Like most people, when I saw the Youtube video of Grover parodying the Old Spice Man, I thought it was wonderful: cute and hilarious and a bit educational all at once. But it made me think about how, back in my second year of university, a girl in one of my classes insisted that Sesame Street was a bad thing because it trained children to watch television. By making children familiar with the form of the thing, she said, it indoctrinated them into passively accepting different elements in the same form. One of her favorite arguments in this regard was the presence of Guy Smiley as a tool to help kids learn how to watch game shows.
At the time I thought the idea ridiculous. I grew up with Sesame Street longer than most because I was the oldest of four siblings, so if they were watching Sesame Street while I did older-kid play in the background, I was watching Sesame Street as well. The reason I thought the idea ridiculous was that I knew full well that Sesame Street challenged authority on a regular basis. I mean, Bert and Ernie alone should be enough to make that point; every Bert and Ernie sketch is basically Ernie being a bit of an asshole to poor old Bert. But see also the treatment of Herry Monster as a sensitive, gentle giant who likes playing with dollies; Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster in toto; the realistic treatment of Mr. Hooper’s death, which went against every children’s TV convention in the book.
But of late I grow less sure. Part of it, of course, is probably just things-were-better-when-I-was-a-kid-itis. There is no innate need for Herry Monster on Sesame Street as compared to other monsters. Bert and Ernie still do the same schtick, which is the best thing you can hope for. Cookie Monster is still Cookie Monster. (Although Grover is superior to Elmo. I will not concede this point. Ever.)
But of late, the trend in the show seems to be one of parodying not just the general form of culture (as Guy Smiley did) but of specifics: 30 Rock, Mad Men, Law and Order. Although Sesame Street has never been too complex for kids, these sketches seem even simpler. They don’t seem as designed to teach kids; they seem instead designed to reinforce the brand for adults, and to allow kids to understand the cultural references their parents make. (The Law and Order sketch is the best example of this – there’s no reason to make fun of the CHUNG CHUNG noise because the CHUNG CHUNG jokes really only make sense if you understand what the CHUNG CHUNG noise’s significance is.)
Or maybe I’m just kvetching. One thing of which I am more sure, though: Feist’s re-writing of 1234, cute as it may be, is no Lena Horne singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” I can’t help but think that there is something to that point.