In Their Own Words: Jim Henson aired last night, and can be viewed in full right here on the PBS website.
Exactly one week before the Muppets make their primetime television return on ABC, PBS stations across America took some time to recognize the creator behind Kermit the Frog, Rowlf, and the rest of the gang, Jim Henson, in their new series In Their Own Words. The show centers around telling a person’s life story through interviews with people who were close to them and archival footage, punctuated with quotes from the episode’s subject. The previous episodes were focused on Queen Elizabeth II and famed boxer Muhammad Ali, so Henson was the first episode centered on a deceased figure, and where they could tell the complete life story. The interviewees were varied, ranging from Henson’s colleagues (including Frank Oz, Fran Brill, Bonnie Erickson, and Michael Frith), to his family (including Brian and Heather Henson), to Muppet guest stars (including Candice Bergen), to business associates (including Duncan Kenworthy and Michael Eisner), to Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones.
The episode itself is a good at-a-glance look at Henson’s life and career, a perfect introduction to those unfamiliar with Jim Henson, but for the die-hard fans, there wasn’t much said here that we haven’t heard before. Sadly, with only an hour to tell the story, certain projects were barely mentioned (Fraggle Rock seemed to only get a brief moment), and some were omitted entirely (most notably The Muppets Take Manhattan, Follow That Bird, The Storyteller, and The Jim Henson Hour), not to mention key personnel (though there were pictures of them, there wasn’t any verbal mention of Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, or Steve Whitmire). One of the most disconcerting things I found was the unusually long stretch that they took to talk about Henson’s death. Not necessarily the outpouring of grief (though it got its fair due), but the death itself, which I found to be a bit morbid.
Thankfully, those are the only criticisms I have. One of its biggest strengths was the vast range of people they got to interview, allowing people to see a broad level of perspectives on key events in Henson’s career. It never felt like they were going back to one person too often. I was also impressed with the archival images they found of Henson’s early years at WRC-TV working on Sam and Friends. All in all, it’s a great jumping off point for people who want to learn more about Jim Henson’s life, but I’d recommend a more detailed account for those who wish to learn further (particularly Jones’ incredibly detailed biography released two years ago).
What struck me as extremely fascinating was that following this, on my PBS station, was the second half of a new two-part, four-hour American Experience documentary on the life of Walt Disney, which led me to notice a number of parallels between Henson and Disney. Both were Southern-born and spent their formative years in a small town, confident in their talents from a young age, and eagerly embraced new mediums that were emerging (film for Disney, television for Henson), though they were more interested in getting into the media than initially focusing on the talents that they would be ultimately remembered for (animation and puppetry). Even though they both wanted their own studio, their desire was to stay on the creative side. Their content was aimed at families, though they never wanted it to be seen as just “kids’ stuff.” They would go on to be seen as the best in their fields, and in 2004, long after both were gone, the company Walt started bought the characters Jim created. Personally, though In Their Own Words and The World of Jim Henson are good, I think enough time has passed and there’s enough perspective now that Henson’s life could be ready for his own four-hour documentary.
Right now, it’s a great time to be a Muppet fan. In the last five years, we’ve gotten two Muppet movies, loads of tributes to Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock on their 45th and 30th anniversaries, and we’re on the verge of getting a new primetime Muppet series and two permanent Jim Henson galleries in major American museums. It seems like for the first time in a long time, Henson and his characters are getting the exposure that they deserve. So when you sit down next Tuesday and watch Kermit and the gang conquer primetime again, or the next time you watch Sesame Street’s newest viral clip, don’t forget that we wouldn’t be enjoying this without the magic and imagination of Jim Henson.
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by Matthew Soberman