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In a cinematic landscape so dominated by CGI, Syfy’s dedication to the tactile arts is nostalgic and encouraging. Completing a set of competition series that include Hot Set, Face Off, and even Heroes of Cosplay (the natural heir to these other series about creative construction), Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge gives time to the physical side of character creation, in collaboration with the studio known for Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal series (and The Muppets, but since Disney now owns their rights, only Kermit’s shadowy profile haunts the proceedings).
Like Hot Set and Face Off (and recent new series Carvers and Foxy & Co, a Face Off spin-off), the challengers are tasked with creating film-ready designs, which are screen-tested for the judges, and must be constructed with a viability of movement for puppeteers in mind (one design in the premiere episode, for instance, nearly suffocates a puppeteer). In addition to the high professional pedigree of the judges — Henson Company Chairman Brian Henson, creature fabricator Beth Hathaway (Terminator 2), and creature designer Kirk R. Thatcher (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi) — the competitors are also guided along the way by mentors, such as designer Peter Brooke (Where the Wild Things Are). Farscape‘s Gigi Edgley doesn’t have much to do in her role as host, but there’s something to be said for the fact the show chose someone from a Henson project, which gives Creature Shop a cozy scope.
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Maybe it’s that intimate world married with the magic of the Henson studio, but throughout the episode there was a generally affable feeling (even with one tetchy pair). The judges were constructive and fair in their criticism — there was no Simon Cowell-esque judge looking to spice things up with jabbing one-liners — and Henson in particular seems dedicated to positivity and encouragement. “They did this in two days!” he gushes, and it’s an important thing to note. In any competition show, there have to be winners and losers, those who move on and those who stay back. But wouldn’t it be more interesting in this particular kind of competition to see the cumulative effect of their work? It would, at the least, make Creature Shop a much richer show.
While it’s fun to see how foam, tin foil and hot glue can come together (the most resourceful are often rewarded more than the fancy), Creature Shop pushes its competitors into unnatural time constraints to amp up the drama when it’s not necessary to do so. In the premiere episode, only one of the randomly-paired teams clash, which afforded them extra screen time for their squabbles. It’s far less interesting than the explanation of some of the technical work and know-how that the competitors engage in to create their strange creatures. The “bang head here” designation on one wall would be better utilized by those upset over adhesive issues rather than passive aggressive behavior.
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But, the team who plays well together is praised well together, and the first episode focusing on underwater creatures, the judges rewarded those who got along the best. It wasn’t because they were more fun to watch when it came to collaboration (which they were), but because the strength of that collaboration came through clearly in their design. “Teamwork in action!”
Like Syfy’s other tactile-oriented competition series, Creature Shop will appeal most to those who work in, or are interested in, this particular aspect of the industry. Given that the focus has brought success to other Syfy series, it fits in well with their related programming. Though Creature Shop‘s competition approach might be tiresomely formulaic (all stemming from the Project Runway idea tree), the bottom line is it’s still a series that promotes creativity. The final shot of Creature Shop‘s premiere shows the week’s eliminated artist simply slinging on a backpack and walking right out the door, down the sidewalk, and back into the world. Movin’ right along / in search of good times and good news / on this show you can lose / but maybe you can get a spin-off?
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