Elmo is scared. Cookie Monster has a new way to get even more cookies. And Big Bird is headed for cyberspace.
That's the news from Sesame Street as the greatest show in the history of children's television returns for its 33rd season today - with some major changes. Change is good in this case, thanks in no small part to the fact that such familiar and beloved Muppets as Bert and Ernie and friends like Maria (Sonia Manzano) are there to lead us through it.
The most fascinating segment in today's season premiere episode was written in response to the events of Sept. 11, and reminds us how sensitive and responsible Sesame Street has been for more than three decades with the psyches of the millions of little kids sitting in front of the TV screen. The segment starts with Elmo, the tiny red monster with the squeaky voice, taking Maria to lunch at Hooper's store.
But Elmo has barely ordered his "superscrumptious" cheese sandwich, pickle and glass of milk when a grease fire breaks out in the kitchen. New York City firemen arrive and quickly extinguish the blaze, with little damage done. But Elmo is left literally shaking with fear from the experience and clings desperately to Maria, barely able to speak.
The issue that the producers are trying to deal with in the segment is fear. It is one of four segments that will air this season that are connected to Sept. 11. The other three will deal with loss, bullies and inclusion. And, just as the heroic New York firefighters helped show the nation how to be brave on Sept. 11, one of them notices the trembling Elmo and invites him and Maria to the firehouse.
Elmo winds up feeling much better after spending some time with the firemen, while kids in the audience get a firehouse tour that humanizes the potentially scary images of men and women in gas masks that they saw day and night on the TV screen. Meanwhile, I'm still wondering how they managed to make it look like Elmo really slid down that firehouse pole.
Sesame Street always is teaching. One of my favorite moments today has Cookie Monster showing Big Bird a new game. Cookie has a table chalked into quadrants. One square has a shirt, one has a shoe, another has a hat, and the fourth has a chocolate chip cookie.
Big Bird is asked by Cookie which of the four objects doesn't belong. Come on, you know the song:
"One of these things is not like the others/One of these things just doesn't belong/Can you tell which one is not like the others/Before I finish my song."
It's the song that played over and over in your head during the SATs.
After much thought, Big Bird nails it by identifying the chocolate chip cookie, which results in Cookie gobbling it up and replacing it on the table with an oatmeal raisin cookie. The game starts again. Same result. It only takes Big Bird three rounds to figure out that the game is just a scam by Cookie to get his furry paws deeper and deeper into the cookie jar.
Big Bird, who is the conduit for so much learning, also stars in "Journey to Ernie," one of several new regular segments introduced today. "Journey" plays like a hide-and-seek game in which Ernie hides in one of four identical boxes that Big Bird explores. Each box leads Big Bird into a fabulous, computer-generated landscape.
One last thing: The letter for today is "L." That's "L," as in, I still love this show after all these years.
What: 33rd season premiere
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)
When: 10 a.m. today
In brief: Superscrumptious, sensitive and smart kids' TV.