Reviewing the new season of Sesame Street.

New network, new set, same quality?


Lately, I’m an unofficial expert on Sesame Street. Why? The one-year old grandchild. Suddenly, I’m watching more Sesame Street than I ever did as a kid. The wonderful world of the Internet, Apple TV and Amazon Fire (yes, we’re using both) has allowed us not just to view the past few seasons, but the first seasons, as well.

The first seasons were sometimes, by today’s standards, kind of frightening. In the simpler time of the seventies, it seemed to be okay for adults to invite children to hang out with other random adults at their apartments, where Kermit the Frog happened to be hanging out in the kitchen, to share stories and learn life lessons. Now, the only lesson that encounter would teach a child is when to scream his or her ‘safe’ word to escape abduction.

Times have changed, and the simple beginnings of Sesame Street, a program for less priveledged youth to get a much needed preschool leg-up that they simply couldn’t afford, has had to deal with the realities of ratings and finance. Henson’s wonderful Muppets have shifted from the demure Kermit and every-man Grover to the flamboyant, musical Elmo and spell-casting fairy Abby.

As the colors became more vibrant, the environment became cleaner, leaving behind the purposeful inner-city grunge. The need to not only entertain and teach, but to compete with the growing plethora of noisy, vacuous cartoons and children’s entertainment became a necessary evil, along with merchandising. First came albums, cassettes and 8-tracks (remember those?), then CDs and VHS tapes, followed by DVDs. And of course, the toys. Ask about the great Tickle-Me-Elmo Christmas Wars of 1996, and many a mom will recant the very dark tale of fighting off the evil adult hoards to emerge victorious with the sacred red prize.

While funding most of Sesame Street through the ancillary merchandise worked well for almost thirty years, the toy world has become cluttered with stuff that I can only call “loosely adapted for television” to support a profit margin. Add to this the now falling DVD/Blu-Ray sales in an increasing digital, practically free YouTube driven world, and Sesame Workshop has been in trouble. How do you fund quality television for children when Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are stealing your income?

Frankly, Sesame Workshop’s last few seasons seem to have been desperately trying to parody and reference more and more adult material to make a splash and get noticed on YouTube and in the media: Things like Sons of Anarchy, Game Of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. Things that children would have no understanding of, and would make me cringe a bit, knowing the source material.

Enter HBO.

Now, don’t complain. If you don’t like this direction, you should have donated more money to PBS; they couldn’t offer Sesame Workshop enough capital to help properly produce the show. And that’s saying something when half of your show is repurposed animation and sketches from previous shows. Also don’t cry about them “selling out” and depriving less-affluent youth – PBS gets the episodes one season later; it’s a part of the deal. If anything, thank HBO for trying to bolster their family offerings as they venture into the world of cable-cutters who are turning to Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. The HBO subscription app is the first of a revolution in entertainment, and others, like CBS and Showtime, have followed them into the streaming world. HBO has saved Sesame Street, which would have eventually went the way of Borders and Tower Records, and we would all have been lamenting the loss of the last, best program ever created for kids. Even if, as a youth, I was more partial to the original Electric Company.

So me, little Brody and his Mom sat down for the first two episodes of the new Sesame Street, brought to you by the letters H, B and O.

First off, it’s weird seeing the well-known HBO ‘snowy television’ logo in front of an episode of Sesame Street. I’m more expecting John Oliver and the puppets from Avenue Q to have a discussion about Donald Trump and a call girl, rather than Big Bird and his friends discussing bedtime.

The opening of the program was actually, wonderful, and a breath of fresh air: A simple intro by one Muppet character about the current episode theme. In the first episode, Grover discusses the theme of bedtime, the Second, Cookie Monster talks about using your senses. This is very reminiscent of 123 Sesame Street: Just taking a moment to talk to the children directly, quietly, without extra noise or even a storyline.

After this ‘cold open’ comes the opening credits. I have read that this is the first time the opening title has actually been done on the set, and the intro does, indeed, show off the pretty new toy – but might be a bit too interested in watching soap bubbles popping in slow-motion. It’s almost bubble-porn, if there is such a thing. But, this IS the most straight-forward opening since, well, the days of Henson, when we heard the familiar theme song while simply watching children play. Gone are the heavy-handed, “look at me” computer-composited special-effects-laden intros of the past five to ten years, and that’s a very good thing. Even the music itself is dialed back to be closer to it’s original presentation.

After that, however, we have a mixed bag – For starters, there is very little ‘new’ footage in the first two new episodes, and some of the re-treaded material is severely edited to fit in the shorter, 30 minute time slot (the last running time on PBS was an hour). I assumed that after such a big splash of media attention and advertising, Sesame Workshop would pull out all the stops for the premiere. Sadly, this was not the case. The first episode of the new season contains an old segment of “Elmo’s World,” literally cut from a fifteen minute running time to only seven. On top of that, Elmo’s World was originally shot in standard definition at the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio. Instead of showing the basically square frame with blank space to the right and left of our modern 16:9 rectangular screen (which they have done for years), the images were ‘zoomed-in’ to fit the new format, cropping off the top and bottom of the picture. The result is an uncomfortably cramped frame, with a lot of pixelization. Not that a child will notice, but it’s an odd editorial choice to actually degrade the image and viewability for the sake of fitting the screen. When Disney tried that in the movie theaters for re-releases of Snow White and Pinocchio, people were ticked.

Speaking of editing for time, even the few new sketches felt rushed, like everyone was worried things wouldn’t fit in the new 26-minute format. Pacing was off overall, laugh lines were run over to move things along. This is cable, for pity sake – run a little long and cut it down when you turn it over to PBS – the editors can make more educated cuts to the programming, leaving the pacing intact.

The first episode introduces us to a new human character, Nina, played by Suki Lopez. She has the difficult task of baby-sitter, trying to get Elmo and Abby to settle down and go to bed. Abby is having a “sleepover” with Elmo (Is it just me, or is that odd? I don’t remember my mother EVER suggesting that the little girl next-door come over to spend the night. In an episode a few years back, she’s having a sleepover with Big Bird – Is this some kind of fairy thing?). The two friends get a lesson in how to follow a routine to slow down and prepare for bed. Unfortunately the over the top antics and fast pacing overshadow the lesson and the lullaby that eventually lets them sleep.

The other new sketch in the first half-hour episode is a new on-going series for Cookie Monster – gone (possibly) are the movie parodies – Cookie heads up Smart Cookies, a crack-team of… Cookies… They solve crimes and try to thwart the evil supervillan “Crumb”. First off, the sketch pretty much falls on it’s face – it doesn’t really work as a concept at all. Cookie Monster is presented as, basically, Grover – totally missing the clues in front of his face until the last moment. Secondly, and this is possibly just my personal bias, but Cookie Monster working with a team of anthropomorphic cookies is just as creepy as those M&M commercials where the M&M’s are trying to go home with you to be eaten. Just – no, thank you. Ouch.

The First new sketch in the second episode fares much better – Alan Cumming plays Mucko Polo, exploring Sesame Street for all things Yucky. Oscar thinks the only thing that qualifies for that honor on Sesame Street is himself, and there is a delightful lesson in using your senses to ferret out unique things around you. Mr. Cumming turns in the best performance of a guest star on Sesame Street that I have ever seen: I’ve witnessed more than a few stars “phone it in,” blindly reading off of cue cards. Alan takes the assignment seriously. He is totally engaging, both with the human characters and the muppets, and his performance is quite sincere. With all that in the plus column, I still felt the old Sesame Street would have taken a bit more time with the pacing. The sketch does, however, visit many of the new set-pieces on the Street, as well as solidifying Nina’s place as the new face of the laundromat.

Unlike the first episode, which has two new segments, the above is the only new peice of the second episode. The other major piece within the program is yet another edited for time rehash of the first episode of Elmo the Musical. The sketch is titled ‘Guacamole: The Musical,’ and was originally broadcast in 2012. I totally expect to see the animated teaching segments about counting and words over and over again – but the meat of each program? Especially here in the first two episodes, where I would think all parties involved would want the show to be an example of what the future direction would be for the creative team. This was more of the same, with a shiny new wrapper.

The shiny end-wrapper of these first two episodes, and I assume each show for the rest of this season, is a new song for the closing credits – “Smarter, Stronger, Kinder.” It is the mantra for this season’s new focus of kindness, sharing and growth. I’m rooting for Sesame Street. They have a new lease on life, and I don’t want to see it squandered. They are going to have to become Smarter, Stronger and Kinder, themselves. I hope they get in the groove of the new time-frame, and start to bring HBO’s influx of operating capital into more than just the  set, opening and closing. Slicing and dicing old material for a shorter time-frame destroys the pacing, and more importantly, the message.

And lose Smart Cookies. Seriously. Cookie Monster EATS cookies – Don’t give them names. It will only end in disaster and tears come dinner time…

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