The new best reality competition series is Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge

Syfy’s Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge is the next great professional talent competition series, despite the fact that it basically is identical to an aging Syfy show, Face Off. It’s pure joy to watch talented people create incredible Jim Henson-like creatures–and, of course, sometimes fail to do that well.

Make no mistake: the show is Face Off, right down to having identical act breaks. Although it’s not produced by Mission Control Media, the new series retains a lot of the same frustrating elements as its predecessor: brief mentor consultations that often come too late to have any impact, a host with nothing to do, contestants coached to talk up things, that pointless pause before announcing the challenge winner, no prizes for those challenge wins.

Yet there is something new and alive here. Remember that Face Off season one challenge when the contestants had to disguise themselves so family members wouldn’t recognize them, or when they took a couple and swapped their sex? The show’s done nothing interesting like that at all in years. This past season was supposed to be a “season of extremes,” but it was just the same familiar stuff, even when they went to Japan.

Monotony doesn’t make a series bad, nor does it diminish the talent that’s on display, it just makes it less entertaining and dull.

Everything on Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge feels new, in part because creatures require different elements, such a solid concept and backstory, detailed fabrication, and expressive performance. They also enlist other creative people to help out, such as the puppeteers who bring their creatures to life.

What’s also made it uber-watchable is that every challenge is something totally different. We’ve gone from full-body, multi-performer creatures to talking heads on a wall to a blacklit challenge about movement. “This is,” as guest judge Neville Page said last night, “really incredible, because there’s a whole ‘nother level, with the mechanisms and the performance.”

The single best part is watching this all come together in the screen test, the performance of the creatures. Instead of a reveal in front of a green screen, we see short scenes play out, complete with fully developed sets in which the creatures live and interact. These mini-Jim Henson movies are fantastic. Like, truly amazing. Last night’s featured creatures that had to be camouflaged into a swamp:

As on all talent shows, the assessment of the work can come across as nit-picky, but Brian Henson is a great judge, with on-point honesty and constructive criticism, and his panel is more expressive and detailed. All in all, the show comes together incredibly well, and should serve as a model for Face Off‘s future, as it will return this summer, though the Creature Shop Challenge has not yet been renewed.

I do wonder how much of a role nostalgia has to play in my love of this series. While there was a Lady Gaga-inspired challenge, a lot of the work mentioned in the introductions to the Creature Shop, mentors, and judges isn’t exactly recent–the flawless Muppet Christmas Carol, ABC’s hilarious Dinosaurs, Where the Wild Things Are to name just a few–and some of the challenges have leaned heavily on the nostalgia button, too (They created their own Skeksis!).

Watching creatures come to life makes the similar ones that inhabited my childhood come alive, too. Add in all the other elements of a strong competition series, and it makes for a show that I absolutely want more of. Eight episodes just aren’t enough.

Face Off, season six: C+
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge: A-

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.