Can you tell me how to get…how to get to Sesame Street?
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in this world who can’t tell you where on dial (okay, even if there are no dials anymore) to find that famous neighborhood where sunny days sweep the clouds away.
I personally have a hard time thinking of any other children’s television program that has consistency come into the homes of families as long as Sesame Street has, talking directly to their audience and guiding them through the essentials of childhood learning, from ABCs and 123s, colors and patterns, and just plain being good people.
The show has left five decades worth of legacy behind as of this writing. Five decades. It is incredible to stop and think about how many childhoods that encompasses, that have been touched and impacted by this product of the Children’s Television Workshop, now known as Sesame Workshop.
So it was with great joy that our family gathered around the television a few weeks back to watch Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Special on PBS Kids. For us, it was a family event. I even made popcorn.
The look-back celebration didn’t disappoint. With songs and clips from throughout the shows storied history, it was a trip down nostalgia lane with Muppets last seen long ago reappearing in various cameos (looking at you, Amazing Mumford, Roosevelt Franklin, Sherlock Hemlock, Harvey Kneeslapper, and Guy Smiley, among so many others).
Even the Baker who famously dropped his plate of whatever it would be at the time, re-emerged, most of his face cleverly hidden by pies, but his voice still provided thanks to a recording from the late, great Jim Henson. “Ten…banana cream…pies!!!!” **tumble** **crash**
And much to my delight, even Kermit the Frog re-emerged for a visit back to Sesame Street, as let’s not forget Kermit was once a regular on the Street back in the day.
And the humans. Sigh. It just wouldn’t have been a Sesame Street anniversary without a check-in of the human cast members from days gone by. Maria, Gordon, Susan, Luis, Bob, even Linda were all back to join in the fun with a few lines and songs that would make even the most curmudgeonly viewers feel like a kid again. I beamed.
All that in itself would have been enough, but they did even better by having a few performers on the special’s back end to talk about what the show meant to them personally. I was especially touched by the words of Jason Schwartzman, who talked about what the introduction of the character Julia meant to his family.
I can’t think of Sesame Street without thinking of the episode that stayed with me my entire life. Sure, there were songs, and characters and skits that were memorable. And yes, long before I had been working in the world of journalism as a reporter, toddler-aged me used to sit in our apartment using a paper lunch bag to make a trench coat for my stuffed Kermit the Frog so he could be “Kermit the Frog, reporting live from Sesame Street.”
But what struck me the most throughout the years, no matter how old I got, was the episode that dealt with the death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper. The episode first aired in 1982, and my memory can’t distinguish if I had seen it then (I would have been 2 at the time) or as a rerun a year or so after that. But it’s the one that I’ll never forget. It was my first understanding of death, just like Big Bird, and an emotional impact that stays with me to this day.
Five decades of teaching. Five decades of helping. Five decades of giving kids from all backgrounds and all walks of life a chance to say “hey, that’s like me.” It’s what makes Sesame Street so darn special to so many people and has for so many years.
It’s part of why we all wish we could live on a street like Sesame.
Did you watch PBS when you were a kid?
I did. I certainly can’t remember all of my viewing habits, but I can tell you unequivocally how comfortable, safe, and accepting it felt even as a toddler to be joined by furry friends on Sesame Street every afternoon. Or how I would run to grab my sneakers to tie and sweater to zip up when Mister Rogers would come walking through his door to open up windows to the world around us and remind us what it mean to be a kind, caring person throughout this thing called life.
I remember when Big Bird and I both needed clarity about Mr Hooper not being on Sesame Street anymore and how it’s okay to feel sad about someone leaving our lives, that grieving is a natural part of our emotions when someone dies. To this day I can’t see that scene where the grown-ups tell Big Bird that Mr Hooper isn’t coming back without feeling the same thing I did all those years ago. The handling of the topic, from producers to writers, to cast and crew, remains incredible.
Beyond those shows, I can’t recall too much else that I watched. Maybe Romper Room, and when I was older a show called Square One, mostly because of a series within the series called Mathnet, a Dragnet spoof where math problems were used to solve mysteries.
And now 30+ years later, I can say with certainty that there’s never been a better time to be a PBS parent.
We still get new editions of classics like Sesame Street, going strong at almost 50 years old and still teaching not only basic skills like shapes, numbers, and letters that prepare a child for school, but lessons to hold onto our entire lives, such as kindness, acceptance, and staying true to yourself. And my wife can attest to the childlike glee I get when we see familiar faces like Bob or Gordon pop into even some of the newer episodes.
Likewise, the values, compassion, and wisdom of Fred Rogers live on in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as the residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, previously known in puppet form on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, spring to life in full-color animation. From sharing, to helping, to dealing with feelings like sadness, jealousy or anger, the lessons of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are essential not just to a child, but to all of us. Our daughter is only starting to speak, but one thing she’s almost guaranteed to utter is the musical tones that accompany the songs in Daniel Tiger when it’s on.
Of course, there’s so much new and exciting on PBS too. While my son enjoys the derring-do and superheroics, I laugh at all the hilarious situations and jokes as WordGirl tries to put villains, bad grammar and misused words to rest.
Ready, Jet, Go has not only kindled a fascination with space exploration in our son, but it has captured the attention and awe of our not quite two year old daughter as well. And, I for one, feel I’ve learned so much as an adult about our universe and the vast possibilities that await us beyond the stars thanks to Jet, his parents and friends, and Astronomer and Host Amy Mainzer.
Nature Cat revels in its silliness while showcasing how much fun can be had and how much can be learned simply by heading out to one’s own backyard, along with a little help from our imagination. It also features, I’m convinced, at least half of the cast of SNL.
Chris and Martin Kratt leap from live action exploration of the animal kingdom into an animated world that stresses the valuable balance of our ecosystem and the role that each animal plays within it. Along with that, of course, comes with the threats to that delicate ecosystem by human kind and those who wish to prey upon the animal and natural world for their own greedy gain. The Kratt Brothers have not only transformed our son into a walking animal encyclopedia of habits and interaction, but have made him aware at such a young age to think about his actions or the actions of others, affect the world around us.
And of course, there’s my favorite, Odd Squad, which I’ve gushed over many a time before, about an agency run by kids that uses math skills to solve problems of oddness in the world. If it’s a man with a fireplace in his stomach, a person with a laugh track following them around, or dog-obsessed villain looking to take over the world, Odd Squad is on the case. With it’s clever writing, excellent acting, and delicious sense of humor, any adult should be watching this show, regardless if there’s a kid in the room with them.
Then, there’s PBS Kids Family Night, which, in our household at least, has become the modern day equivalent of The Wonderful World of Disney that my wife and I enjoyed watching each week as kids. Family-friendly specials, movies, or marathons every Friday night (and rerun Saturday and Sunday night if you miss it) on the 24/7 PBS Kids Channel that have become ritual viewing for us. I pull out the air popper I bought almost 15 years ago, make a bowl of popcorn and we all gather in the living room for anything from Tiger Family Trip to Odd Squad the Movie, or Wild Kratts: Hero’s Journey. Our kids are already chomping at the bit to see the upcoming Ready Jet Go: Return to Bortron 7 coming up on a Family Night edition soon.
We have basic cable, and when we downsized (long before we had kids), we never looked back, finding all we needed in our television viewing right there on that handful of stations. And when we did have kids, PBS (and now PBS Kids, their 24/7 accompanying channel) became the default for children’s programming.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
PBS matters. It offers a gateway to the world for anyone with a television set. No premium channels and the associated pay along with it. Whether it’s arts and culture, or math, science, and reading – knowledge never goes out of style. It’s what allows us to understand one another, to find new ways to think, to move our world forward. And I can’t think of a greater way to use the power of broadcasting than to by empowering our children and future generations with the tools to keep our world, our society, ever moving.
Some time back I publicly gushed about what I normally gush about to any parent who will listen – my love of the PBS Kids series Odd Squad.
For those uninitiated, Odd Squad is an organization run by kids that investigate anything odd. Be it people who drink lemonade that turns their head to lemons, being turned into puppets, or stopping blobs and flying books, the agents of Odd Squad are on the case. Using (and through the power of entertainment and television, teaching) math skills, they get the job done with a lot of fun along the way.
And come on. Their Rogues Gallery is made up of the likes of Odd Todd, Noisemaker, Fladam, Symettric Al, Shapeshifter and more, this is creative gimmick-villainy on par with baddies out of Gotham City or The Flash.
It’s the kind of show you love to watch with your kids because it’s just as entertaining for the adults as it is for the young ones. And I love it.
At the time I originally wrote, the show was setting up for a big transition trading in its two leading characters of 40 episodes for, at the time, new, unknown characters. And with so much love for (original agents) Olive and Otto’s adventures combating odd, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
But I had faith in the show’s creators to keep the laughs and lessons coming in the same way they had since the beginning, despite any new faces.
And new faces is what we got. Gone were straight-laced Olive (Delila Bela) and goofball Otto (Filip Geljo), off to be bosses of their own Odd Squad branch. I had hoped we would get to keep scientist Oscar (Sean Michael Kyer) around a bit longer, but while his exit seemed necessary following quite the growth spurt between seasons, he did stick around for a few extra episodes to train a protege and allow his change to create perhaps one of my favorite jokes of the show..
We even get some more Dr. O (Peyton Kennedy) for a few episodes, which is fine by me, as her constantly introducing herself as “a doctor” and reminding people how they know her “we work together” never stops being funny.
The biggest upside is that despite the exits of beloved regulars, we still get Millie Davis as Ms. O at the helm, sending agents on their missions, making them scatter with a yell, and best of all, getting to show some great new sides to her with an enlarged role out from behind the boss’ desk in many episodes. She not only helps create a common thread throughout the various cast changes, but is just an absolute delight to watch.
I’m still holding out hope for another 1980s-set episode with Ms. O…sorry…Oprah when she was an agent.
Even Odd Squad arch-nemesis Odd Todd pops by for an episode in this hilariously titled Mid Day in the Garden of Good and Odd where the now reformed-Todd-turned-gardener helps the new agents crack a case only a former villain’s POV could. And along the way, Joshua Kilimnik once again gets the chance to show off his acting abilities jumping between cackling-Todd, conflicted-Todd, and master gardener-Todd.
But wait. All I’ve done is talk about who stuck around, right? Did this show even have a cast change? What are you doing to us, man?!
Okay, okay. So I wanted to get the kudos to the returning champs up front. So what are the major changes we’ve seen. The biggest, of course is who would fill the shoes of Olive and Otto as the squad’s main agents. For that we get the overly-excitable Olympia (Anna Cathcart) and the straight-laced, no-nonsense Otis (Isaac Kragten) in a somewhat personality reversal to Olive and Otto.
I waited a few episodes before deciding what I thought of this new team and I have to say…I like them. I really, really do. I can’t use the term pleasantly surprised because I had faith in the show’s creators to keep delivering the same great casting choices, writing, humor, and production that has made the show so darn enjoyable already. And they didn’t let us down.
The thing is, change can be tough for television audiences, but with Odd Squad, the concept lends itself to periodic change. Grown-ups aren’t allowed to be agents (only bumbling, hapless victims in town and man do I want to play one some day. would several years experience on camera as a News Anchor and a few decades of theater get me a shot? Guys?! Hello? Is this thing on?) so with that in mind, as agents age, they move on and new ones come in.
It’s built right into the concept and so far, the first round of transition has worked pretty well. Carrying over cast members where they can (Oscar for a few episodes, Ms. O and Dr. O more regularly into the new season) help create a level of comfort and familiarity for the audience as new faces emerge. Eventually, those new faces become the regulars as even newer faces could move in. It’s created to be self-sustaining, and the fresh faces means new characters, new situations, and keeps the writers, I would think, on their toes. Kid or adult, this show has never made a bad casting decision yet, providing some of the best acting and comedic timing I’ve ever seen in young actors. It’s hard to come by at any age and Odd Squad does it in spades every time.
The fact of the matter with any type of show that revolves around kids is that kids grow up. We all do. Fortunately with a show like Odd Squad, no matter our age, we can be a kid again.
I hope they’re solving missions for a long time.