Maybe We Just Don’t Deserve ‘Sesame Street’ Anymore
By Lisa Needham
By almost any metric you can think of, 2016 has been a garbage heap of a year. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. We are losing the permafrost, kicking off a weird chain reaction that killed thousands of reindeer as it went. We’re now the era responsible for murdering Rudolph, basically. We are on the precipice of electing a racist rage-fueled wannabe strongman (who may or may not be a Russian puppet) and losing much of what Americans pride themselves on holding dear. We’ve barely had the strength to absorb these losses, each of them as visceral as a sucker punch to the solar plexus. But it may be this most recent loss that saps our meager strength entirely: Sesame Street fired Bob, Gordon, and Luis.
Let’s start with the threshold issue: it seems impossible that someone from Sesame Street could even be fired. I’m 40 years past peak Sesame Street age, and even I zealously maintained the notion that they actually lived there. (This, of course, also requires believing Sesame Street is an actual place, which is also a fiction I’m prepared to maintain. Leave me alone.) No one is supposed to lose their home, but especially the beloved people from your childhood. It’s like finding out your grandfather or your dad or your uncle no longer has a place to live. It’s equal parts awful and unbelievable.
How on earth did we get here? It’s us. We’re to blame. We’re to blame for all of it.
It’s very appealing to instead blame HBO, which took over Sesame Street back in 2015. HBO makes an attractive villain — all bottom line, no heart — until you realize that Sesame Street might have gone away entirely without the cash infusion from its purchase. The show had been hemorrhaging money for years before HBO swooped in. And it isn’t surprising they were losing money. Adults don’t watch TV the same way we used to, and neither do kids. A ThinkProgress article about the show’s move to HBO makes it clear that the choice was one of necessity:
Changing viewing habits of children — two-thirds of Sesame’s audience now discovers the series on digital platforms — caused the revenue from licensing of Sesame DVDs to plummet. And Sesame Street’s neighborhood has gotten very crowded. As Sesame Street executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente put it in an on-set interview last May, “When we started, it was us and Mr. Rogers. And now there are 96 other preschool shows.”
Under the terms of the partnership, HBO promised a hands-off approach, with Sesame Workshop retaining all control over production. That’s the good part. Here’s the bad part: HBO saved the show, but that salvation came at a cost for the core ethos of Sesame Street. New episodes will now air first on subscription-only HBO, only showing up on PBS nine months later. For lots of shows, that would just seem like an inevitable cultural shift. But for Sesame Street, a show explicitly founded upon the principles that educational television could help disadvantaged preschoolers, it feels like a massive change.
Sesame Street is supposed to be magically free of worry about a bottom line. Sesame Street isn’t supposed to need cash from premium cable channels to keep it going. Sesame Street isn’t supposed to need to fire people. Needing HBO to step in felt like a sellout or a failure on the part of Sesame Workshop, but the real failure was us.
We ignored something precious for long enough that it began to wither and die. We have a bad habit of doing that lately.
I’m going to hazard a guess that most of you reading this have never been without Sesame Street. The show debuted in November 1969, four months after I was born. Children who were in preschool at the time would have been its very first audience. This means that almost every American 50 or younger grew up with this show.
My very first political memory actually involves Sesame Street — and it also involves one of those moments that knocked America off-kilter, making us realize that sometimes we are not nearly as noble a nation as we think we are. In May 1973, when I was almost four, the Watergate hearings began. PBS, true to its mission of serving the public, aired all 250 hours of hearings, gavel to gavel. This meant, of course, that they pre-empted Sesame Street.
Three-year-old me thought this was, though I wouldn’t have known the word, bullshit. I liked the Muppets just fine, but I could deal with their absence. What I couldn’t stomach was the loss of the adults — Bob, David, Gordon, Mr. Hooper, Linda, Luis, Maria, and Susan — who had already formed part of my day-to-day life. In a world where real-life adults were often busy, harried, mercurial, unavailable, even cold, the adults on Sesame Street were none of those things. They were patient, and they always had time for little kids. Always. And then they were just gone from my life, for the days it took to get through the hearings — banished thanks to Nixon and other adults who were cold and mercurial and worse.
I’d already been thinking a lot about the Watergate summer, even before the forced departure of Bob, Luis, and Gordon, thanks to the long shadow Richard Nixon has cast over the 2016 election. Donald Trump hasn’t just echoed Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” campaign. He’s pumped up the fear and rage exponentially, says NPR:
Trump’s single-handed effort to revive the slogan “law and order” is the key to creating the perception of a new crisis of crime and violence; it weaves together assaults by those he calls radical Islamic terrorists, inner-city thugs and illegals. The racial overtones of the phrase are even harder to deny now than they were in the Nixon years, when white radicals and students were part of the mix.
Nixon invented things to fear so that he could keep us safe from them. But when the curtain fell away in 1973, he turned out to be positively banal in his criminality. He was just another shabby angry man that wanted power and had no compunction about undermining our trust in his office to acquire and keep that power.
Forty-plus years later, here we are again. Donald Trump is equal parts oligarch and nihilist, and he’s embodying into the worst parts of our collective psyche. Not just the vicious parts — the careless parts as well. Trump’s deadly schtick works by hyping racism, rage, and fear of the other, but it also works more insidiously: by tapping into the parts of us that are weary, that just don’t care. If you feel like nothing matters, why not let the world slide into the abyss? If you feel like nothing matters, why not let a beloved institution from your childhood slip away?
Sesame Street didn’t just teach us numbers or the alphabet. It taught us how to care. It taught us how to be good people. Gordon taught us that you could be firm with children without shaming them or making them feel small and afraid. Luis, with his Fix-It Shop, taught us that we shouldn’t be so quick to cast things off, that so many things could be fixed and made useful again. Bob taught us both how to sing and to learn about the people around us.
Bob and Luis and Gordon and all of those adults on Sesame Street didn’t teach us not to be afraid, not to get mad. To do so would have been asking us to deny our own flawed natures. Instead, they taught us that we have agency, we have courage, and we have bravery, and we can learn not to give in to our fear or our anger. They taught us how to be honorable. They even taught us how to vote.
I don’t have the vaguest idea how to live in a world without Bob, Luis, and Gordon. I don’t know what they’d think of the world I am living in: one where people clamor to be led by fear and anger and cowardice, and turn a cold shoulder on everything else.
This story has moved faster than it can be written. First HBO bore the brunt of the anger, then Sesame Workshop stepped forward and explained that it was their decision, but that the characters would remain part of the family. How do you fire family? Now, there are vague rumblings that the sheer force of our collective outrage and grief may lead to Bob, Luis, and Gordon returning in some capacity.
But it feels too late. The damage is done. Our sense of continuity, of rightness, of trust, has already been dismantled by the idea that we could lose such a critical part of our childhood while we weren’t paying attention.
It’s time to start paying attention. It’s time to become greater than our anger and fear, and our guilt, and our resentment. It’s time to live up to the patient adults who helped to raise us all.
Lead image: Gavin St. Ours/flickr