August 18, 2008
Sesame Street Launch Featured in Daily Herald
Today's column is brought to you by the letter A and the number 1, because "Sesame Street" has been producing Grade A educational television as the No. 1 program for kids, to my way of thinking, for almost four full decades now.
"Sesame Street" began its 39th season last week, airing at 10 a.m. weekdays on WTTW Channel 11, and if you haven't seen it for a while - if you've outgrown it or your children have - it's worth checking out just to rediscover how it endures by continually evolving and updating itself.
Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are still around, although Kermit the Frog seems to have disappeared in honor of Jim Henson who, somewhere on the way to turning the Muppets from variety-show guests into a global entertainment conglomerate all their own, took time out to lend his puppets and a number of new creations to PBS and educational television.
Let me just point out that in 80 years the Walt Disney Co. hasn't come close to making the same sort of gift to public service.
Big Bird and Oscar seem sort of long in the tooth now, and more often than not are overlooked in favor of new arrivals such as the ever-irritating Elmo and the lisping Baby Bear, as well as Telly Monster and now Murray, a new monster with a chin beard to fit in with the post-Fred Durst generation. They've all enjoyed their vogues over the years.
Yet somehow they all fit together, the old and the new, and the same goes for the human cast, from Gordon - yes, the original Gordon, still living and thriving on Sesame Street - to the freshly arrived Leela, an Indian-American transplant.
What struck me immediately about "Sesame Street" when I checked back in on it last week was how it seems constructed these days to fend off criticism. For all of its 39 seasons, some nattering negativists have complained about how it shortens attention spans with its rapid-fire counting exercises and blackout comedy routines, so the season premiere opened with an extended "Indiana Jones" spoof in which Telly Monster, with his fondness for triangles, went looking for "The Golden Triangle of Destiny" in the guise of Texas Telly. In addition to meeting Minnesota Mel, he also ran across Virginia Virginia, resulting in the line, "Goodbye goodbye Virginia Virginia."
"Sesame Street" can still make even a sourpuss curmudgeon of an adult laugh with its whimsical nonsense.
Similarly, I found it pleasing that "Elmo's World" was moved to the end, thus forcing the little kids in the audience to sit through the good educational stuff on the way to the eye candy. And I liked how it integrates a bilingual element into the mix with Murray and his Spanish-speaking little lamb, Ovejita.
While I'm not especially fond of the Claymation-style Italian animation provided for "Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures" - give me the anarchy of the originals as performed by Henson and Frank Oz - I do have to applaud the lovely little homage to Winsor McCay's classic comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland" in the way each episode opens with the pair drifting off to sleep and being spirited away by a galloping bed.
"Sesame Street" continues to get child-friendly celebrities to lend their talents to the cause. Last week Feist adapted her catchy "1234" to a song about counting monsters walking 'cross the floor, penguins standing by the door and chickens just back from the shore. Jack Black gushed about octagons with their "eight fantastic sides" and "eight awesome angles." This week, "Saturday Night Live" trouper Will Arnett has turned up as a math-obsessed magician, and David Beckham will pop in on Friday, followed next week by LL Cool J.
Speaking of keeping pace with the times, "Sesame Street" even has a nifty new Web site at www.sesamestreet.org, designed for use by preschoolers.
Yet for all its greatness, I get the feeling at the same time that something has been lost along the way on "Sesame Street": that comical anarchic impulse Henson and his Muppets brought to the learning process. Even "Sesame Street," it seems, must bow to the politically correct powers that be these days.
So I salute "Sesame Street" for its good intentions and longevity, but allow me to insist a balanced TV diet for children should also include Warner Bros. cartoons and "Tom and Jerry." Learning isn't just rote recitation; it's triggering the imagination to learn on its own as well. "Sesame Street" used to offer one-stop shopping on that account, but I think now it needs a little help in the chaos department.