Okay. Let's try this blog thing again. Sorry folks. Here's something I was writing back in November. Not exactly timely anymore, and maybe it's stupid, but whatevs. Something to get back me back in gear.
As you've all heard, it's the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, a show very dear to my heart, as it is toward many many people around the world. So naturally, I need to take this opportunity to be a grouch.
Perhaps you have not seen the show in ten+ years. Well, I have, and I am sorry to have to report: Sesame Street is a mere shadow of its former self.
Sesame Street is probably the single most influential children's television show of all time, with its impact spreading out internationally. It is the landmark kids' show that all others look toward. So why oh why, Sesame Workshop (née Children's Television Workshop), do you feel so insecure about your own relevance that you feel compelled to "keep up" with the changes in children's programming you perceive happening around you?
So what am I talking about? What happened?
Well, a lot of things. One you can't really blame anyone for, which is the loss of key personnel. Obviously, no one could ever really fill Jim Henson's shoes after his death - though to their credit, I think the staff did a tremendous job for a long time. Henson passed when I was four years old, so right in the middle of my prime Sesame Street viewing period, and I certainly didn't detect any drop in quality at the time. Frank Oz has moved on to bigger things, which is his right, only stopping by about once a year to tape new segments. I have no doubt that there are still talented writers and performers on the show, but it's still a legacy show. They just can't possibly share that same energy among that magical group of individuals who made the show so exciting back in 1969, anymore than the current writers of, say, a comic strip like Gasoline Alley can never hope to imitate Frank King's gentle charm.
The music has also suffered. I don't think there's anything offensively awful about the songs produced on the show now. But they are not Joe Raposo. They are not Jeff Moss. When was the last time the show produced something as infectious as "Rubber Duckie?" As devastating as "Somebody Come and Play?" As danceable as "A New Way to Walk?" As melancholy as "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon?" The era of classic songs is over, I'm afraid.
But if there's one simple turning point to mark where the series went downhill, it's Elmopocalypse. Elmo is perhaps too easy of a scapemonster. But I think perhaps in this case it's warranted. Now I think Elmo is cute. I think Elmo is a fine character to have in their repertory. But all of a sudden, Children's Television Workshop discovered that some people reaaaaaaaaally liked Elmo. And they spent a whole lot of money on Elmo merchandise. Remember the Tickle Me Elmo insanity of 1997? Since then, Sesame Street has become The Elmo Show. Almost literally. If you haven't watched the show recently, you might be shocked to find that Elmo has his own 15-minute segment in every single episode, called "Elmo's World." And all this comes at the expense of so many other great characters who now struggle for screen time, like Cookie Monster, Prairie Dawn, and my spirit animal - Grover.
That's not the only change in format they've tried. In 2002, at the height of the popularity of Blue's Clues, Sesame Street introduced another weekly segment, a blatant rip-off called "Journey to Ernie" where viewers were asked to help find Ernie in a CGI landscape. Sesame Workshop was also duped into the (highly profitable) scam perpetrated by Teletubbies and Baby Einstein, creating television for infants despite a total lack of evidence that it benefits them in any way, or that they even have any idea what the hell is going on with that box emitting light. But the market demanded it, as parents now need technology as a substitute for babysitting and parenting even sooner, apparently, and so - Sesame Beginnings.
I suppose it's logical to some degree that the show would become so obsessed with following market trends. Sesame Street's success was largely due to an innovative approach co-opting the techniques of the advertising world to teach the basics of reading and counting. Each episode famously has a pair of sponsors - one letter and one number - which each show up in brief short films that appear as commercial breaks in between narrative segments. These slots also allowed for charming segments with some of those other wonderful characters, and for trippier animations which served for millions of children as their introduction to Philip Glass.
But now, there's less and less time for any of that. There's also just less Sesame Street in general. Up until 1998, 130 episodes of the show were produced each season. And last year, in Season 39? A grand total of 26.
As much as I'd like to, I'm not able to spend a ton of time watching daytime children's programming these days, so I can't say with certainty that there aren't new worthwhile shows on TV now. But I haven't seen or heard of any. I find it hard to imagine something new coming in to adequately fill the holes that the diminishing value of Sesame Street and the loss of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (which I've spoken about before) leave. I find it hard to envision some sort of 21st century internet-based children's educational programming revival, either. These shows, in their prime, I think really represented the pinnacle of television's use as a medium. They offered a regular solace to children that they knew they could always count on. You don't know how much comfort I took knowing that I'd be able to enter that world every morning at 10 a.m. When I was living abroad as a child, I had so much separation anxiety from American children's television that I had my grandparents tape weeks worth of Mister Rogers and Sesame Street and ship it over to me, which I would watch over and over again.
I'm running out of steam here, so I'll just end with the most perfect moment in the history of the show: