‘Sesame Street’ Gets Gentrified, but Keeps Its Charm

The days are sunnier. The air is sweeter. There’s free WiFi in the community garden. Inside the controversial move from PBS to HBO and the shinier, spiffier new Sesame Street.

01.15.16 5:08 AM ET

You used to be able to ask anyone.

“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” They’d point you in the right direction immediately, as if you had asked for directions to Times Square, or Central Park, or even their childhood home.

Starting Saturday, you’ll ask and maybe get some sass. “Oh, Sesame Street, eh? Fancy.” Or, if they’re among those without a subscription to HBO, they might ask for some cash before giving you the directions.

Yes, starting Saturday morning, Sesame Street is changing addresses, so to speak. The first episodes of the show’s 46th season will debut for the first time on HBO, the pay cable network more famous for chopping off heads and showing boobies than it is for molding young minds, before airing on its former home, PBS, nine months later.

The change—as all changes do—angered some.

Sesame Street is an institution generations of people hold near and dear, and its founding mission back in 1969 was to entertainingly educate the underprivileged, hence its outer-borough aesthetic. Relocating from PBS, a network made possible, as anyone who watches can recite in unison, “by viewers like you,” to HBO, a subscription network with one of the most affluent demographics in the industry, seems blasphemous to those who grew up on the Street.

Because the new HBO version does have some changes.

The days are sunnier. The air is sweeter. The clouds are much further away.

The sprawling cast of characters has been streamlined. (So much Elmo.) Those familiar brownstones are spiffier. There’s a compost bin in the community garden for Oscar to pop in and out of, and there’s a sign advertising free WiFi next to Big Bird’s new bird nest.

Sure, Sesame Street has been gentrified, but it hasn’t lost its charms. How you get to Sesame Street might be different, but the destination? As familiar as ever.

HBO’s partnership with Sesame Street sprouts from much nobler beginnings than anyone put off by its swanky new address might admit.

For years, PBS and Sesame Workshop had been facing a harsh truth: their aging cultural touchstone, while maybe not as popular as it once was, was certainly not as dominant in the children’s television space. It was an expensive show. And it was losing money.

Competition from Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel had been a threat to its stake in the genre for decades, but with more networks popping up, streaming services like Amazon and Netflix investing heavily in children’s content, and a simple YouTube search sufficing to find engaging content for your kid, too much traffic had begun deterring trips to Sesame Street.

The days of Tickle Me Elmo were also long gone. Revenue for licensing had been plummeting, as had DVD and toy sales. Sentimentality on behalf of parents was one thing. Kids actually watching was another.  

Making the show isn’t cheap. Even on Sesame Street, the rent is too damn high, something that Mitt Romney infamously reminded us four years ago when he made evicting Big Bird part of his campaign platform.

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“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” he told debate moderator Jim Lehrer, who is executive editor for PBS NewsHour. “I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

Enter HBO.

Through its partnership, HBO increased the number of episodes from 18 to 35 each year while alleviating the financial burden on Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group that produces the show.

Of course, that came with some stipulations. On the new Sesame Street, only the Muppets that test the best—Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby, Rosita, Elmo, Grover, and Oscar—will feature prominently in main storylines. The set got a face lift, with execs dismayed by the grittiness.

Those pop culture parodies of shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men that hip culture websites love so much will be sparser, in line with a mission to make the show more focused on kids and not their parents. (Not many 4-year-olds were in on the joke of Frank Underwolf in House of Bricks.)

The biggest change, though, is the reduction of each episode from an hour to 30 minutes, a more digestible time for kids in today’s ever-distracted world. And you know what? It’s a good call! In fact, Saturday’s first two episodes in this five-year HBO deal are pretty great.

When we re-meet the characters, Abby is having a sleepover at Elmo’s. A new bilingual human character, Nina (played by Suki Lopez), is introduced. She works at the laundromat, the bike shop, and babysits. Gotta work three jobs to afford that HBO bill!

Nina educates Elmo and Abby about bedtime routines. It’s cute. It’s informative. It will thrill parents—don’t be loud or rough-house right before bed is the driving point of the episode. Later, Elmo does a song and dance to introduce the letter of the day. It’s catchy. You will be singing about the letter “B” for the next six weeks.

Despite telling the press that celebrity cameos are going to be fewer and farther between in this refocused Sesame Street, both Saturday’s episodes feature famous guest stars—and are better for it.

Tracee Ellis Ross teaches us all about alliteration while in bed with her stuffed beagle, a burrowing bear, a banana, a bouncing ball, and, of course, Big Bird. Like anything featuring Tracee Ellis Ross, the scene is effortlessly resplendent.

The second episode features a prominent guest arc from Alan Cumming, who is hilarious as Mucko Polo, the greatest grouch explorer in the world. “I search for grouchiness where no one has found it before, and I find it too,” he explains to Elmo and Oscar the Grouch. “You’re not going to find it on Sesame Street,” Oscar says in return.

The exchange kicks off a charming bit about using your five senses to discover things (in this case, things that are disgusting, awful, stinky, slimy, or yucky), but could also be seen as a knowing acknowledgement—and perhaps kiss-off—to all the behind-the-scenes grouchiness that has followed Sesame Street’s HBO move.

A show as hallowed and as much a part of our lives as Sesame Street—for so many people, Big Bird and Elmo were not just fun friends to visit, but surrogate parents; the Count a teacher—fosters strong passions. And not just for viewers, but for the creatives who have been sweeping the clouds away for all these years.

Chief among them is Joey Mazzarino, Sesame Street’s former head writer, who parted ways with the show in September over the HBO move. “After almost a year of battling for what I believe is the heart and soul of the show, I lost the war,” he wrote on Facebook.

While not tantamount to Big Bird flying the coop, it’s an indication that not everything was sunny on the Street after the HBO bailout.

For a sense of what was irking these people, who had grown accustomed to creative freedom and an endless budget, New York magazine gives juicy—and hilarious—details about what Jeffrey Dunn, the former CEO of Nickelodeon who was hired by Sesame in 2014 to reorganize operations and cut costs, wore to the annual Halloween party. He dressed as the Count.

It’s easy to understand why Mazzarino, the show’s creatives, or even Big Bird might find their feathers ruffled over this move.

Viewers, too. HBO isn’t free.

The Parents Television Council even launched a campaign after the announcement for the network to make the episodes available for free, both keeping in line with the show’s history of educating underprivileged children—the families that can’t afford a $180/year HBO subscription—and avoiding any moral complications that would arise from subscribing to a network known for explicit content in order to gain access to a children’s show.

But as for Mazzarino’s insinuation that any heart or soul is missing from the show we know and love, I’m not sure that’s true. And, for what it’s worth, I’m a TV writer and, as such, have watched dozens of pilots and premieres for new and returning winter shows in recent weeks. Nothing entertained me more than these two episodes of Sesame Street.

The HBO move and subsequent updating makes Sesame Street like the new condo that’s towering over the old neighborhood. Sure, it’s nice if you can afford it. But the original buildings are the ones with real character.

PBS is airing “best of” episodes for the next nine months until they get access to HBO’s originals. Unless they invent a new alphabet before then, I suspect those will be brought to you by the letters O and K.