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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Word on the Street is: Disappointment

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.

Old School Promo

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.


Of interest:


  1. I LOVE THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Interesting points. I remember reading somewhere (I think in Freakonomics) that Blues Clues was the first show to really make a change to children's programming. That show was wildly popular. All other shows (Sesame Street, included) felt they had to follow suit or they'd be crushed. :(

    Sesame Street has always been unique because it is something that both parents AND kids can sit down and watch. The writers always throw in a few jokes or references that the parents will get. I think that's what I love about that show...

  3. I agree that sesame street is worse than I remember, and my daughter noticed too (although we don't have the old school DVD). She was much more interested in Dora, curious George, or peep. Sesame street just didn't hold her attention the way it did mine when I was a kid. And that new version of the electric company? Forget about it!
    All I could think about reading this post was a small guy on a juice glass dancing across the counter.

  4. Elmo was the beginning of "the end," definitely. Before that, the monsters and characters, as a whole, spoke in well enunciated erudite ways. It was a deliberate move on Henson's part. There was a big movement in the 70's to not "talk down to kids" and SS was part of that.

    I think a part of the problem is simply that we are expecting younger and younger age sets to be entertained and educated by the television. Although many parents set their kids in front of the TV in those days, it wasn't expected for there to be shows aimed at actual toddlers. The shows were for preschoolers and kindergarteners, and therefore more sophisticated than the toddler shows of the modern age.

    In the 70's, Big Bird was the youngest SS neighbor. He was the child. He had to have things explained to him, he had a teddy bear, he had an imaginary friend.

    Elmo is clearly younger than Big Bird. He speaks with a very young child's voice. Very young children relate to him. His "world" features babies, for goodness sake, and babies love him. He is soft, cuddly and very non-confrontational.

    I miss Super Grover. I miss Kermit reporting. The adult jokes aren't really jokes so much as "isn't it funny to see this real reporter reporting on SS?" or Feist turning "1,2,3,4" into a children's song that is quite charming.

    I'm pretty sure I'm rambling, so I'll end now.

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  6. Elmo is annoying as hell, and Baby Bear makes my head want to explode.

    I think the thing I liked about the old Sesame Street is that it was a bit chaotic. Think of how the toddler brain works: their conversations can dart from one topic to a completely different one within the span of 2 seconds, and then throw in the random utterance of "poop" here and there.

    Perhaps that chaos touched with my toddler/preschooler brain. I know toddlers also like/need routines and can understand why the repetitive, slow nature of modern children's television is perhaps "better," but I still feel like I learned quite a bit out of the chaotic state of Sesame Street, and had fun watching as well!

    Long live Super Grover!



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