Shane Keating – Sesame Street has always been an ongoing, changing show. Every season is called “experimental” for a reason; no two are almost exactly alike. As I’m sure you’ve all heard, Sesame Street’s latest season has probably more changes in one season than any other – new set changes, new format, a new cast member and new segment. Oh, and a new channel – HBO. Before we move on, I would just like to point out that none of these changes were made by HBO – the season was shot months before the HBO deal and these changes were already planned or were in place.
There’s some good aspects of the new season so far and some I’m not too keen on. One of the first things to address is that the show now focuses on a smaller selection of characters. We’ll most likely no longer have storylines focusing on just Telly and Baby Bear or Ernie and Bert. Instead, a “core cast” of seven – Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster, Rosita, Grover, Big Bird and Oscar – are the ones we’ll be seeing in the storylines, with the rest of the Muppet cast playing supporting roles. In the first four episodes (one of which being a repeat from an earlier season), the most prominent character has been Elmo (surprise, surprise). Despite the tighter focus on select characters (which I totally get the reasoning for and support, actually), we still get featured appearances by some not-as-well known characters within the shows, including Mr. Johnson (essentially the 3rd starring role in “Grover’s Street Safari”), Prairie Dawn (starring in the Orange is the New Black spoof) and even Mrs. Crustworthy.
Perhaps the biggest change is the show’s condensed runtime, now 30 minutes (well, 26) as opposed to the traditional 60. Some stuff is lost in the process: Abby’s Flying Fairy School (though, I don’t mind that as much), the Word on the Street (giving Murray nothing to do outside of appearances in choruses) and pretty much all the other little insert pieces as well. Now, the half-hour episodes that have been running on PBS have allotted for about six or seven inserts per show (while cutting some bits and pieces from the street stories to compensate), including one long-form segments (such as “Crumby Pictures” or “Super Grover 2.0”). That’s how I assumed this new season would work.
But, that’s not the chase, and that is my issue so far. The street stories are much shorter now (between eight-to-ten minutes), which means the pacing is quicker and the stories end up feeling rushed and incomplete (an issue I had with last season as well). But, what I don’t like is that all the episodes end, just as they have since season 30, with an Elmo segment, rotating between heavily trimmed “Elmo the Musical” segments and the surprising (and unwelcome) return of “Elmo’s World,” which is given some HD upgrades (cropping the segments into 16:9, but adding some new, HD elements as well). The fact that now, the show has two long form pieces in it after the street story (whether it’s a “Smart Cookies” segment or a different piece), which leaves virtually no time for anything else. Some episodes don’t even have a letter or number segment other than the “dance breaks” from last season (note: episodes no long end with a “Sesame Street is brought to you today by…” tag). The newer PBS re-edits feature these modified Elmo segments now, but they rotate them with the other long-form segments. Why they’re not doing that now, I have no idea; there’s certainly no shortage of Elmo otherwise. I figured since certain characters wouldn’t be the focus of the street story, we’d see them in some inserts instead. From the looks of it, I’m not sure if we’ll see an Ernie and Bert sketch or Anything Muppet song within this format.
Other than that main issue, there’s still a lot to like about what’s been presented so far. The new set is gorgeous looking, especially the retro-redesigned Hooper’s Store. The music is still great as ever and I enjoy the new theme a lot (especially the way it’s shot, it looks incredible), as well as the new credits song. The new “Smart Cookies” segment is nice too, though it feels a tad more formulaic than past long-form pieces (though, those new cookie puppets are great). From what we’ve seen of Nina, she seems like a good addition to the cast. Though the “Word on the Street” is gone, the cold opens are replaced by nice scenes of the Muppets introducing the theme of the episode. Finally it’s nice that with this tighter character focus, we’ll be getting more stories based around the characters we know and love and not the Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood.
Right now, I can’t say whether or not the new season is good or bad. The best word I can use to describe it is “different.” It’s hard to fully judge whether or not these changes are completely beneficial and appealing to kids. Since it’s only four episodes in, there hasn’t been much to divine of the new format and how it affects every episode. The changes will take some getting used to and as we know from 46 years of watching, no change on Sesame Street is permanent. If things didn’t change, we’d probably still be sitting through lectures of Professor Hastings and watching 6-minute films about cows. We may not see some aspects of this new format next season, or they may improve upon them. All we can do is wait and see, especially if you’re not a HBO subscriber.