Muppets memories, with love

"Ahh, I just love culture," Miss Piggy tells Kermit in their opera-house box, at the conclusion of tonight's "Great Performances."

But a little culture is enough. "Let's get a corn dog," she barks, as she moves toward the door.


Does Miss Piggy typify the PBS audience, as it's seen through the eyes of the "Great Performances" brain trust? You'd think so, looking at tonight's installment, "The World of Jim Henson" (9 p.m., MPT -- Channel 22 and Channel 67).

It's an undiluted love note to the Muppet master, informative and entertaining whenever Henson's creations take the screen, which is a lot. There's nothing wrong with it.


There is something wrong, though, with its showing up on "Great Performances," one of the few places from which serious culture actually has a ghost of a chance to seep into the blighted mainstream.

But it's a perfect project from the point of view of the ever-more-timid -- and proudly self-described middlebrow -- management of PBS. You won't find any know-nothing clown rousing his direct-mail constituency against the Cookie Monster.

It also provides a breather for the National Endowment for the Arts, which helps to pay for "Great Performances." You can't see Jesse Helms or the other self-appointed defenders of the public morality taking potshots at Oscar the Grouch.

Jim Henson, in fact, may be just the kind of artist on whom the typical voter wants to spend his or her tax dollars -- if the typical voter wanted to spend tax dollars at all.

But "Great Performances" and PBS should not be pandering to the typical voter. Some television beams must be aimed high, to challenge viewers to expand their horizons, even if that means fewer viewers will choose to watch them.

The commercial stations provide tons of accessible entertainment, as does PBS with "Mystery!" and "Nature" and even punster Louis Rukeyser and his merry band of business heads. There's room for Jim Henson all over the place. Save "Great Performances" for what its title suggests, not a post-mortem biography of a puppeteer.

As puppeteers go, however, Henson was Top Frog, and "The World of Jim Henson" demonstrates why, with clips of Henson and his cohorts at work, and comments from some of the people who knew him well. (To better attract that all-important Miss Piggy audience, it also includes such celebrities as Ted Koppel and Francis Ford Coppola among the pontificators.)

Filled with raucous performance clips, the program traces Henson's career. It begins with "Sam and Friends," a 1955, hand-in-a-sock, late-night local show, and winds through "Sesame Street" to such feature films as "Labyrinth," and NBC's critically acclaimed but unwatched "The Jim Henson Hour" (1989), ending with his death in May 1990.


If Henson's death seems more recent -- and it does -- that's because his creations are immortal. The show explains the workings of Big Bird and Kermit and all the others, and demonstrates the incredible sensitivity of Henson and his collaborators, especially Frank Oz, the man beneath Miss Piggy.

Several sequences display the nuance and life Henson could achieve in the basic Kermit puppet with the slightest finger movement.

In taking Henson out from behind frog and grouch, "The World of Jim Henson" provides insight into a familiar artistic genius who has enriched the lives of almost all of us.

At the same time, it appropriates a "Great Performances" time slot that could have introduced an unfamiliar artistic genius to some of us, one who could add to the enrichment already provided by such old and dear friends as Jim Henson.