Film and TV

Welcome to the New, Gentrified Sesame Street

Sesame Street has relocated to an alternate universe. Everything there is the same, but also slightly different. Blame gentrification, or the show’s new network, or the hostile scheming of that old meany, Oscar the Grouch. Whatever the reason, every child’s favorite inner city suburb has changed.

The venerable kiddie show debuted its 46th season on HBO, home to Game of Thrones and The Sopranos and other shows that very often appear to be brought to you by the letter F-bomb. The Public Broadcasting System, which has been home to Sesame Street since its 1969 debut, doesn’t own the show. PBS will air reruns for nine months, after which episodes of the new HBO version will join Sesame’s public TV rotation.

While the program continues its commitment to counting to 10 and reciting the alphabet, its new format and its look are more sparkly and a bit too clean. Trimmed from 60 to 30 minutes (presumably because 21st century tykes have shorter attention spans), each weekly episode now also offers a theme. In the season premiere, for example, cast members are all deeply concerned about the importance of a proper bedtime.

The folks at Sesame Workshop are claiming HBO had no creative input into the new season, which bowed on January 16. It’s possible that SW revamped its program in order to shop it to other networks; they’re saying the HBO sale took place after all the new episodes were in the can. The network’s boasting that this new deal will allow for more episodes per season (35 HBO-funded shows, versus the 18 per season that PBS typically aired), but its new, shorter format means the same number of on-air hours per season and, therefore, the same budget. But who’s counting?

Parents might complain that Sesame has sold out, that its broadcast on a pay-cable station puts it out of reach of the very lower-income families it’s always depicted. But PBS will continue to air hour-long, “classic” episodes of the program, just as it’s always done. And kids don’t know or care that they’re watching a four-year-old episode of any show; they’re likely unconcerned that they have to wait a few months for new “Elmo’s World” sketches because Mommy doesn’t subscribe to HBO.

What’s more troubling than this new financial stratification of Sesame Street is its newly gentrified look. Part of the show’s charm has always been its slightly untidy, just-above-the-projects ambience. Kids like when things are a little dirty, or at least when no adult is paying much attention to whether things are clean. The scruffy row of brownstones where Susan and Gordon live, where Ernie and Bert share a basement apartment just up the block from Mr. Hooper’s slightly tatty market, always looked plenty real. The dusty steps and rusted streetlight; the fence made from mismatched, discarded doors; the chipped stone stair rails all made it seem possible that one could live on a street where half your neighbors were monsters and “people” made from purple felt who were obsessed with their ABCs.

This new Sesame Street has been gentrified. The once-crumbly banisters are slick and stipple-painted; the buildings all have neat new facades. Elmo has a tidy new apartment and, worst of all, Oscar has moved from his garbage can into a suite of recycling bins. The post-hippie-era grunge that gave Sesame Street its edge has been replaced by a glossy, big-budget renovation. The effect is a phoniness that makes the Muppets who populate it look, well, like a bunch of hand puppets.

Again, children won’t notice, or care much that Sesame Street has had a makeover. They won’t know that their favorite show moved to another network because it lacked sufficient revenue on the public broadcasting system. And they’re right not to notice or care. Because what matters is that the real-world concerns of television’s financial game worked out a way to bring kids the make-believe world that taught their parents to count pennies themselves.