When we learned last August that Sesame Street was moving to HBO, the news inspired a fair amount of outrage. Critics weren’t happy that kids without an HBO subscription would have to wait nine months to watch the latest season for free on PBS—another sign of the ever-growing wedge between the haves and have-nots. Some also saw this as more evidence of the show’s ongoing—and regrettable—gentrification. Over the years, Sesame Street’s vibe has morphed from a gritty urban feel to a more genteel and sanitized city environment; with a premium cable provider as the show’s new home, there was little chance it would reverse course.
These are legitimate grown-up critiques, but Sesame Street’s target demographic isn’t worried about rising income inequality or the lack of representation of the urban poor on TV. So in order to get a sense of whether or not the new Sesame Street succeeds on its own, stripped of its sociocultural context, I sat down with my 3-year-old son to watch the first three episodes of the new season and let him judge. New Criticism, as it happens, comes quite naturally to toddlers.
As many reviewers have noted, the new Sesame Street is a simultaneously shinier and flatter version of its former self. The neighborhood is posher than ever—everything from Hooper’s Store to Oscar’s trash can have been remodeled to make them right at home in tony New York neighborhoods like Cobble Hill or the West Village. Producers have also tidied up the storytelling, with fewer characters and fewer jokes for parents. Life is brighter and more predictable on the new Sesame Street, the tone is more escapist, and the more streamlined storylines and elaborate sets and animation offer less in the way of narrative and visual gaps that kids can fill in themselves.
My son loved it. He appeared utterly charmed by Elmo’s dance moves during the letter-of-the-day intro. “Watch him, Mommy, he is going to move back and then come forward,” he explained. He laughed out loud during “Smart Cookies,” a reccurring segment in which Cookie Monster solves a cookie-related mystery. “He found it in his crown!” he said, giggling wildly, while recounting the plot of the first one. During an underwater scene in the second episode, he told me to “shhh” when I asked him what he thought about it. “We can’t talk,” he said, not making eye contact, “because we are underwater right now.”
“Did you like watching that?” I asked when the first one was over.
“Yes, I did,” he said. Then, sensing there was an opening for more TV, said: “I just really like to watch it again.” After the next two episodes, he felt the same.
I liked it too. The new Sesame Street is warm and welcoming and the characters and plotlines make the world feel like the kind of place where wonder, rather than success, is the most important thing. It’s also nice to see Abby Cadabby take the lead among what has long been a predominantly male cast of characters; HBO says she’s one of a handful of Muppets who will be regularly featured on the show.
I wasn’t a huge Sesame Street fan as a kid. I remember yearning for more cohesive and elaborate plotlines, and feeling frustrated by having to wait for my favorite characters, Bert and Ernie, to appear onscreen. I watched the show because it seemed to be the thing that children were supposed to do, and because nothing else was on. The one aspect of the show that I remember fondly was its distinct sense of humor. Sesame Street’s long had a knack for dishing humor that manages to emphasize humility without sacrificing anyone’s pride or dignity. When Elmo or Cookie Monster mess up, it is fair game to laugh at their mistakes, but we are never laughing directly at them. The show’s changed a lot over the years, but, thankfully, its lessons in humor and good will persist.