Talk to any 20 or 30-something year old about Sesame Street, and you’ll hear the same refrain - Sesame St. has been ruined, and the decline started with the introduction of Elmo. While I believe this to be true, it is an oversimplification of the many changes (some necessary, and some not) instituted over the years to my favorite children’s television show.
Sesame St. started out as a racy, realistic, magazine-style show, utilizing animation, commercial-like shorts, slap-stick comedy, muppets and a diverse human cast that repeated a certain theme in varied ways over and over again for an hour. It’s brilliance wasn’t accidental, but the work of long hours of research. Over the years, the show has lost its cutting-edge ideas. It’s lost its realism. It’s even lost its magazine style. It’s now a run-of-the-mill children’s muddle of nonsense that can compete with any Dinosaur Train or Clifford the Big Red Dog out there. On a lucky day, an adult who has grown up with the show can still see glimmers of its original greatness, but those moments are becoming increasingly rare.
To be sure, some of these changes were absolutely necessary. This youtube clip highlights the show’s strengths as an inventive trendsetter, and its weaknesses as a cultural timepiece.
In our politically correct world, many of the famous shorts would be unacceptable. The blue muppet smoking, for instance, is something I still find hilarious today, but certainly not a message I would want sent to my kids. You’ll notice also that the team of muppet executives is completely male. But these are small potatoes, and easily remedied for our changed times. So, why the complete overhaul of Sesame St.?
Apparently in 2002, producers decided that 35 years or so of success was wrong. Children, they decided, needed their hands to be held throughout a program. Having letters and numbers jump out of nowhere with no introduction in a sublime series of ”illogical surprises,” was apparently too much for today’s children to handle. So, now, we’re greeted with a hammer on the head at the beginning of each episode. Here is your letter. Here is your number. Here is your word. Here is your sign.
Maybe I’m too attached to my original Sesame Street. Maybe the producers are right. Maybe kids are dumber than I think. But I doubt it. And with the loss of sublety came a loss of eloquence - a loss that many adults cannot seem to forgive, although their children now know no better.
Really, though, I’m just hinting at what the real problem in the new Sesame Street episodes is. By opting to give children long segments in each show at expected times, Sesame St. has essentially turned itself into every other children’s show out there. My children can get mixed animation and live action from Blues Clues; they can get narrative problem solving from Curious George; they can watch a complete lesson from beginning to end on Sid the Science Kid. By introducing Abby’s Flying Fairy School and Elmo’s World, Sesame St. producers didn’t gain anything. They lost 30 minutes prime programming: of Super Grover, of animated lines showing how to make a circle, of “One of These Things is not Like the Other Things.” The pinball machine, the opposites muppet, the animated songs about letters, Kermit the Frog reporting on Nursery Rhymes.
What was once a spunky, innovative, surprising show is now a formulaic, unrealistic, boring hour of my morning. Am I too attached to my youth? Is my nostalgia going to ruin my own children’s Sesame St. joy? Not likely.
Because, in this house, we have the Old School videos.
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