April 7 - 11, 2003
Follow the Money
Monday, April 7
Hey, remember when Sesame Street was brought to you by letters and numbers? Well, you can kiss those days goodbye.
The new season of Sesame Street begins today, and here's how it starts: "Sesame Street is brought to you by the following..." And then what we get is 45 seconds of straight-up commercials. "America Online is proud to support Sesame Street!" -- which would be a nice thing to know, but then they go on -- "No two kids are alike, but what they all share is endless curiosity. AOL helps kids find new things to be curious about, every day. America Online: Never stop learning." Now that, my curious kids, is not a sponsorship announcement. That is an ad on public TV. It's followed by another 15-second ad all about how Quaker Oatmeal helps kids learn, which is followed by another 15-second ad explaining how Spaghetti-Os help kids learn.
Which I guess is the Bush administration's way of saying: With all these great corporations devoted to helping kids learn, why do we even need public broadcasting, anyway? Or public schools, for that matter! Let's let Franco American do it! (Or, as they're saying on Capitol Hill these days, let's let Freedom American do it!)
I hate to start the season on this mercenary note, I really do, but I can't help it. We Muppet fans, all we do these days is follow the money. It's because of the damn Henson Company sale, which still has not happened as of the last two and a half years. It feels like I've spent months reading business-page articles about the Henson Company getting sold for one figure or another, and Sesame Workshop buying the rights to the Sesame characters, and getting into debt over it, and selling their share of the Noggin channel, and yada yada yada, and all I can say is that my personal curiosity is a lot less endless than it used to be.
And the thing is, as far as I know, this is the last thing -- this new set of 26 Sesame Street episodes. I can't remember the last time I didn't know about some upcoming Muppet or Sesame project that was in development. Last year, there was Play With Me Sesame, and then the new season of Farscape, and then Kermit's Swamp Years, the new season of Bear, the Christmas Movie, Animal Jam... By the time The New Thing came along, there was always another project that we knew was coming next. Right now there's the new season of Sesame Street, and then... well, then everything gets horribly quiet. I guess everybody's holding their breath waiting for the company to sell before they announce any more new projects.
I feel like I have to be extra nice to Sesame Street this week, so I don't scare it away.
Luckily, the show seems pretty emotionally resilient today. The street story for the day is all about how it's okay to screw up and wreck everything, as long as you keep trying. And if that's not a horribly appropriate metaphor for what's going on with the Muppets right now, then I don't know my horribly appropriate metaphors.
The story is this: Alan is hosting Karaoke Night at Hooper's, and all our Sesame friends are staying up late to sing and hang out on camera. It's basically a big show-off production for the beginning of the season, and it's very cute. They've set up tables and lights next to Hooper's Store; everything looks festive and lively. The whole human cast is sitting at tables, and there's puppets everywhere, popping up in every stray corner.
Plus, they're singing some of the Greatest Hits, so it's obvious that today, the Sesame cast is eager to please. First thing, Big Bird sings "ABC-DEF-GHI," with the whole rest of the cast singing and clapping along, so you know that they're serious about the entertainment today. Sesame Street has something to prove.
Next up, Rosita's singing "I Say Hola, You Say Hola," which is extremely big with the cuteness -- but then two lines in, she makes a mistake and sings the wrong word. She hides her face and sobs into Alan's shirt: "Oh, I am so embarrassed!" But all her friends in the audience are sweet and encouraging -- "It's okay, Rosita, just keep going!" Maria shouts, and Gina chimes in, "Yeah, everybody makes mistakes!" Go on, go on, they all shout. So Rosita dries her tears, and finishes her song, and everybody's happy and applauds.
It goes on like that. Gina, Alan and Elmo sing "Ladybug's Picnic," but they come in at the wrong time, and they have to start over. Then it's Baby Bear's turn to sing "Let's Go Driving" -- and as soon as he gets up to the microphone, he freezes. Faced with an audience, he just cracks under the pressure -- and he's rescued by Telly, who's been scared of performing the whole time. They end up singing together, and everyone loves it.
So is the horribly appropriate metaphor coming together for you yet? They're auditioning for us, basically, using their famous characters and songs, and they keep reassuring each other that it's okay to make mistakes. The audience cries, Who cares if your parent company goes bankrupt! We love you anyway! Just keep going!
Finally, the closing number is Bob, singing "People in Your Neighborhood" -- and a couple lines in, the karaoke machine breaks down. "What can I say?" Alan shrugs. "It's a rental." But the Muppets all pull together, everybody grabbing an instrument -- and the story ends with a good old-fashioned low-tech Sesame production number, with all the Muppets and humans singing and playing together, and having a great time.
So what do we learn from this story? Well, one interpretation is that it doesn't matter if they don't have any money anymore -- the Muppets will just pull together and grab whatever they have on hand, and make a fun high-energy show that everybody loves, and everything will be okay.
The other interpretation is that they let Alan blow the entire production budget on a rented karaoke machine that doesn't even work.
Tuesday, April 8
Oh, I don't know. I was going to do a whole piece today on Global Grover and the new Journey to Ernie segments, but I just can't think about that right now. Today's street story has me all messed up inside, and I don't know what to do with myself.
The whole thing is just totally surreal. I still can't believe it happened.
It all starts in Gina's office. Gina is the Sesame Street veterinarian, and Elmo brings his goldfish in for a checkup. Which is weird enough to start with, because how would you know if a goldfish was healthy or sick. Goldfish only have two speeds -- swimming and dead. But Gina says that Dorothy is a very healthy fish, so fine, she's the doctor. Then she offers to carry the goldfish bowl home for Elmo, to make sure Dorothy gets home okay, despite the fact that she has a waiting room full of impatient animals.
"Wow," Elmo says, "Gina takes great care of Dorothy. Boy, she's so nice, too. Really, really nice! Boy. Elmo loves Gina." Then there's a little twinkle of silvery bells -- and Elmo apparently gets a sudden attack of puberty. He yells, "ELMO loves GINA!" ... and he follows after her, lovesick.
We are one minute and forty-five seconds into this episode, counting the opening theme, and already I am sitting on the floor trying to remember how to breathe. What the hell just happened?
I thought I was watching Sesame Street. I was all prepared for some kind of curriculum on remembering to feed your goldfish, and all of a sudden, it's turned into a French art film about a young boy's preschool sexual awakening. Is this really what we're doing today?
It is. Gina takes Dorothy home, and she gives Elmo a hug. Elmo stares at her as she goes back to her office. Rosita comes by, and she asks if Elmo's all right. "Elmo's VERY all right," he sighs. "Elmo's in love with GINA! And wants to MARRY Gina! And live together forever, with our fish-baby Dorothy!" Rosita is totally in favor of this new development, and she encourages Elmo to tell Gina how he feels. He was too shy to say it, so Rosita suggests that he sing Gina a love song.
Rosita plays the guitar, and Elmo sings: "A-mor, a-mor! That means LOVE in Spanish! So open the door, and please -- por favor! -- be Elmo's love forever!" They practice this song three times.
And I'm sorry -- I'm a broad-minded guy, pedagogically and romantically -- it's just that I have to wonder what kind of lesson plan we're operating on at this point. Is this a big three-year-old issue, how often to practice singing your love song before you come on to your veterinarian? I mean, tell me if it is; I'm here to learn. But is pre-K really rockin' on this level these days?
Anyway, the song doesn't work -- Gina doesn't realize that it's meant for her -- so then Rosita and Elmo decide to Say It With Food, and they bake a pizza with the word LOVE written on it in pepperoni. That gets eaten by the animals in the waiting room before Gina even sees it. Now, I have to admit that this really is a good lesson for kids: The LOVE Pizza never works. I learned that one myself the hard way, and if Sesame Street had tackled the LOVE Pizza issue when I was a kid, it would've saved me a lot of heartbreak and about two bucks worth of pepperoni.
So then -- and this is when the surreality really starts to kick in -- Elmo decides that the only way to get a veterinarian's attention is to disguise himself as an animal. But he can't figure out which animal to be, so he dresses up as four animals at once: "A chicken-kitten-cow-bunny!" There's a long waiting-your-turn sequence for extra suspense, and Elmo breathes, "Elmo will wait forever to see Elmo's love!"
Finally, Elmo gets his chance to go in and see Gina. He hems and haws, so Rosita pops her head through the door and yells at Elmo to confess his love for Gina, that he wants to marry her and live together forever with their fish-baby.
At this point, I'm just sitting on the floor and thinking that maybe this is a dream sequence. Not on the show. For me, in my head. This is a dream, and I'm not really seeing this on Sesame Street. They can't be about to demonstrate to preschoolers how to turn down a guy who asks you out when you're not really into him.
They are. They do. It's happening.
Gina lets him down easy. "You see, there are different kinds of love," she says. And what three-year-old hasn't had a conversation that started that way, huh? Am I right, three-year-olds? She goes on: "You and I, we love each other very, very much, yes, we do. But, Elmo? It's a friend kind of love. I don't think we can get married."
Gina patiently explains that three-year-olds can't marry grown-ups -- that only grown-ups marry grown-ups. Actually, as someone who's been on both sides of this kind of conversation -- with grown-ups, always with grown-ups -- I think her breakup technique is almost perfect. There's just one little flaw, which is this gesture that she makes right at the end. If I can give the kids at home a little piece of extra advice on the subject, it's this: Never make this gesture when you're explaining to a guy why you don't want to go out with him. Just don't, okay?
So, I don't know. I mean, like I said, I'm a broad-minded guy, and I'm all for bringing more love to the Muppet world. So it's hard to say why this episode is making me feel all restless and upset. I guess I always figured that when Elmo hit this stage, he'd have a crush on me, so this is kind of hard for me to watch.
Anyway, it does actually get even more complicated later on. There's a segment about six minutes later with Gabi, Elmo and a bunch of kids, singing a song about being a "strange animal." Gabi sings, "I have feathers, I have fur. I have horns, I moo and purr. I can moo and tweet and meow... Can you guess what I am? I'm a kitten-bird-cow." And I'm like, oh man, is Gabi in love with Gina too? This whole show is getting way too fraught today. It's in fraught overdrive.
And then the really, really bad thing happens. The next time we see Elmo, he's sitting next to -- no, it can't be -- he's sitting next to Laura Bush. Laura Bush has come to Sesame Street to read a book with Big Bird, Elmo and some more kids. Elmo seems way over-excited about the whole deal. "Oh, boy! That's Elmo's very favorite monster book! Can Elmo help Mrs Bush read it?" Sure, says Mrs Bush, and maybe I'm just in this kind of space right now, but it seems like there's all this chemistry between them. It's electric.
So all I can say is that if Elmo ends up having a rebound relationship with Laura Bush, then it is over between me and Sesame Street, and this time I mean it.
Wednesday, April 9
So far this week, I've pretty much been only paying attention to the street story in each episode -- which, in the new and even more improved 2003 format, means about the first fifteen minutes of the show. I'm going to do that again today.
That's because the street story is most of the new material this year anyway. Lots of the segments that are airing in this week's episodes look like repeats of last year's segments to me -- the Letter of the Day, the Number of the Day, the Spanish Word of the Day, Elmo's World of the Day -- as far as I can tell, they're using last year's stuff. Which is fine, because it looks like they're taking all that energy and time, and putting it into making some really fun street stories this year.
Last year, the Big Format Change was to consolidate the street scenes that used to air in segments throughout the hour, and turn them into one big story block in the middle. This year, they've gone a step further, and they're starting off with that big story block. They're leading with the big meat of the episode, basically, and then it kind of dribbles off into some songs and the Number of the Day, and then on from there. Basically, it looks to me like they'd be just as happy doing a complete overhaul and dumping all the inserts, and just doing a fifteen-minute daily show that's all street story.
And that might not be a bad idea, now that I think about it. I know there are Sesame fans who are nostalgic for the way the show used to be -- long psychedelic cartoons about the letter V and what have you -- but this short-story format actually turns out to be pretty neat.
Like in today's episode, which starts with Cookie Monster singing about today being "Cookie Day!" -- and he's sure he's going to get some cookies. He runs across Gordon and a little girl named Sydney, who are playing some kind of "guess the pattern" game with chocolate and vanilla cookies. (This apparently passes for entertainment for the residents of Sesame Street.)
Cookie Monster wants to eat the cookies, obviously, but they make him promise not to eat them until they're done with their so-called "game." He promises -- but while everybody's back is turned, a mysterious blue furry arm appears and grabs all the cookies. Gordon and Sydney are annoyed -- assuming that Cookie ate everything before they finished their game. He protests, but they don't believe him, and he doesn't get any cookies. "Oh, the disappointment!" he moans. "Oh, the heartbreak!"
But he gets another chance, when he finds Big Bird and Snuffleupagus playing another loser game -- making shapes out of cookies. Again, he promises not to eat the cookies while they're playing -- but when nobody's looking, that same mysterious furry arm steals the cookies. Obviously, Big Bird and Snuffy blame Cookie, who still claims he's innocent. "Me telling the truth!" he screams. "Me not take cookies! Me falsely accused!"
I think you can see where this is going, right? It happens one more time, with Maria sending a tin of shortbread cookies to her aunt in Puerto Rico. Cookie promises not to eat them -- and once again, they're stolen by the mysterious cookie thief.
Finally, Cookie has a complete breakdown, and Gordon, Big Bird and Maria try to find out why he's so upset. After all, he's the Cookie Monster, why shouldn't they think that he took the cookies? Then, Cookie goes for the Emmy, delivering his big speech:
"Yeah, me love cookies -- yeah, me Cookie Monster -- but me GLUTTON... not LIAR! Me always tell truth! Me admit, yeah, sure, me WANT to take cookies... but if me SAY me no take cookie, ME NO TAKE COOKIE!"
Now, I've been watching Sesame Street for, what, thirty-odd years now, and I don't think I've ever seen that kind of deep statement of belief from a Sesame character before. You can't get to that kind of deep level in one-minute scenes scattered throughout the episode; you need some time to develop an emotional moment like that.
And then the whole thing gets even better. Everybody apologizes for not believing him -- but then they wonder: If Cookie Monster didn't take the cookies, then who did?
... And with a clatter of hooves and a cry of "WHOA, Marian," who should arrive but Cookie Hood! "I take cookies from people who have too many, and give them to people who don't!" Cookie Hood is played beautifully by Jerry Nelson, and he's a wonderful surprise. Everybody harshes on him: Taking something that doesn't belong to you is stealing! "Even... cookies?" asks Cookie Hood. He apologizes: "I only wanted to help people who didn't have cookies... I didn't mean to steal! Honest, old chap." He gives back Maria's cookie tin. He offers to buy Cookie Monster some more cookies from Hooper's Store -- "I just got my allowance!"
Then Cookie Monster and Cookie Hood sing the "Cookie Day!" song, and go off to buy cookies. And later on, we get to see them singing a funny song about how to say "cookie" in different languages around the world.
Now, I don't need to tell you that that story absolutely rocks, and I would hold it up against any vintage Sesame story you care to name. It's got mystery, it's got humor, it's got emotional depth, it's got like three different pro-social messages. Plus, you get a whole new wacko character that we've never seen before, and you get to watch Cookie Monster being funny for fourteen straight minutes.
Me like new street stories. Me think new street stories are delicious.
New and Improved
Thursday, April 10
The arc for this column is apparently that I'm just getting happier and happier. I started out on Monday complaining about the AOL ads, and on Tuesday I was just completely freaked out, but right now, I'm just loving Sesame Street. They're just kicking it this year, in ways I didn't even expect.
And it's not just the street stories, as I talked about yesterday. The inserts have gotten better too. They've kept the good ones from last year -- Cookie Monster's funny Letter of the Day bits, and Rosita's sweet Spanish Words -- and then they took all the dull ones and either changed 'em or threw them out completely. (Except for Baby Bear and Hero Guy, which somehow squeaked through again this year. Baby Bear, I love ya, but Hero Guy has got to go. He's a hero, he's a guy, he's annoying. Can his little animated ass and find yourself a decent friend, like Telly or somebody.)
Anyway, last year one of my major issues was Journey to Ernie, which was endless and didn't make any damn sense. They've still got Journey to Ernie this year, but it's a vastly improved segment that's actually coherent and sometimes even fun.
If you're joining us late, Journey to Ernie is a problem-solving segment where Big Bird is searching for Ernie in a computer-generated environment. Last year, Ernie was hidden in a box -- no reason for that -- and Big Bird would basically make arbitrary decisions. If he found the box that Ernie was hiding in, then we'd see an Ernie skit. If he found another box that Ernie wasn't in -- and there was no way to tell which was which -- then we had to start all over again from the beginning. It was not a good segment.
So, who woulda thunk it, they went and solved the problems of the problem-solving segment. It's all different now. Big Bird is still searching for Ernie, but Ernie isn't in a box -- he's just hiding somewhere in a strange environment. There's actual clues, and if there's no way for Big Bird to make a reasonable decision, he doesn't go anywhere until he gets a clue.
In one segment this week, Ernie was in a world of music, and Big Bird had to listen to hear something that sounded like Ernie's laugh -- which ended up being a pair of maracas -- and finally found him by following the sound of his voice. In another segment, Ernie was hiding in a jungle, and Big Bird tried to track him by following the pattern of his shirt, and the shadow cast by his hair. There's clues the whole way, and reasonable explanations for when a clue turns out to be a dead end -- like when Big Bird thought he saw Rubber Duckie, but it turned out to belong to Bernie the Lion. "We're getting close!" Big Bird said. "We've made a Journey to Bernie!"
It's just way more coherent and pleasing, and when Big Bird finally finds Ernie, they sing a happy little song, and then they show an Ernie sketch. I guess the thing that pleases me about the whole thing is that they really didn't have to change the segment. I'm sure it won't boost their ratings a bit when word hits the street that Journey to Ernie makes sense this year. They just did it because it made the show better, and the producers actually care about making a better show. Bless their little blue hearts.
Ditto for a new segment called "Global Grover," which is just as cute as can be. In this segment, Grover does little sketches about what he's learned from traveling around the world, and those skits frame a film clip of kids from other cultures. Obviously, we don't really get to see Grover in Bali or Nigeria or anything -- that would get expensive -- but still, the film clips are kind of fun, and everything tastes better with Grover.
My favorite this week was Grover trying to be a Chinese acrobat, and utterly failing to jump through a hoop. Then he shows us a film of a little Chinese boy going to acrobat school -- and we get to see tiny kids practicing to do the most amazing acrobat tricks. Then we see the same kids doing a live performance, and they're totally amazing.
I very rarely say this about a Sesame Street film clip that doesn't involve Muppets, but I would actually watch this clip even if it wasn't on Sesame Street. It's actually interesting and fun, and you could imagine walking across the room to turn on the TV and watch it. The fact that we then get to see Grover falling on his face is just gravy.
Plus, I don't know if seeing African kids in school or Chinese kids practicing to be acrobats is going to make today's pre-schoolers grow up to be all one-world one-love and groovy about everybody loving each other or anything, but I for one think it's worth a shot.
Again, the Sesame people don't have to do these things. They just do it. You have to admire that.
Don't Worry, Be Hippie
Friday, April 11
Have I mentioned this week how cool the street stories are this season? Oh, I have. Well, then I can't resist doing one more, cause this is tremendous.
The Big Bad Wolf is chasing the Three Little Pigs around Sesame Street, and everybody's getting angry. He huffs and puffs and blows down a sign, and Luis' piles of mail, and then Elmo and Rosita's blocks. Y'know. Bad Wolf stuff.
Then along comes Big Bad's brother, Leonard Wolf. Leonard is a gentle soul, with glasses and a wispy mustache. When he approaches Elmo and Rosita, they scream at him: A WOLF! A WOLF! Go away! Gina asks why they're being so unfriendly, and Elmo and Rosita explain that they know what wolves are like: They huff, and they puff, and they blow down things!
But Leonard protests: "I am a wolf, but I don't huff and puff like my brother does! Just because one wolf huffs and puffs, it doesn't mean all wolves do." Gina chimes in that there are different kinds of wolves, just like there are different kinds of monsters. Leonard agrees: "I don't always do the same thing as my brother! I'm not a huffer and puffer. Why, I don't even chase pigs! I do play canasta with them every Thursday. And that's not all! On Tuesdays, I practice the violin. On Wednesdays, chess -- followed by tai chi! Yes, there's lots of things to do if you're not so busy huffing and puffing."
Then they all get together to sing a jumpy song about how there's all different kinds of wolves: "If you've seen one wolf, you've not seen them all!"
Pretty soon, everybody's friends, and Leonard is confronting his brother on his huffing and puffing behavior. Leonard tells Big Bad that he's blowing down the monsters' blocks, which is making them feel bad. It's like a wolf intervention.
So I personally have a new Sesame Street hero, and I just got my last one like two days ago. This whole story is beautiful; it just hits every note perfectly. It makes me incredibly happy to know that in 2003, there's still a kids' TV show that's doing funny metaphors for prejudice, and trying to teach kids to appreciate each person as an individual.
They got money troubles over at Sesame Street; I mentioned that before. There's only 26 episodes this season, which is cut way down from what it usually was. PBS has to sell ad space to pay the bills. But despite all that, they keep turning out these gorgeous shows. I've done a My Week column for three Sesame Street seasons so far, and I have to say that these are the tightest, funniest, most emotionally satisfying Sesame episodes I've seen.
The thing that impresses me most this season is how amazingly thoughtful everything seems. The producers and writers are really thinking very hard about the messages they're putting out to pre-schoolers, and they're trying to make sure that their stories are positive and real.
Cookie Monster was unjustly accused, and he stood up for fair treatment. Leonard Wolf is being stereotyped. Grover travels around the world and learns about other cultures. The whole cast learns that if they get together, they can create their own music, and make a happier world. Everybody is still a hippie on Sesame Street.
Pop culture -- even kid culture -- is kind of depressing these days. Maybe I'm becoming an old man, but everything on TV seems dark and sad, like murder and greed and drugs are "real," and everything else is fake. It makes me feel warm and good to know that in one corner of kids' television, it's still 1972.
Hey, Sesame Street folks: The kids you raised up back in the 70's, who value cooperation and fairness and the letter Z... we're still here. Some of us have our own kids now, and we want them to have Sesame Street too. Please, just keep going. You're doing great.