A family blessed with both a toddler and an HBO subscription will milk
the tube to rock the tot with “Sesame Street,” now in its forty-eighth
season. Two years ago, as it entered its forty-sixth season, the show
changed its distribution model so that new episodes play on pay cable
for nine months before flowing to local public broadcasting. Appearing
on Saturdays at 9 A.M., the new episodes have the brassy splendor
of “The Bugs Bunny Show” and the institutional dignity of a secular
Sabbath school. The move to HBO has not harmed the institution, liberal
guilt about the “gentrification” of the block notwithstanding. That
said, new parents are advised that recent episodes run a peppy
half-hour, in contrast to the sixty-minute servings of yore.
“Sesame Street” perpetually evolves as guided by trending theories of
education: when the game-show host Guy Smiley ambushes Bert into a round
of “Estimation Crustacean,” which is a math quiz contested by a
shellfish, the scene reflects current thinking on teaching arithmetic.
Also, this noble program tailors its tone and content for its audience as
elastically as the most craven network talk show. Because fewer adults
actually pay attention to “Sesame Street” these days, the series has
turned down the dial on pop-culture parodies, such as one spoofing “Mad
Men,” from 2009, with an advertising executive thanking his staff for
making him happy. (“Good work, sycophants,” the Muppet Don Draper says.) And
“Sesame Street” responds to media technology at a deliberate pace. Last
year saw the début of Smartie, an animated yellow phone,
as a new sidekick for Elmo. “Look it up” is her catchphrase. Elmo, of
course, converses with Smartie in his distinctive falsetto, a voice
that, with practice, an adult can train himself not to really hear.
Smartie, too, is slightly annoying. But I would trust her to babysit.
The most recent renovation of the Sesame Street courtyard, which is
properly called the Arbor, involves one bold reconfiguration of the
landscape. There now exists a view of a bridge. The shape of its tower
suggests the Verrazano-Narrows, but its color apes the “international
orange” of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it angles into the background as
if Hooper’s Store is selling milkshakes in Dumbo. I find the bridge
slightly disconcerting, and I can point to textual evidence that Oscar
the Grouch shares my concerns. And yet it opens up a hospitable space.
The bridge reaches out to expand the sense of place and extend a
generous welcome. This land is your land, to the New York Island.
The big thing right now on “Sesame Street” is a curriculum to teach
children kindness, which is excellent, because the world is in dire need
of more kindness, and those little bastards need to shape up. The Season 48 début is a Thanksgiving episode. Julia, a Muppet girl with autism,
sets the table while saying, “Set table, set table.” Leon Bridges and
Elmo sing about being thankful for friends. Prairie Dawn, who has always
been uptight, expands her horizons as Rosita brought her abuela’s
tamales and frijoles to the meal. We learn to respect tradition, and
diversities, and the diversity of traditions. “My tradition just happens
to be birdseed cake. Or anything with birdseed,” Big Bird says.
Plus, Cookie Monster bakes an apple pie with an elegant lattice top.
This season also brings a new franchise, titled “Cookie Monster’s Foodie
Truck,” where the charismatic blue glutton acquaints himself with the
farm-to-table scene. Each five-minute segment finds Cookie Monster
operating out of a charming mobile restaurant, assisted by a new Muppet
scene partner named Gonger, who is fuchsia, with whiskers like friendly
muttonchops. Gonger has an unusual accent and a background in
hospitality, having originated on “The Furchester Hotel,” a “Sesame
Street” co-production with BBC’s preschool network. Gonger owns a gong.
Gonger’s gong is by no means as exciting as Gonzo’s, but it rings well
enough when he bangs it at chow time.
In each segment, a human child places a food-delivery order via video
chat, beaming in on a tablet computer. For instance, Cookie and Gonger
receive an order from two girls, identical twins, who politely request a
pizza with mushrooms on one half and pineapple on the other. (“Even
though we look the same, we like different things” is the message.) The
monsters, seeing that the pantry is bare, visit a farm (also through the
magic of video chat). They get the pineapple and make the pizza and
deliver it by catapult. This happens again and again. The pantry is
always bare because Cookie is always eating, forever confessing.
“Me may have eaten pineapple.” “Me ate cranberry muffin.” “Me used
last of oatmeal to make oatmeal cookies.” Me have eaten the plums that
were in the under-counter refrigerator.
About ten years ago, as “Sesame Street” began to place a new emphasis on
healthy eating habits, Cookie Monster hit the talk-show circuit to
stress his moderate approach to cookies as “a sometimes food.” Just last
season, he was working hard “on his self-regulation skills,” as press
materials phrased it; in a recurring segment titled “Smart Cookies,”
Cookie Monster fought crime alongside a team of sentient baked goods
without ever nibbling at them. On “Foodie Truck,” though his diet is
round, his appetite is unleashed. Thus far, he has received tours of an
apple orchard, a grape vineyard, an oatmeal factory, and a cranberry
bog, in addition to the pineapple farm. The segment is next due to cover
avocados, and I am rooting for Cookie to binge not only on Muppet
avocado toast but also on actual millennials.