As a lifelong Muppet fan, I consider myself to be a big fan of The Jim Henson Company by extension. The creative genius who founded the organization created a lasting legacy of imaginative ideas, and the company named after him has continued to create entertaining productions for all ages.
But I must confess: I haven’t always given The Jim Henson Company its due. I think it’s natural that the stuff we fans are most interested in is the stuff that feels familiar — but as a result, we sometimes neglect the original, unusual, and obscure projects made by JHC.
So for this article series, which will almost certainly be quite sporadic, I’m going to go back and take a closer look at post-1990 productions by the Jim Henson Company which I either a) overlooked, b) didn’t pay close enough attention to, or c) neglected to write about on this website the first time around. I’m playing Henson Company Catch-Up!
If I asked you to name twenty television series produced by The Jim Henson Company, would any of them be The Fearing Mind? Probably not. Only six out of thirteen episodes were aired in 2000 on the cable channel that was then known as Fox Family (which had previously been the Family Channel, and which would later become ABC Family, and which is now Freeform, and which will surely someday become “Frfrm”).
But your list of Henson shows might include The Storyteller. When I heard (from an article on an excellent website) that all the episodes of The Fearing Mind were streaming on Shout! Factory TV, I figured it was a good time to give the show a whirl, and one of my first impressions of the show was that it’s not hard to draw a line connecting it to Jim Henson’s fairy tale-inspired series from over a decade earlier.
The Storyteller was about a man telling old-fashioned fairy tales, and the show allowed us to spend time with the Storyteller himself (and his talking dog) as we watched his tales unfold. The Fearing Mind could be viewed as a modified and updated take on that concept: It’s about a modern-day author named Bill Fearing who specializes in horror fiction, and the show allows us to spend time with him (and his talking family) as we watch his tales unfold.
I’m always interested in TV shows that defy easy, conventional categorization. When I hear about a new or old show with an unusual format that distinguishes it from 90% of other television, I’m immediately interested. And such shows always seem to get canceled quickly, as was the case with The Fearing Mind.
The show certainly defies conventional categorization. Each episode is essentially two different television programs. One of them is a light-hearted family show about Bill Fearing (Harry van Gorkum), a writer who’s also a husband and dad and who is easily exasperated by the everyday trials and tribulations of his life. The other one is a horror anthology based on the stories Bill writes — but remember, this is basic cable and the network is called Fox Family, so the “horror” is never anything more intense than a 10-year-old could handle. It’s somewhere between Are You Afraid of the Dark? and The X-Files. It’s often creepy, but never excessively scary.
Each episode finds Bill writing a short story on a little yellow notepad, as incidents from his life inspire the themes, plots, and characters. There are some clever transitions between the real world and Bill’s fictional worlds — Bill sees somebody pick up a knife, and there’s a cut to a character in his story wielding a knife, Bill stares at curtains on his window, and a character from his story peers out from behind them. Sometimes the characters from both worlds even occupy the same room for a shot or two as the scene switches from one to the other.
The writers are also pretty clever about building two tonally different stories that parallel each other. Some of them are more successful than others, but it’s always interesting to see what they come up with. Like “The Cure,” in which Bill becomes acutely aware of his own mortality, despite his family telling him he’s perfectly healthy.
What’s the horror story equivalent of that? Well, obviously it’s a meek, sickly boy looking out the window of his bedroom and seeing his new neighbors performing surgery on their son in the middle of the night — and not being believed by his own parents.
So why did The Fearing Mind get axed so quickly? The format is unusual, sure, but six episodes on the air is hardly enough time for the general audience to really get a sense of what the show is about.
Maybe it’s because Bill Fearing, the main character, is the worst thing about the show. I’ve watched the first five episodes so far, and at some point all of them involve Bill whining about some new development in his life, from his teenage daughter Lenore (played by The Mandalorian’s Katee Sackhoff!) spending time with a boy, to his wife Cynthia (Susan Gibney) buying him a computer to replace his typewriter, to his inability to accept that another horror writer is more popular than he is.
The “dad who’s set in his ways” character type is well-established on sitcoms, but unfortunately Bill is not funny enough for any of this stuff to play as more amusing than frustrating. Though I should note that the fifth episode, “Call of the Wild,” makes an effort to fix this by pitting Bill against a truly annoying antagonist — Cynthia’s macho, showboating ex-boyfriend, who inexplicably invites the Fearings on a camping trip. So maybe Bill continues to become more sympathetic in later episodes.
Another flaw is that the horror story segments of every episode are always more interesting than the “real life” segments. I have no complaints about Harry van Gorkum and his supporting cast, but it’s much more interesting to watch, say, a woman discovering the secrets of the haunted house she just moved into than it is to watch, say, a dude failing to get his MS Word document to print. When the episode switches from the horror story back to Bill, it’s easy to get impatient waiting for it to switch back again.
But here’s my leading theory as to why this show got such bad ratings that it so quickly entered the graveyard of dead television: The Fearing Mind is a terrible name for a TV show. If you were watching TV in the year 2000, and you came across that title in the TV section of your newspaper, or if you saw it on the scrolling channel guide, would you rush to change the channel to Fox Family?
I assume the title is a bit of wordplay. The protagonist’s name is FEARING, you see, and the show is about how he uses his MIND to turn life experiences into stories and those stories are scary, so the emotional response they provoke is… FEARING? Nope, sorry. “Fearing” is neither a common name nor a common word, so the title is mostly meaningless.
Muppet Wiki tells me the original pilot presentation for the show (which starred Michael McKean!) featured a lead character with the last name Masters, and it was called Masters of Horror and Suspense. That’s a little better, although it’s still clunky because it makes it sound like there’s more than one of him. I assume the whole thing was inspired by Stephen King, whose name is King and who is also the “king of horror.”
And there you have it. My review of a 23-year-old Henson television program that no one has ever heard of. I want you to know that, the whole time I’ve been writing this article on a small yellow notepad, incidents from my life have been influencing what I write. For example, when I said it was time to “give this show a whirl,” I was watching a top spinning on my desk. When I said the show got “axed” quickly, I was watching a lumberjack outside my window chop down a tree. And when I said “the graveyard of dead television,” I was watching a zombie gradually sneak up behind me. Yikes, I better type fast now.
Anyway, if any of this sounds remotely interesting to you and you’re the kind of person who likes checking out shows from the forgotten corners of TV history — or if you’re a Henson Company completist or a big fan of family-friendly horror — I do recommend giving it a look to see what you think. ShoutFactoryTV.com is the easiest way to watch it, but you can also get the Shout! Factory TV app for various devices.
Click here to find inspiration for horror stories on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com