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It’s easy to be grouchy about HBO’s new Sesame Street

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HBO's take on Sesame Street is shorter, glossier, and charmless

In the battle to attract new subscribers and industry accolades, streaming services like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon have all been investing heavily in big budget adult dramas full of sex and violence. But equally important to winning over cord-cutting millennials, many of whom are now entering their late 20s and early 30s, is having children's programming that can satisfy the next generation of screen savvy consumers. That makes seminal programming like Sesame Street, the iconic series from PBS, a hotly contested item. It has appeared on both Netflix and Hulu, but is now breaking new ground by working directly with HBO to create a new season, one that will be temporarily exclusive to HBO in exchange for additional funding. Verge Dads Dan Seifert and Ben Popper got together to discuss their feelings on the new season after viewing the first two episodes with their children, a pair of girls and a pair of boys, all between the ages of one and four.

Dan: Before I dive into what I or my kids thought of the new HBO-ified Sesame Street, I want to recount the steps I had to go through to actually watch the show.

I don't actually have an HBO Go or HBO Now account, but I do have enough privilege that someone close to me does and lets me mooch off of it whenever I want (it's my father-in-law, in case you're wondering). That's the kind of privilege that Sesame Street nullified by being provided for free on public access television, available over-the-air, and not behind a paywall of premium services. Even basic cable packages are more accessible than HBO's premium tier. I'm fully aware of the details of the HBO deal and know that the new episodes will be available on PBS later this year, but forgive me for not putting my implicit trust in the system. Something about this just doesn't feel right to me and I fear there will be a slippery slope of diminished access as time goes on.

Anyways, HBO Go login in hand, I set about attempting to watch the show with my kids (ages four and one) on Saturday morning, when the new episodes were due to be available. But technical snags left me frustrated: neither the Amazon Fire TV nor the Roku 3 (I have both, there's that privilege again!) would stream the show in their HBO Go apps, even though it was listed as available. I could get the show to stream on my iPad mini and my Android phone (more privilege), but that failed when I tried to cast it to my TV with the Chromecast, and I wasn't about to crowd the whole family around an 8-inch screen to watch this.

The difference in accessibility with the new Sesame Street is stark

This sordid little tale may sound like the ultimate in #firstworldproblems, but it highlights the difference between how accessible Sesame Street was a week ago and how it is today. I longed for the ability to just turn on channel 13 at 8AM and watch Elmo and the gang with my kids, instead of having to jump through so many 21st century hoops to get it to play. And while most people have access to a television and over-the-air broadcasts (especially those living in the inner-city, which Sesame Street was originally designed to serve), far fewer have the high-speed internet, modern devices, or premium cable subscriptions necessary to watch new episodes of Sesame Street in 2016. Not to mention the fact that after a half-hour of trying to get it to play with no success, my kids were both disappointed and annoyed that they couldn't watch Sesame Street when I had told them we would. Unnecessary tantrums are a part of parental life, but they are certainly things I try to avoid as much as possible.

I was able to get the stream to work on the Fire TV later in the day, so I rounded up the girls and plopped them down in front of the TV for the show.

Ben: I had no problem accessing it. Unlike you, I don't have broadcast TV, but it was three easy clicks on my Apple TV to start watching it on HBO Go on Sunday. All you need to access quality children's programming is a subscription to the most expensive streaming television network and a device from the wealthiest company in the world. What's the big deal?

Right away, it looked a little too glossy

We hit play on the first episode. Right off the bat it looked a little too glossy. Everything was slick and clean in a way that doesn't fit in my conception of Sesame Street. And those special effects! That was definitely the biggest visual difference. Sesame Street used to ask kids to imagine all kinds of crazy stuff, and now it's just getting thrown on the screen as computer graphics.

By the second episode, however, I was used to all the bells and whistles. It was easy to settle into the familiar routine, with the same characters, actors, and even episodes. Elmo is helping the Queen of Nacho Pichu find a giant rhombus full of dip for her oversized chip. This bit is from 2012! I tried to go back on Netflix and figure out if the sketch was exactly the same or had been refreshed, but all traces of Sesame Street and Elmo have been wiped from that service, a slightly terrifying reminder that kid's content is now the ultimate weapon in the battle between these two companies.

Dan: My four-year-old, who has been watching Sesame Street for a few years, is very familiar with the characters and regularly threatens to run away to the Sesame Place amusement park to "be with her people" whenever she's mad at my wife or me. She sat patiently through the new episode, dutifully watching, but not interacting with the dance numbers or sing-alongs. (This didn't surprise me, she rarely interacts with children's shows, even though she enjoys watching them.)

We ended up watching both new episodes back-to-back as a result. My daughter paid attention throughout, but didn't really remark too much more about them, aside from when the second one finished and she wanted to watch more TV. She didn't seem to notice the revised set, upgraded production, or Oscar's recycling bin (which I personally think has been made into a bigger deal than it really is).

But the new, shorter format was immediately remarked upon: as soon as the credits started to roll, my daughter said, "That was short." Perhaps my daughter's older age gives her a longer attention span than your boys, Ben, but I think she felt short-changed by the sub-30 minute episode.

Ben: The older segments definitely stood out. For Elmo's World, it was like we got transported back to a time before PBS had HBO's budget. Was that segment a leftover created before this new season? It didn't bother me, but it definitely looked out of place against the fancy new stuff.

Kids didn't appear to notice the updated production values

My son didn't seem to notice the difference in production values. He's almost three and, like your daughter, is a die-hard fan. He talks about Elmo all the time, even when we're not watching TV, and likes to listen to music from the show on headphones during long car trips.

As a parent, I appreciated that the episodes were just 26 minutes long. That is awesome. One of my least favorite things about the Sesame Street episodes available on Netflix and Hulu was that they were about 50 minutes. Two-thirds of the way through the episode I was always ready for it to be over. Having to compromise and turn them off halfway through so we can eat dinner was also a recipe for a tantrum. Your daughter feels short-changed now, but eventually she can just watch two episodes in place of one. I dig the new more tightly packed format.

Aside from the length, the big thing that stood out to me was that the music was a lot better. Terrible kids music is one of my least favorite parts of parenting, and I thought the songs to accompany the letter and number of the day were both solid jams. Actually, "Letter of the Day" was shockingly good.

"Letter of the Day" starts at 10:18.

Dan: I noticed the upgraded production and musical numbers too, but both my wife and I missed the old format. The new show leans heavily on star characters Elmo and Abby Cadabby (they are unsurprisingly, my daughter's favorite characters, so she didn't seem to mind), which left little room for other characters and skits. I particularly missed the vignettes with real kids doing real-life things and the multi-cultural emphasis of the old Sesame Street — the Spanish language segments were nowhere to be found.

Two episodes might be too little to judge

Perhaps two episodes in is too early to judge and my lens is tinted with nostalgia for the Sesame Street I grew up with, but I can't say I'm thrilled with the new show. It feels like any other children's show that might be on Disney or Nick Jr, which is something that Sesame Street always seemed to be separate from. My kids likely won't care as time goes on, and there is the lengthy back catalog of old episodes to watch if they do, but it definitely feels like a changing of the guard. That, coupled with the looming specter of HBO's paywall, makes me both skeptical and sad about Sesame Street's future.

Ben: Look, it's like Mucko Polo says, if you try hard enough, you can always find something to be grouchy about. And sure, they upgraded Oscar from a trash can to recycling, but it could have been worse. The ultimate yuppie muppet probably lives in an organic compost bin.

My son wasn't ready to give a full review, but he did laugh out loud several times during the episode, and talked back when asked questions by characters on screen, which is usually a sign he's engaged. We've got just two episodes to judge by, but I'm happy Sesame Workshop took the money. It sucks that people who can't afford HBO have to wait a season before getting the new episodes, but on the other hand, I'm glad Sesame Street is no longer beholden to the budget scolds in Congress. That segment in episode two where we got to come along for a dive in Australia to see shipwrecks, turtles, and mantis shrimp? So awesome, and definitely not cheap.

Dan: At least they aren't trying to feed Cookie Monster vegetables anymore, amirite?