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Netflix’s new Dark Crystal reboot reaches back to the gentle fantasy of Fraggle Rock

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Both showcase Jim Henson’s love of grand, ambitious worldbuilding

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

“The Gorg Who Would Be King,” a 1987 episode of the HBO children’s series Fraggle Rock, and one of the last installments of the show’s original five-season run. The story follows Junior, the prince of his giant-sized race, as he shrinks down to the size of a Fraggle, and gets a lesson from the much smaller species about what it means to be part of a community. Credited to screenwriter Laura Phillips and director Terry Maskell, “The Gorg Who Would Be King” delivers a clear moral message aimed at an elementary-school audience. It’s also a meaningful exploration of Fraggle Rock’s interconnected ecosystem, where Gorgs, Fraggles, and the tiny worker-creatures the Doozers live symbiotically.

Why watch now?

Because Netflix is debuting The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance this weekend.

A prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy film The Dark Crystal, the new 10-episode series tells the story of how the planet Thra’s troubles began when a species known as the Skeksis began controlling the world’s mystical forces at the expense of the more peaceful, elfin Gelflings. With a mix of puppetry and CGI — and with an all-star voice cast that includes Mark Hamill, Anya Taylor-Joy, Eddie Izzard, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, and Simon Pegg — the show offers a richly imagined fantasy universe, as the backdrop to a story with real sociopolitical resonance.

This new Dark Crystal series could restore the reputation of one of Henson’s more troubled projects. A restless artist and a shrewd businessman, Henson figured out as a teenager how to monetize his puppetry, selling his services to local TV stations and advertisers as early as the mid-1950s. By the late 1960s, he was a regular on national network broadcasts, and he leveraged his fame to pitch more ambitious but potentially unwieldy ideas, including the kind of elaborate fantasy epics that would evolve into The Dark Crystal.

The chorus of “no”s Henson heard in response to his more serious pitches partly inspired The Muppet Show, a hit variety series about underdog entertainers with big dreams. The success of The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie reopened some of the doors that had been closed to Henson. But when he poured a lot of his new clout into The Dark Crystal, the movie was greeted with tepid reviews and merely respectable box office. It found a fervent cult audience, but it wasn’t the blockbuster smash and franchise-starter Henson had hoped for.

Henson found other outlets for his high-fantasy obsessions. In 1983, he and his team launched Fraggle Rock, an expensive international co-production, and one of the first prominent examples of a non-broadcast network (HBO in the US) buying original programming from top talent. Though aimed at kids, the series also appealed to older Henson fans. In Fraggle Rock’s attractively designed and well-thought-out universe, the fun-loving title characters and their Doozer helpers live in a network of caves, nestled between the kingdom of the enormous, galumphing Gorgs and the workshop of a human tinkerer named Doc (and his super cute dog, Sprocket, an astonishingly realistic Muppet creation).

The typical Fraggle Rock episode is like a lighter version of The Dark Crystal, with low-stakes quest plots that map out these characters’ delicately balanced culture. In “The Gorg Who Would Be King,” Junior learns that, according to tradition, he’s supposed to become the new ruler when the last leaf falls from the Nirvana tree. He decides to shirk his duty by eating the leaf, but he immediately shrinks. Junior is taken in by the Fraggles — considered little more than garden pests by Gorgs — and his new friends teach him about their way of life where no one’s the boss and instead everyone moderates their friends’ behavior by cracking gentle jokes at their expense whenever they mess up.

Photo: HBO

Who it’s for

Parents of small children and fans of DIY fantasy.

Unlike the all-ages The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock was aimed at kids just slightly older than a Sesame Street audience but not old enough for The Dark Crystal. Like nearly all Henson productions, the show features such well-developed characters and nifty-looking puppets (with floppy feather-duster hair) that adults who appreciate fine craftsmanship won’t mind watching along with their youngsters. In “The Gorg Who Would Be King,” Laura Phillips even throws in a Rolling Stones reference when the sentient trash heap Marjory tells Junior, “You can’t always get what you want… but you just might find you get what you need.”

Each episode featured multiple catchy songs; in “The Gorg Who Would Be King,” it’s the snappy anarchist anthem, “You Can Never Be the Boss of Someone Else.” The thoughtfulness of Fraggle Rock remains impressive. In this episode, when Pa chastises Junior about his ambivalence toward becoming king, he snaps, “You don’t have to understand the universe; you just have to rule it!” That’s a funny line, in large part because it runs so counter to the Henson studio’s central philosophy. Henson felt the way to make great art — and to live a life of value — was to pay attention to the tiniest details. Everything matters because everything works in harmony.

Where to see it

HBO Go and HBO Now. The Dark Crystal is available on Netflix.