'Sesame Street': TV Review

Sesame Street on HBO - H 2016
Courtesy of HBO
Still sweeping the clouds away.

The venerable children's series moves to HBO for its 46th season with a shorter running time and a more modern look.

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

For over four decades, preschoolers everywhere have heard that question, and the answer has always been the same: You can find Sesame Street on PBS.

Until now. For its 46th season, the venerable children’s series moves to HBO, and changes (a result presumably of an influx of cash) abound. The show is now only 30 minutes long versus an hour. There’s a snazzy new opening segment (complete with slow-motion effects), a sparkly new set, a new closing song and a new human character named Nina (Suki Lopez, a great addition to the cast). Even Oscar, Big Bird and Elmo have moved. “Elmo’s World,” one of the more popular segments, only appeared in one of the two episodes available for review, and characters including Zoey, Rosita, Snuffy, Bert and Ernie did not show up in the individual sketches.

I don’t know about your kids, but mine will notice these changes; kids thrive on routine and predictability. I have to confess I’m not thrilled with the idea that the show is now a half-hour shorter. A new episode of Sesame Street will be followed by a repeat one. Presumably, HBO won’t show ads for, say, Game of Thrones in between the episodes, but the shorter running time is a little disconcerting, and the ending of the episode feels abrupt.

But children are also adaptable, often far more adaptable than adults. So even if these changes throw them off, it should only be temporary. Because almost everything we knew and loved about Sesame Street is there. The show’s trademark celebrity appearances, sure to amuse adults, remain. Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) appears in the second episode available for review as Mucko Polo, an explorer on the prowl for all things smelly and grouchy. Tracee Ellis Ross (black-ish) talks about bedtime routines in the season premiere. Other upcoming celebrity appearances this season include Ne-Yo, Gwen Stefani and Pharrell.

The show’s unique approach to teaching concepts to children continues. Elmo and Grover learn about shapes by exploring them. Oscar the Grouch talks about the five senses to find the grouchiest things around. The Count can’t stop counting. The letter of the day and the number of the day, set to catchy tunes, are still there. In a new segment, “Smart Cookies,” “a tough batch of home-baked heroes,” including the beloved Cookie Monster, try to outwit their nemesis, The Crumb. They crack the case by using their “smart cookie tablet,” which, of course, Cookie Monster wants to eat. To solve a problem, they know they have “to stop and think it through.”

The inside jokes that will make parents giggle are still around, too. In one segment, Grover is all about taking selfies. But apparently those will be less frequent in this upcoming season, because, in the age of tablets and smartphones, children are much more likely to watch TV without their parents.

Sesame Street understands preschoolers — from their reluctance to go to sleep to their overenthusiasm to their curiosity about the world. There remains an innocence to Sesame Street that is missing from other shows aimed at the under-five set.

Yet there’s something intrinsically unsettling about new episodes first being available on a premium cable channel, even if it's the cable channel that saved a financially struggling Sesame Workshop. If you’re not someone who pays for HBO, you can still find Sesame Street on your local PBS channel, but these new episodes won’t be available on PBS until the fall (episodes air on PBS nine months after they appear on HBO).

And there's something a little sad about Sesame Street becoming more modern. Maybe the show now more accurately reflects the world kids live in, but children have their whole lives to grow up. Here’s hoping Sesame Street continues to treat them like the young little people that they are.

The 46th season of Sesame Street premieres Saturday, Jan. 16, at 9 a.m. ET/PT on HBO.