In the early 1980s, Jim Henson—surely the greatest puppet-auteur since the dawn of television—started seriously experimenting with the idea of using puppets to tell darker, more fantastic stories. He was fresh off the highly successful Muppet Movie, which itself came on the heels of the successful Muppet Show.
But taking his puppets and staff to more mature places was hardly the only way he tried to branch out. In the previous few years he’d teamed up with Lorne Michaels to try some puppet-heavy Saturday Night Live bits; he’d taken the Muppets to Broadway; he'd helped design Yoda for
This was the aesthetic Henson brought to The Storyteller, a one-and-a-half-season anthology series that aired intermittently on television from 1988 until 1991, almost a full year after Henson died suddenly of pneumonia and bacterial infection. The first season, which comprised nine of the series’ 13 episodes, employed a simple format: A grizzled older man—played by John Hurt, with a smile that was more mischievous than comforting—sat by a fire. Accompanied by a wisecracking dog, he lead viewers through obscure folklore from around the world. That “obscure” part is particularly important.
So many folktales are so deeply ingrained in our culture, they’ve become myths whose high points we all know by heart. So it’s almost impossible to give a retelling our full attention; we can half-tune out and still follow such stories like a needle following grooves in a record.
With The Storyteller, Henson seems to have been trying to distill the essence of what storytelling is. Because the episodes are based on unfamiliar tales, even adult viewers are forced to pay attention if they want to follow along. As was the case with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, the show gives the impression that, despite being filled with puppets and featuring a narrative that’s easy to understand, Henson made it less for children than for adults who’d like to remember the magic of hearing a story for the first time.
That’s the great achievement of this series. It’s a complete-enough vision that it feels like the show has its own grammar, one that hews closer to actual folktales than to anything else you've seen on television. It doesn’t try to smooth down the jutting angles that such tales retain when they’re translated from other languages and other centuries.
Take, for example, the episode "Fear Not." Based on an old German tale, it’s about a young man who knows no fear and who’s named, well, Fear Not. Fear Not is happy-go-lucky and absent-minded, and he escapes a lot of trouble simply because he doesn’t know when he’s being threatened. His angry father sends him on a journey to teach him fear. (Why he needs to understand fear isn’t addressed, and isn’t necessary for the story.)
Here is the first part of the episode:
Fear Not befriends a dishonest tinkerer who journeys along with him; Fear Not treats this person as a true friend and eventually gives him a great reward, though the tinkerer doesn’t display any particular loyalty or goodness. He passes a few trials—avoiding a lake monster’s wrath by playing his fiddle, and besting a man whose bottom half comes off easily by out-bowling him with a human skull and bones (don’t ask).
The episode ends with a resolution—the young man learns fear when he realizes the girl he loves might be in danger—but doesn’t really put the story that came before it into much perspective. It doesn't offer a moral that viewers would apply to their own lives. To put it more succinctly: Since the story's conclusions and morals are de-emphasized, The Storyteller focuses more on the journey than the destination.
In the series' second season, The Storyteller became The Storyteller: Greek Myths and swapped John Hurt for an also-excellent Michael Gabon. Watching it now, it feels more like an addendum than a continuation. The production values are about the same, but the show trades the first season’s dark-age European feel for an Ancient Greek one, and in the process loses some of its magic. Part of the reason is that the Greek myths in question are much better known; in a different telling of Icarus, you still know he’s going to put on wax wings, fly too close to the sun, and crash into the ocean. But really, I think the second season is weaker because the storytelling is a little tighter. Cracks and crags somehow make stories hit home better, and the those first nine episodes have those things in spades.
The Storyteller: 4 discs—cult classic waiting to happen
The Storyteller: Greek Myths: 3 discs—a good way to spend time