The year is 1982. US President Ronald Reagan is ankle-deep in his first term. Across the pond, Margaret Thatcher will soon be elected prime minister of the UK. Everyone’s shaking hands with free market capitalism, neoliberal ideals, and a hostile brand of shark-eyed individualism that will endure for decades to come.
Jim Henson is having none of it.
Over at Henson Associates, the Pastor of Muppets is putting the finishing touches on Fraggle Rock – a wholesome new television series about community, friendship and acceptance that will, in Henson’s words, ‘help stop war.’ It premieres in January 1983, at the tail-end of an American recession. The first children’s show in the history of HBO, it brings warmth and joy to a chilly Northern Hemisphere winter.
Set in a cave system nestled below the human world, Fraggle Rock explores the interconnected lives of four diverse species: the high-spirited Fraggles, the diligent Doozers, the self-important Gorgs, and the Silly Creatures of Outer Space – that is, the humans from the land above who have no inkling of the subterranean activity below.
Ostensibly a children’s show, the series ticks off all the life lessons its genre requires. But behind the innocent, hyper-colour façade, Fraggle Rock offers deeper commentary on class, labour, environmentalism and Henson’s quest for world peace.
The laissez-faire Fraggles enjoy an enviable thirty-minute work week. They spend their other waking hours singing, dancing and pursuing staunchly individualistic passions. By contrast, the little Doozers live to build, mine and produce for society, even though their radish-derived architecture is an irresistible Fraggle snack. Meanwhile, a self-decreed ‘royal’ family of giant Gorgs tries to capture any free-loading Fraggles passing through their yard on their way to visiting the omniscient garbage pile known as Marjory the Trash Heap.
Despite their opposing ideologies – which are explained in Fraggle Rock’s banging theme song – each species needs the others to survive. When Fraggles stop chewing the literal scenery, Doozers continue to build ’til there’s no room to move. Only by embracing the customs and drives of its diverse community can the Rock stay socially harmonious and environmentally stable.
Rather than foment class prejudice, Fraggles and Doozers share a symbiotic relationship. This celebration of inclusivity and ecology is a noble cause. Again, this is – on the surface – a kid’s show. Like the fantastic land of Fraggle Rock itself, there’s a lot going on underneath.
Fraggle Rock debuted two months after employment rates in the USA hit a post-war low. Morale was also in decline. The effervescent program ran between 1983 and 1987, producing almost a hundred episodes that subtly critique the Doozers’ humble proletarian instincts; the diminishing Gorg dynasty’s inherited privilege and ego; and the bourgeois Fraggles’ high-fructose obsession with cultivating uniqueness at all costs. With her esoteric musing, Marjory the Trash Heap is likely a cipher for organised religion. This cheeky, subversive social commentary is textbook Henson. Over three decades later, his ‘ridiculous optimism‘ and transgenerational appeal remain beloved around the globe.
Re-watching Fraggle Rrock now, it’s striking to see how the Fraggles foreshadowed the stereotypical Millennials. They are the ‘freelance creatives’ of their realm, following their bliss to swim-meets and singalongs, honing their personal brands before it was a thing. Raised with blind faith in their own persistent ‘specialness’, the Fraggles are like the ‘snowflakes’ lambasted by News Corp types for eating avocados – except in the form of radishes.
Beyond their concern for self-care, recycling and a plant-based diet, real-world Millennials are more likely to share the Doozers’ unrelenting work ethic, suffering as they do from the oppression of a Gorg class whose empire is flourishing, not floundering. Most Millennials were born after Fraggle Rock’s heyday, and may have absorbed the show’s values via reruns, parental anecdote or osmosis on an Earth blighted by climate change and conservatism.
Henson’s work often extolled the value of balance: personal, professional, ecological and beyond. While he could not have predicted that life would imitate and contradict his vision so acutely, his gone-too-soon genius is a gift that keeps giving – particularly in this pop cultural epoch that devours nostalgia.
During development, Henson and co. applied all their learnings from the trailblazing The Dark Crystal (1982) to perfect Fraggle Rock’s blend of hand-and-rod puppetry, alongside remote-controlled figures and the verisimilitude of human movement. To pull this off, cast and crew worked in uncanny unison, synchronising physically, psychologically and perhaps even spiritually to alchemise that which makes the Muppet Cinematic Universe so engrossing. By all accounts, Henson was also a generous, benevolent boss who sported a the work ethic of a Doozer and the softness of a Fraggle. Many of the show’s employees call the gig ‘the best job they ever had.’
With contemporary screen media at times saturated by CGI, Henson’s commitment to making movie magic in-camera speaks to creative, collaborative, physical work processes that have mostly disappeared from film sets. In other workplaces, WALL-E is superseding our world’s Doozer and Fraggle counterparts, as the age of pervasive AI and automation closes in. It’s the Muppeteers’ physical presence and emotional devotion that serve to explain at least in part Henson’s enduring legacy.
Fraggle Rock was a product an international co-production, making cultural and linguistic diversity one of its core values. Designed to be translated (Muppets are easily dubbed), it’s been broadcast in thirteen languages in almost a hundred different countries. Australia received the US version with ‘wraparound’ segments featuring the human inventor Doc and his dog Sprocket. In Britain, Germany and France, these scenes were replaced with local inserts so that viewers could better relate to the characters and action.
In 1989, toward the end of the Cold War, Fraggle Rock became the first American show to air in the Soviet Union. While the series is yet to stop war, as Henson had hoped, it still sings a timely song for burgeoning globalists, ecologists and leisure-seekers everywhere. It hasn’t dismantled our debilitating class system, but it draws attention to its causes and effects, nudging us toward empathy, tolerance and compromise as if the choice was ours to make.
Given our precarious gig economy – we can’t always do what we love, nor love what we do – the Fraggles’ enticing lifestyle is not for us. But when burnout is an imminent hazard, humans of all ages still stand to learn something from the Fraggles’ insouciant attitude toward work – if only for thirty minutes a week.