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Syfy's Creature Shop Challenge adheres to "reality competition" playbook while also turning a few new pages


Featured creatures Gigi Edgley and Brian Henson. Syfy photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 25th at 9 p.m. (central) on Syfy
Featuring: Brian Henson, Gigi Edgley, Beth Hathaway, Kirk Thatcher and 10 contestants
Produced by: Brian Henson, Lisa Henson, Joseph Freed, Rob Bagshaw

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All the usual “reality competition” show trappings are glaringly and sometimes groaningly evident in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.

Notably and visually unique, however, are the tasks facing 10 contestants seeking a “coveted job” within the Muppet-driven Henson empire. See for yourself when the eight-episode series launches Tuesday, March 25th on Syfy.

The still revered Jim Henson died in 1990. But his son, Brian, lives on to helm the Henson ship and chart new courses with his sister, Lisa. She’s behind the scenes for Creature Shop Challenge while brother Brian serves as both lead judge and overall maitre d’. As such he’s not the most riveting of TV personalities, whether smiling benignly or saying repeatedly, “Let’s move on to.” But like his father, he does seem like a really nice guy.

The 10 supplicants, most of whom have previous experience in the creature-building trade, are all wide-eyed and gushy upon first meeting Henson and host Gig Edgley, an Australian actress who played Chiana on Syfy’s Farscape series.

“Oh my God, it’s Brian Henson!” says one. ”I’m just out of my mind excited,” says another.

They’re all identified by first names only. Robert, 29, from Kissimmee, FL, works at Disney World. “Jim Henson is better than Disney,” he tells the camera. “Oh God, I’m gonna get fired.” Someone probably encouraged him to say that. And he may be right, given Disney’s notorious vigilance in protecting its brand. But if Robert ends up winning, who cares? He can whistle while he works at the Creature Shop.

Contestants are quickly presented with their first challenge. Working in teams of two and given just two days, they must design and create an original sea creature discovered on the ocean floor by a submarine search light. And whatever they come up with must be big enough to completely conceal a human performer within. The designated mentor is designer Peter Brooke, who of course is genial and encouraging during his few moments on camera.

Even squeezably soft reality competition shows need a little edgy drama, though. Providing it is cranky 41-year-old Russ, who’s teamed with chatty 28-year-old Tina. He carps throughout their attempts to build what turns out to be a creature named Ethel.

“Tina has put herself in charge,” says Russ. “She never shuts up enough for you to get your point across.” Therefore, he deduces, she’s going to be a “pain in the ass.”

Russ even unleashes a bleeped f-bomb upon finally telling Tina face to face, “If you’re going to agree with me, then (#$@!) agree with me.” Not to give away too much, but this automatically means that Russ won’t be going home at the end of Episode 1. You want to keep a guy like him around for a while. Maybe he can even have a nicely choreographed redemptive moment.

The show picks up when the creations are finally finished and put to the test in front of judges Henson, creature designer Kirk Thatcher (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi) and creature fabricator Beth Hathaway (Jurassic Park). Each of the five finished products undergoes a “screen test” before judges render verdicts. It’s fun to watch what they’ve somehow managed to throw together from scratch.

“My overall impression is it’s very cartoon-y,” Thatcher tells one of the teams. But everyone also gets some praise before Henson shifts into “Let’s move on to” mode.

Russ and Tina continue to bicker, both during the judging process and backstage after it. Even Henson says this is “appalling.” And here’s a guy who’s probably not easily appalled. After two teams are declared “safe,” it’s time for Henson to say, “The judges and I were most impressed with . . .” This means it’s also time for the music to swell en route to a commercial break. The buildup is then repeated upon return.

Only one member of a team is evicted, leaving nine contestants still in the running for next week’s task. Creature Shop Challenge is inviting enough to merit another look. Not for its pro forma adherence to the “reality competition” handbook but for whatever creative hoops await its very eager group of contestants.


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