Kermit would blush if he heard the things that come out of the mouths of the puppets featured on Felt, a new series on Logo TV, the network aimed at LGBT viewers as well as their straight allies.
About as far away as you can get from Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, the series, which airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. EST, finds puppets reenacting couples therapy sessions, speaking frankly about everything from infidelity to sexual incompatibility to fetishes.
And while the puppets are the faces of Felt, audio recordings of actual couples therapy sessions form the soundtrack. The intimate revelations of two dozen duos, including a straight Christian couple that got married young, lesbians struggling with a lack of intimacy, and gay men divided by body issues, will be depicted over the course of the show’s eight-episode run.
“Logo has been amazing about letting us explore anything and everything. If you name a relatable relationship issue, it’s probably in the show,” says Tom Forman, CEO of RelativityREAL, which conceived of Felt in partnership with New Birch Productions.
But why play out real-life scenarios with puppets? “We used puppets to protect the identities of the people on the show. Seriously. It’s not a gimmick,” Forman says. “If we couldn’t protect their privacy, we would be stuck with the typical reality TV weirdos, which is a lot less fun. In a counterintuitive way, the puppets allow us to make the show more real.”
Well, there are some limitations. The puppet sex–the puppets reenact intimacy exercises–only goes so far. “We did have to make sure any puppet sex stayed thoroughly PG,” Forman says.
And that’s surely for the best.
Executive producer and showrunner Adam de la Peña, who last worked with puppets as a writer on Crank Yankers, oversaw the design of Felt‘s nonhuman cast. “We wanted to make them really, really interesting and fun, but you’ll also notice they’re human colors. They’re not crazy colors. Everything is a human/puppet-type thing,” de la Peña says, noting, “At the same time, we didn’t want to make them super humanlike. That tends to be creepy.”
The puppets aren’t life-size—most stand about 27 inches tall. But they do have noggins that are in close proportion to adult human heads. That said, you don’t see a lot of close-ups on Felt. “We learned while we were editing that it was best to stay a lot on the two-shot because puppets can’t move their eyes, and they emote with their hands and their bodies,” says de la Peña. “So close-ups don’t work well for puppets.”
The three therapists featured on the show are dedicated puppets. The rotating cast of patients is made from stock puppets with interchangeable eyes, hair, and other features. “We listened to the voices of the people [in the audio recordings of the therapy sessions], and then we designed the puppets based on those voices. We never see the people,” de la Peña says.
The puppeteers who create the physical interpretations of these people prep by studying scripts of the therapy sessions, relying on audio cues to develop the nuances and quirks that will bring the therapists and patients to life as puppets. On shoot days, the puppeteers perform their scenes much the way they would if they were in a music video, acting out the therapy sessions heard emanating from speakers in the studio.
You’d think the people who allowed the producers to make audio recordings of their revealing therapy sessions in exchange for free counseling might have wanted their voices altered for the sake of privacy. But their voices were not re-recorded by actors, and they were not tweaked in any way. Forman insists it wasn’t necessary. “We tested it pretty thoroughly,” he says, “and found that when you remove all visual cues the voices were totally unidentifiable.”
Privacy concerns aside, having actors re-record the conversations would have detracted from the authenticity of the therapy sessions, according to de la Peña, who says, “Hiring actors just wouldn’t make sense because you’re never going to replicate people’s speech patterns and how they phrase things, and we wanted this to be real.”
While the audio of the therapy sessions was recorded in a controlled studio environment, Felt’s producers also recorded the show’s subjects conversing out in the real world where they performed homework assignments given to them by their therapists, and the conditions were not always optimal in terms of sound capture. Case in point: One couple was recorded having a delicate conversation in a restaurant (the guy was trying to negotiate a threesome per his therapist’s advice), and patrons at another table got into a loud fight. “We just left it in because that’s what happened,” de la Peña says, reasoning it only adds to the realism of the show.