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Opinion A refreshing pre-‘Muppets’ primer on Jim Henson’s cultural legacy

As “The Muppets” debuts on ABC next week, continuing Jim Henson’s characters’ astonishing run on screens large and small, it would be easy to convince ourselves that we know everything there is to know about these familiar fabric figures and their creator. That would be a mistake, and one that PBS is rectifying tonight with the broadcast of “Jim Henson,” an episode of “In Their Own Words,” a timely refresher on the Muppets’ position in cultural history and the influence of the man who created them.

“Jim Henson” is only an hour long, and with a lot of ground to cover, it’s necessarily a little shallow, skirting past Henson’s extramarital affairs, how his travel and workload affected his relationship with his children or the things that bogged down the long negotiations with Disney that occupied the last years of his life. But it’s still a valuable episode of television, particularly for the context it adds to “The Muppets,” the deal that is moving “Sesame Street” to HBO and Henson’s technical achievements.

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Henson came to love puppeteer Edgar Bergen‘s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd characters, examples of the wooden puppets with painted faces who dominated the genre when he was growing up. But when Henson, inspired by an advertisement for marionette operators at WTOP in Washington, began building puppets, he introduced his own radical innovations. His cloth puppets were soft and expressive, the distance between their eyes and mouths governed by a ratio that came to be known as the Henson triangle. And they moved differently, leaning in when they spoke: “Muppets don’t speak the words,” director John Landis said Henson taught him. “They attack the words.”

This wasn’t his only innovation. As Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones explains, “What Jim realized is that, if you’re on television, the four sides of the screen are your puppet theater. It automatically expands the world that character lives in.” It was an insight that would serve Henson well once he started making Muppets movies that were shot on location, breaking the puppets out of the constraints that might have enhanced their behavior in an earlier era and enhancing the sense that they were somehow more real than their predecessors. (One of the reasons “Jim Henson” is valuable is that it serves as a reminder that actual people created and operated the Muppets at a time when Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are, once again, being treated like real and autonomous beings.)

“Jim Henson” is also clear-eyed about the financial model Henson built to support his creative ambitions and the decisions he made that have striking parallels with developments in the television industry today. The first Muppets television show was “Sam and Friends,” a five-minute show for a Washington NBC affiliate that has echoes in Web-based television shows with short episodes. The Muppets did ads for Wilkins Coffee and Kraml Milk that bought Henson early financial independence. And while the deal to bring “Sesame Street” to HBO still illustrates problems of access in the arts, the deal seems less out of step with Henson’s legacy (if not that of the Children’s Television Workshop) when we remember that Henson’s anti-war series “Fraggle Rock” was the first original series to run on the then-nascent premium cable network.

There’s more in “Jim Henson” for fans, including useful discussions of the real reach of his artistic ambitions, which took shape in everything from “The Cube,” a film that aired during “NBC’s Experiment In Television,” a short-lived anthology series; “Timepiece,” a short film that was nominated for an Academy Award; and “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” his feature films. “Jim was very reluctant at first, because he was concerned that he would be trapped as a little children’s producer,” Joan Ganz Cooney, who co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop, reflects in “Jim Henson.” One test of “The Muppets” will be whether it can recognize not just Henson’s hope to entertain adults as well as children, but his dreams of more daring storytelling.