'Sesame Street,' 40 years later


November 10, 2009|By David Zurawik | david.zurawik@baltsun.com | Sun TV Critic

How can this be? On a day of such great celebration, the 40th anniversary of "Sesame Street," Big Bird wants to leave the urban nest that has been home for four decades and migrate to the rain forest? The rain forest!

Elmo is so rattled he can barely speak as Big Bird comes to say goodbye. "But Sesame Street is where Big Bird lives," Elmo squeaks to the group of old friends, including Gordon, Maria and Snuffleupagus, who have gathered to see the yellow feathered one off.

The rest of the world might be focused on first lady Michelle Obama coming to The Street today to show Elmo and some of the children how to plant their own vegetable gardens. And symbolically, her appearance to help launch this special season is huge. As I said on WYPR last week, "Sesame Street," with its groundbreaking message of multiculturalism, did more to pave their way for the election of the first person of color as president than any other series in the history of the medium.

But screening the season premiere, I wasn't thinking such cosmic thoughts about the sociology of the show. Nor was I remembering the way it instantly took kids' TV out of the all-white, pastoral landscape of bunny rabbits and adults in baggy pants, to a jagged, urban, concrete and diverse landscape where children with a real preschool need for help in learning numbers and letters saw themselves for the first time on TV.

Instead, as I watched, I was reminded of how good "Sesame Street" made me feel - and how much fun it was to watch. And, oh yeah, I couldn't help but notice how incredibly smart this series is without ever showing off.

The opening segment with Big Bird is brilliant. The word of the day is "habitat," and a real estate salesman straight out of the Great American Theater Book of musical con men and hustlers appears almost magically on The Street to convince Bird that with winter coming, it's time to move to a new (you guessed it) habitat.

The salesman takes Big Bird on virtual tours of the beach, swamp and rain forest. And for each (you guessed it) habitat, he has a slam-jamming hip-hop number complete with choruses of singing birds - birds that have migrated to their new (you guessed it) habitats.

No spoilers here, but Big Bird comes to his senses.

And once Big Bird is settled in his old nest, it's off to learn a number for the day: (you guessed it) 40. Big number, but the educational consultants found a way to make it easy with fours and 10s.

God bless the Ph.D's who work behind the scenes to vet the curriculum and pre-test many of the scenes and concepts so that no little kid will ever be asked to handle more than he should when he sits in front of the TV with PBS.

Michelle Obama seems perfectly at ease with the "Sesame Street" kids as she hands them seeds and shows them how to place them in the ground. But her interaction with Elmo and Big Bird doesn't seem quite as natural at first.

I visited The Street for a Sunday profile on its 30th anniversary, and it took me a beat or two to realize you can't go halfway with a Muppet. You have to totally give yourself over to the fantasy. Embrace the Muppet, as it were. Easier for a TV critic than a first lady, I suppose.

So, Michelle Obama is a little stiff when Big Bird stumbles upon her and the kids and says, "Seeds? I love seeds. I didn't know you eat them, too."

The first lady informs Big Bird that she doesn't eat them, she plants them. But she seems almost taken aback when Big Bird says, "Hey, we're both really tall. Maybe we're from the same family."

But then, something clicks, and she just goes with the "reality" of talking to Muppets covered with red fur and yellow feathers. She stops playing the educator giving a lecture about how yummy fresh vegetables are.

And when the vegetables in a nearby basket start to speak, the first lady of the United States totally surrenders herself to the madness and starts laughing really hard with Elmo, Big Bird and the kids.

In that moment, she doesn't look at all like someone thinking big thoughts about the way in which "Sesame Street" changed the hearts and minds of multiple generations of American kids paving the wave for the presidency of Barack Obama. It looks like she's just enjoying this marvelous, magical gift to America from public television.

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