’s installment is a conversation between Ryan Roe and Shane Keating.
Ryan: Well, Shane, it’s time for some Faffner talk. Earlier this week, our pals Anthony Strand and Evan talked about the show, and they were not huge fans of it. Did we like it more than they did? Let’s get to ghosting!
In preparation for this conversation, you watched the episode “Improvised Music” and I watched “Music Brings Us Together.” But before we get into specifics: Have you seen other episodes of the show as well?
Shane: I have! I had really only seen a few clips before The Roku Channel managed to put the whole series up last year. Can’t say I was missing much.
Ryan: Heh. Yeah, I guess we might as well say it up front: This is not the best Henson production ever. I’ve seen a few other episodes, but not all of them. So can you give us a synopsis of “Improvised Music?”
Shane: In my episode, Faffner Hall is going to be taped for some TV programme (as the English would say), but Farkas sends Riff and Mimi on a job to measure all 1177 rooms in the building so he can plan his indoor theme park. The two get lost in the magical catacombs and learn how musical improvisation can help them.
Ryan: Huh, I haven’t seen that one. 1177 rooms seems excessive, doesn’t it? How many of those are bathrooms?
My episode has Farkas scheming to turn Faffner Hall into a haunted house so he can charge admission, and making Fughetta Faffner (the titular ghost) the star attraction. Apparently if you distract a ghost long enough, it will turn solid and then it will be unable to dematerialize, which is what happens to Fughetta, and then she has to figure out how to become intangible again so she can escape the clutches of Farkas.
It’s an interesting premise! I appreciate that the show makes an attempt to delve into ghost lore like that.
Shane: Fughetta was hardly in my episode, so I didn’t learn anything new about ectoplasm and such.
Ryan: An episode of The Ghost of Faffner Hall that barely features the titular ghost? Weird! That’s like an episode of Family Matters in which family doesn’t matter, or an episode of Kate Loves a Mystery in which Kate hates a mystery. So your episode explores the hall itself and my episode explores the reality of ghosts. You can see where the writers are attempting to do some world-building and make the show’s setting interesting. But would you agree with me that the whole enterprise is actually hindered by the fact that everything has to tie into the music curriculum? Wouldn’t it be better if they weren’t always trying to teach us something?
Shane: I think I would. I think it’s hard to make such hyper-specific lessons work in a story-based format like this. Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock never really have that problem because they have a broader range of topics they can explore in a way that feels natural to the show and its universe.
On Sesame, it makes total sense to do a game show about what people’s jobs are or guessing a mystery letter. And Fraggle’s environmental message is baked into its DNA. Stopping a story to talk about what guitar chords are or how synthesizers function doesn’t work in the same, entertaining way.
Ryan: Yeah, exactly. As I was watching, I found myself getting frustrated every time the story was interrupted for a musical lesson or performance. I did ask myself, how is that different from classic Sesame Street, where you have a street story that’s constantly getting interrupted? But that’s the difference: the variety.
On Sesame Street, every time the show switches to something different it’s something new, a new letter or number or concept. On this show it’s all music, all the time. I also found myself thinking about the later Henson production The Animal Show. That show was also packed full of curriculum, but it was formatted as a talk show, so it felt more natural for the characters to pelt us with information in a variety of segments. Do you think a different format might have helped Faffner Hall?
Shane: I was thinking a very similar thing. On Sesame, an “interruption” from a celebrity feels like another piece of the puzzle, whereas here they feel like total detours. A new format might have worked, but I honestly couldn’t think of how they would do it.
Ryan: Yeah, my episode had three special guests, and it was interesting to see how they were all incorporated differently. The musician Youssou N’Dour appears in the hall and actually interacts with Fughetta, which feels pretty natural. But then there’s a scene where Fughetta is trapped in the basement, tied to a chair by Farkas, and the Wild Impresario shows up to read her a letter that came in the mail — and then it cuts to a five-minute scene with a guy (who eventually reveals himself as musician Steve Turre) on a beach playing trombone and seashells and didgeridoo and meeting a family of Muppet dragons on vacation. It’s like, “Wait a minute. Why are we watching this? Shouldn’t we be worried about Fughetta, who is tied to a chair right now?”
Anyway, we’ve been making references to some of the characters. Did you have any favorites?
Shane: Not particularly. Karen Prell puts some fun life into Mimi, I’ll admit. I did like the production assistant for the TV show filming at the hall, who’s constantly flummoxed by changes in plans and accidentally picks up a snake thinking it’s a cable, as anyone would.
Ryan: Which puppeteer performs that character?
Shane: Karen Prell, who also plays Mimi!
Ryan: Ah, nice! This show features a few British puppeteers like Mike Quinn and Mak Wilson who maybe hadn’t gotten to play major characters with the Muppets before, so it’s cool to see what they can do. But there’s also something sort of reassuring about hearing the voices of performers like Karen Prell and Richard Hunt coming out of some of these Muppets. Speaking of Richard Hunt, I like his character the Wild Impresario… but he’s not exceptionally wild, is he?
Shane: Perhaps, but “Mildly-Eccentric Impresario” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Ryan: Ha! I suppose you’re right. Hey, what about the puppets themselves? The main characters are all “realistic” Muppets that appear to be made of plastic or rubber, but the hall is also full of more traditional fuzzy Muppet animals, monsters, and creatures.
Shane: I don’t dig the “realistic” Muppets, but I don’t hate them as much in motion. The performers are all talented enough to get a bit of personality through each one, but I really would have preferred more traditionally-Muppety-looking designs.
Ryan: I think the main problem is their faces are so stiff. As people who spend a lot of time thinking about Muppets, we like to talk about the miracle of how a puppeteer can convince us that an inanimate puppet is changing its facial expression. That’s harder when they all look like they just got Botox. Still, as much as I wish the main characters more closely resembled “regular” Muppets, I’m glad they populated the background with rats and chickens and Frackles. That makes the show feel more Muppety, at least.
Shane: Yeah, I get that having the monsters and animals be more fantastical-looking makes the main characters more “grounded,” but it’s not as fun as it could be.
Ryan: Was there anything about the show that surprised you?
Shane: After sitting through several episodes before this, I was surprised by the fact that I semi-enjoyed this one, which is why I chose it. Riff and Mimi’s story feels more like an adventure than any other episode before (and after), so it adds a level of excitement. And the musical guests they encounter (Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Gil Evans Orchestra) are woven in a bit better, giving the pair useful advice to help them on their journey, not just telling them some didactic lesson about quarter notes.
Ryan: That sounds good. Maybe I’ll watch that one. Or maybe not. One thing that surprised me when I first sat down to watch the series for the first time is that there’s a true villain. Farkas Faffner, the living great-nephew of the ghostly Fughetta, owns the hall by inheritance, and he hates music. He’s a character with genuinely malicious intentions. We almost never saw anything like that on Fraggle Rock.
Shane: Yeah, the Gorgs are sort-of the bad guys of that show, but there’s plenty of episodes allowing you to see they are truly complex. Farkas never really gets that kind of development.
Ryan: True. If the series had lasted longer, perhaps the writers would have shown us more sides of Farkas. And of course, as bad as his intentions are, his schemes are never that effective, so we never have to worry too much that he’s going to ruin everything.
Speaking of Faffners, we talked about the Muppet performers a little bit, but I do want to mention Louise Gold as Fughetta. Gold was more of an ensemble player on The Muppet Show, so it’s great to see her as the main character in this. As Gold performs her, Fughetta is a friendly ghost you wouldn’t mind being haunted by.
Shane: It’s nice to see her get her due, even if it’s not in a great show.
Any final thoughts?
Ryan: “A Muppet TV show about a ghost who loves music” sounds like such a fun premise, so it’s too bad it’s not more fun to watch. Maybe a second season would have given them an opportunity to liven things up.
Any final Shane thoughts?
Shane: The TV director in the episode is caricatured after Peter Harris, who directed a bunch of Muppet stuff including The Muppet Show. We just lost him earlier this year, so it’s nice he’s been immortalized in this fashion.
Ryan: Wow, I don’t know if I would have noticed that. You are a true Muppet nerd. Which I suppose you already proved by watching multiple episodes of The Ghost of Faffner Hall, a show nobody has ever heard of. Have a musical day, Shane!
Shane: It will be the day of the century!
Click here to play a didgeridoo on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Shane Keating and Ryan Roe