'Sesame Street' on HBO Brings Changes, Muppet Legs

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Sesame

There’s been a lot of talk about the dramatic changes coming to the upcoming 46th season of Sesame Street. Including some potential doom-and-gloom prognosticating by yours truly. But now that I’ve seen the first two episodes (which premiere on HBO this Saturday, January 16), I feel like I’m in a better place to weigh in.

Obviously, the most dramatic change for the venerable children’s show is that it’s made the move to HBO. It will eventually air on PBS after a delay of some nine months, but the show will essentially be exclusive to HBO until the fall.

This alone is a dealbreaker for many families. Not everyone wants or can afford a subscription to HBO. I get that. For generations, Sesame Street was a great equalizer. It didn’t matter what you looked like or where you came from, you were welcome to Hooper’s Store or to sit on the stoop of 123 Sesame. Counting along with the Count in his castle, laughing along with Ernie as he terrorized Bert, and learning the ways of the world with Big Bird were almost rites of passage for several generations of kids.

Everyone was welcome. Along with the monsters and grouches, Bob, Maria, Gordon, and Luis welcomed us all in with open arms and made us feel like family. It was the very definition of inclusiveness; it certainly wasn’t locked away behind a paid subscription.

But.

Sesame Workshop has been on the brink of financial disaster for years now, and by some accounts has been operating, year over year, with multimillion dollar losses. Public television is not exactly a goldmine, and if a move to HBO is the difference between Sesame Street and no Sesame Street, I know which one I’d pick.

So here we are. Sesame Street is now on HBO, and – if you recall – there is some precedent for this. Fraggle Rock was an HBO series during its initial five-year run from 1983-1987. I remember being bitter about that then since my family didn’t even have cable, let alone HBO, so I empathize with today’s kids.

But you want to know if the show is any good, right? Well, here’s the thing. I think the answer to that question really depends on whether you have kids and have been watching the show during the last few seasons. Much of the criticism I’ve seen of the show is from adults who are handicapped by their nostalgia. The show has changed a lot since the ’70s and ’80s when many of us were kids. It’s a different show targeting different kids who are living in a totally different world. (Grover takes a selfie.) We need to deal with that.

However, if you have kids and have seen the show relatively recently (i.e., during the past five years or so), then this new season will be surprisingly familiar and not as drastically different as you might be led to believe.

I mean, sure, there are a lot of changes. Episodes are a pared-down 30 minutes rather than the hour they’ve been for the last 45 years. But I think this is actually a good thing. Episodes are briskly paced, have a clear focus, and avoid “fluff” that sometimes made an hour-long episode drag. Despite this, the first couple episodes feel like the writers are still trying to find their groove with the new format.

Each episode is composed of only three or four main segments, which run longer than segments did in the past. Almost half of the first episode is one extended scene with Elmo, Abby, and new human character Nina. It feels like something that would’ve previously been split up into several segments over an hour. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that as Sesame Street aims for a younger demographic (with shorter attention spans), the segments are getting longer.

The production value has gone up significantly. A big deal has been made about the new exterior street set, but interiors also look much better. There’s a noticeable use of computer animation and green screen… and we finally get to see Muppet legs.

Yes, that’s right. Muppet legs. We’ll occasionally see full-body shots of Grover, Elmo, or Abby – cute, spindly legs and all. It’s actually kind of adorable, as you might expect.

The puppet cast is slimmed down. It’s true. But my fears that classic characters would be completely neglected seem to be unfounded. The first episode opens with Grover, and he pops up several more times – including once as a lovably useless washing machine repairman. Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Oscar, the Count, and the Two-Headed Monster all make appearances, through sadly Bert and Ernie are just background characters in a couple musical numbers. (Hopefully, they’ll have a larger role in future episodes.)

Elmo and Abby Cadabby are clearly the stars of this show. They get the most screen time, hands down, and we also see the return of both the “Elmo’s World” and “Elmo: The Musical” segments.

It will take some time to get used to this new Sesame Street. There will be far fewer (if any) pop-culture parodies. There seems to be much less of a place for the human cast. And despite the flashy new set, it barely made an appearance in the first two episodes. But I think it’s off to a solid start.

Most of the articles I’ve seen about the new season dwell on the “gentrification” and sanitation of Sesame Street. I certainly can’t argue with this, but it’s nothing new. Recycling bins and colorful flowers have been on the show for years. As have spotless streets and sidewalks. The show may have been set in the inner-city housing projects when it premiered in 1969, but that changed a long time ago.

In 1969, Sesame Street was populated by free-range kids looking for beauty in the grime around them. In 2016, they’re literally hunting for dirt in an idealized neighborhood.

I recognize the show has undergone a radical tonal shift since the days of Jim Henson, but that shift took place over decades. This isn’t suddenly some Brooklynite hipster agenda being forced on the show by HBO. Again, if you’ve watched the show at all over the past five years, you will find much here that’s familiar (for better or for worse).

It’ll be hard for me to fall in love with this Sesame Street, but the beautiful thing is that I don’t have to. It’s not for me. It’s for preschoolers who will undoubtedly soak it up, much as they have been doing for 45 years. And thanks to HBO, they’ll be able to do it for years to come.

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