Sesame Street returns on Saturday for its new season in a new neighborhood: HBO, not PBS. The 35 new episodes of season 46 (!) will air first on HBO and then appear on no-subscription-needed PBS nine months later.
What’s most striking about the new Sesame Street is that it’s been brightened and tidied up to a High-Definition sheen. Oscar the Grouch sits not in a dented trash can, but in a nice (but probably more slippery?) recycling bin. The theme song and opening sequence have been streamlined and given some fresh beats. There’s also a new human neighbor, Suki Lopez’s Nina, to interact with little-fan favorites Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster.
In the season premiere, the primary story line involves Nina, as a babysitter, trying to get Elmo and Abby to calm down enough to be put to bed. “You’re too excited,” she says. “You need to do something relaxing.” This is already a better premise for a half-hour show than 98 percent of the frenetic sitcoms on the air. I liked being encouraged to brush my teeth, and was as soothed as Elmo and Abby by Nina’s lullabye.
The Sesame Street touchstones remain in place: There is the letter (“B”) and number (“10”) of the day, for example. The letter segment is set to a hipper beat — “We’re movin’ our bodies to the ABCs!” squeaks Elmo — and Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross shows up in the B-letter segment to lay in a Bed with a talking Banana and a Basketball; Big Bird even budges in under the covers at one point.
I guess I’m supposed to acknowledge, and even join in the criticism of, the fact that parents of Sesame Street fans now need to pay premium-cable prices for new episodes. But when you’re a little kid who’s hooked on this show, there are plenty of PBS reruns to sustain you (kids thrive on watching the same thing over and over — just ask the Frozen accountants), and I have a feeling that nine-month gap will soon fade away as a grudge against the new system after the first new-season cycle.
I must admit, however, that I was glad to see that Oscar remains a grouch while, all around him, everything become even more bright, shiny, and aggressively friendly and self-affirming and smiley-faced. As someone who watched the show prior to the ascension of Elmo as the super-draw for the series, I appreciated Oscar’s grumbled, “There’s nothing but niceness on Sesame Street.” Not true when you’re around, old friend.
Sesame Street begins airing on Saturday at 9 a.m. on HBO.