Helpsters returns for more of the adorable same [Apple TV+ review]

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John Lutz and the Helpsters
Shut up, Lutz! The Helpsters are back for a second season.
Photo: Apple TV+

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” has long been the Sesame Workshop’s modus operandi, and the second season of Apple TV+ kids show Helpsters is living proof that the strategy works.

The educational show, created by Odd Squad and Adventure Time writer Timothy McKeon, with music by longtime collaborator Paul Buckley, is long on charm and star power and short on filler.

Season two of Helpsters, which arrived on Apple TV+ Friday, is likely exactly what your kids need while you finally get around to doing the laundry. And you’ll laugh, too, at the litany of guest stars and the occasional elegant joke.

Helpsters season 2 review

I jumped aboard Cult of Mac just in time to miss the boat in reviewing a lot of the Apple TV+ children’s shows. I narrowly missed the premiere dates of the Zoom-style Fraggle Rock revamp, the cartoon series Snoopy in Space, and the first seasons of Ghostwriter and Helpsters.

That was a little bit of a shame, because I’m a longtime fan of the work of Jim Henson, Sesame Street, and his studio of puppeteer acolytes. The original Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock, and of course movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, are fun. But more than that, they’re singular works of American art, combining the lovably shameless vaudeville tradition with a kind of mythic storytelling that runs through Henson’s warm Americana.

It’s hard not to imagine that he’d approve of Helpsters, a show so chipper that it’s difficult to do anything but surrender to its charms. The show follows four monsters (all beautiful Sesame Company puppets) who love to help the people in their neighborhood.

In the second season, the folks who come to the Helpsters — needing help with everything from directions to a small-business plan — include people like Gabby Douglas to legendary action star Danny Trejo. (The episode Trejo appears in is not simply a standout Helpsters episode. It’s one of the finest bits of television in all of 2020.)

It’s a zany show, and it’s also relentlessly good-natured. And it seems designed to teach kids to be patient and encouraging with each other’s ideas and shortcomings.

Guest star report

Larry Owens sings in perfect harmony with the Helpsters
Larry Owens sings in perfect harmony with the Helpsters.
Photo: Apple TV+

The funny thing about watching kids shows in 2020, at a time when irony’s fully crumbled the walls between a stunt and an earnest declaration of admiration for someone’s work, is imagining who producers think kids and parents alike will enjoy watching.

For Helpsters, the guest stars run the gamut from the recently canceled likes of Talib Kweli and Terry Crews, who put in decent appearances. (Crews is as stellar a kids entertainer as he is a dreadful social media presence.)

But the cameos also include the “remember me?” MOR stylings of Ingrid Michaelson and Jason Mraz. Comedians Michelle Buteau and Moujan Zolfaghari, as well as other of-the-moment names like Larry Owens and Greta Lee, all make fun and funny showings for themselves.

The real memorable ones are the left-field appearances like Trejo as Cookie Cornelius(!), a man who loves two things: denim jackets and cookies. His episode bursts with joie de vivre, and a late-episode appearance by his friend Dancer Damien (played by none other than legendary dancer Savion Glover) puts the perfect button on the segment. That’s the kind of committed absurdity I want from kids TV.

Something for the whole family

John Lutz and Judah Friedlander from 30 Rock both put in marvelous turns as neighborhood merchants. And Chris Meloni, a man built for drama but born for comedy, shows up as a detective who isn’t very good at the game Pictionary. Screen gem Michael McKean even plays a brief role as a bike shop proprietor. And Michael Ian Black plays a sailor as hammily as you expect from him.

With marvelous puppet designs, and cute but not cloying performances from the puppet and human cast, Helpsters is very much of a piece with Sesame Street, that other Henson staple. But Helpsters is on its own wavelength just enough to differentiate itself. If I have one complaint, it’s that the show only seems to have four songs. They do get old after seven episodes.

Helpsters on Apple TV+

Rated: TV-Y

Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.