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What I Used to Hate About 'Sesame Street' Has Changed

Photograph by Getty Images

Since my daughter Evyn was about 4 months old, I've watched more than enough "Sesame Street" to become a bit of an expert, which I haven't been since I was 6. I know, for instance, that the actress who played Maria just retired, but the folks who play Gordon, Luis and Susan are still around. I know Feist's Sesame version of "1234" better than her original version. And I know that Elmo's classic parental eyeworm, "Elmo's World," has been upgraded to an even more annoying segment called "Elmo the Musical."

So it was with great interest that I tuned into the first two HBO episodes of the 45-year-old show. HBO and the Sesame Workshop announced last year that the premium channel known for blockbuster series like "The Sopranos" and "Girls" would be producing the long-running children's TV show and eventually airing them on PBS stations. This was a big and not uncontroversial move, but I wanted to give it a chance.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed.

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The sketches on the HBO version were too fast, too loud and too neat. The word of the day doesn't exist anymore, making the show only interesting to its youngest fans. Despite the millions of dollars the premium network has paid the Sesame Workshop to produce the show, I saw an edited version of a 15-year-old "Elmo's World" that Evy and I had watched the day before.

Elmo was all over those two episodes, helped along by his modern-era cohort Abby Cadabby. If the pre-parenting version of me had been watching these episodes, perhaps with one of my nieces or my nephew, I would have rolled my eyes. I just hated that little red furball with every fiber of my being. But I've softened my stance, somewhat.

Twelve years ago, I wrote about how much Elmo has ruined "Sesame Street," making a show that adults could watch with their kids without wanting to pull out their eardrums into one of the most irritating kids' shows on television. "It was if the characters that had built the "Sesame Street" franchise over the last 35 years were just there to serve as Elmo's supporting cast," the single, childless me wrote. "I almost expected Big Bird to come into Elmo's little house, feed the fish, check the gas meter, and leave."

[I]t makes sense that Elmo would be the first character to connect with her: He's as close as the Muppets get to a character her own age.

Things haven't changed. Elmo has become the face of "Sesame Street" over the last 20 years, and it still seems like adults are grumbling about who Oscar would call the "little red menace."

"Rarely, if ever, is Elmo's innocence challenged, or is he forced to think about someone's happiness other than his own," wrote Kevin Wong in his well-thought-out takedown of Elmo on Kotaku.com last December. "In fact, he is the de facto leader of his group—the dialogue lowers to Elmo's level, rather than rising to an older character's. And while this is cute and fun, it gets old fast, and it doesn't really go anywhere. Elmo is learning about counting to four and different shapes, but he's not learning a whole lot of life lessons."

At the end of his long essay, he's confident he'll be able to turn his young son into a Grover guy. I'm just going to break the bad news to Kevin, if he hasn't learned it already: he's going to fail miserably.

I didn't want Evy to love Elmo, either. But the look on her little infant face when she first started watching him in those short segments we started with, like singing the ABCs with India Arie, showed me why the 3-year-old monster has become so popular.

Too many people look at "Sesame Street," as well as Elmo, from an adult perspective. Elmo speaks in the third person and is very self-centered, therefore he is annoying. He's not Big Bird, who looks at things from the same vantage point that we were seeing the world at the time, which was about 5 or 6 years old. Elmo isn't as sophisticated as the older characters, like Ernie or Bert, and even makes Cookie Monster look like a Rhodes Scholar.

But that's the point, and I came to realize it when I saw little Evy staring at Elmo in a way she hadn't with any other Sesame character (though she also, eventually, warmed to Cookie and cuddles her stuffed Cookie doll all the time). It's because Elmo was the only character that not only spoke directly to her but also spoke in a way she could relate to—even though she couldn't even babble yet.

Because I'm seeing the show through Evy's eyes, I'm appreciating 'Sesame Street' for the first time in many years.

Evy is the kind of kid who has been more fascinated with people, especially other children, than anything else. I would take her to the small zoo in a local park, and she would glance at the roosters, pigs and horses but stare at the other kids running around.

So it makes sense that Elmo would be the first character to connect with her: He's as close as the Muppets get to a character her own age. Long ago, Sesame Workshop realized that their viewership had become gradually younger, so emphasizing a character that toddlers and even infants can relate to made perfect sense.

And one more thing: When Elmo isn't talking directly to the camera, he really isn't that irritating. On the Sesame Workshop-BBC co-production "The Furchester Hotel," for instance, he's just another character, a nephew of the Furchesters who just happens to work at their wacky British inn (Cookie works in the kitchen). He's still young and self-centered, but also has a pretty good sense of humor and an ability to work as part of a team. Oh, and it's also funny to watch him call an elevator a "lift" and a bobsled a "bobsleigh," but that's just my weird sense of humor.

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I've pretty much accepted that Elmo is going to be in our lives for the foreseeable future. My wife Rachel still can't watch "Elmo's World" without wanting to scream, but it doesn't bother me anymore, mainly because I know that Evy will pay rapt attention to it for 15 minutes and maybe even learn something. Because I'm seeing the show through Evy's eyes, I'm appreciating "Sesame Street" for the first time in many years.

Except for Abby. That snotty magical Muppet should make herself disappear.

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