Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lamenting the Gentrification of Sesame Street

Don’t get me wrong, I love Sesame Street. Always have, always will. And Max idolizes it with almost religious zeal. But today’s Sesame Street is a much different neighborhood from the one I left over 2 decades ago. Most notable is this little red upstart Elmo. Just now as I typed that Max shot me a wary sideways glance. He knew on some primal level that I was bad-mouthing Elmo and he is not pleased.

What did you say about Elmo?

Nevertheless, I will forge ahead with what I have to say and deal with the consequences later during bath time. I want to believe that Elmo (or “The Red One” as we like to call him around the house less we rile up our son by speaking his name aloud) wasn’t developed by a group behavioral scientists and child psychologists after years questionable testing on children. I want to believe that Elmo was a happy accident, created by the good people at the Children’s Television Workshop unintentionally after years of creating lovable Muppets for children everywhere. I want to believe this but The Red One’s appeal is just too great to chalk it up entirely to serendipity.

The face of oppression
 I mean, I knew Elmo was popular, but I had no idea that he had taken over the whole street. And like any occupying force he’s come in and appointed his own people to positions of power. Zoe? Abby? Who are these jokers and why do they take up such a big part of the show? Abby even gets her own supporting cast for her segment every episode. Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, the Count, Oscar the Grouch, even Big Bird…all have been reduced to background players.

These guys put the "Street" in Sesame Street

But most disheartening is the absence of Kermit the Frog. He was the heart and soul of Sesame street, the lynch pin that held the whole cast together. No small feat considering that he was moonlighting on the Muppet Show at night. Just check out this classic bit he did with Cookie Monster. Now that's funny. Nobody could play the straight man like Kermit. It’s not surprising he was the first to get the axe, forced into early retirement once The Red One took over. Now we’ve got this fool Murray as emcee of the show. Kermit the Frog he is not.

Owns a condo in Boca Raton
By now it should be as plain as the bulbous orange nose on The Red One’s furry red face what is going on…Elmo is trying to gentrify Sesame street. He’s trying to turn it into an all-monster neighborhood. Zoe, Abby, Murray...all monsters. Bert and Ernie, the Count, Prairie Dawn, Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird...all non-monsters that need to move out. Cookie Monster and Grover...loyalists to the old regime who must be supressed. The only one to cross over was Telly, who saw the writing on the wall and got in good with The Red One early on

Be afraid
 Sesame Street used to be more urban, more gritty, it's inhabitants more diverse and sometimes even a little scary. (Remember this creepy little cartoon?) They were like orginal Star Wars trilogy compared to the new ones. Anything could happen back then, you never knew what next segment would bring. A cartoon? A song? The letter C? Today's Sesame Street is completely regimented. You know exactly what's coming up, and just in case you forget you've got that idiot Murray telling you every five minutes.

You are no Kermit dude


Jessica Shaw said...

Haha, brilliantly written and I do agree with all of your sentiments. What's with all the animation too? That Abby's flying fairy school and the Bert and Ernie not authentic!

WesWilson said...

I'm sorry, but this all feels like nostalgic nonsense. You might as well complain about today's kids being lazy, how bad youth fashion is, or how you had to walk to school both ways when you were growing up. EVERY generation thinks that THEIR generation had it right.

I didn't particularly care for Kermit or Bert or Guy Smiley when I was growing up. I liked Cookie Monster, Grover, and Oscar. And remarkably, in my head, that's who I remember being aired most often. It's confirmation bias, plain and simple. The things I loved are the things I remember. I also remember Buck Rogers being the best sci-fi ever made... but that doesn't make it so.

Nostalgia is a vicious and evil bitch. It makes us remember that awkward teenage sex as superior to demonstrably better experiences. It makes us remember manipulative and cruel ex-partners fondly. It makes us think the bubblegum pop of our generation isn't the tripe the current kids are getting. And it makes condemn saggy pants in the same condescending voice our parents used when condemning our ripped-up jeans. It's subjectivity at its worst, rewriting history in our favor.. and we should avoid it as best we can.

The idea that you respond to what kids like on your show isn't gentrification, it's programming. You experiment with what you have, see what works, and aim your programming with the tools that work. Of course things we saw as kids were a little creepy... it was the 70's, and almost everything filmed was a little creepy back then. The idea that creepy=good is something that plays into our nostalgia, not something that is backed by any legitimate study.

And really, kids today have a much easier time finding unique, compelling, and bizarre programming than we did. Most of my youth was watching terrible rubber monster shows because we didn't have GI Joe, Invader Zim, Flapjack, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Boobah, Adventure Time, Spongebob, or Ren and Stimpy.

And if we want to solely focus on Sesame Street, we didn't have some of the dynamic characters on that show that we do today. Abby, who is NOT a monster, provides all kinds of neat things. Murray does a bit with an ADORABLE latino lamb that I find totally endearing. Elmo, a creation of his voice actor, opens all kinds of doorways with his enthusiasm. The characters of my youth, Mr. Hooper, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Guy Smiley, were mostly one-dimensional takes on stereotypes... they were not complex, in possession of multiple wants, or flawed in any but the most obvious ways. Modern Sesame Street has characters with multiple flaws, have a wide array of interests, and who approach life like real kids do.

I just can't agree with almost anything in this piece. I'm sorry if this is a diatribe, but it seriously hurts me when people as young as me start telling kids to get off their lawn. It feels like we're all getting generational Alzheimer's, giving in to the most predictable logical fallacy of all... self-glorification.