Hard times on Sesame Street
Woodstock, Stonewall, Chappaquiddick. Monty Python, President Nixon, Golda Meir. “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Brady Bunch.” The moon landing. No matter how you measure it, 1969 was an extraordinary year. The sun rose and set on the Manson murders and the exposure of My Lai, but also over “Abbey Road” and John and Yoko’s famous “bed-ins.”
More important, perhaps even most important, it was the year of “Sesame Street.”
There is no medium more powerful or ubiquitous as television and there is no television show more iconic or revolutionary than “Sesame Street.”
Born of educational research, endless focus groups and the desire of creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson to raise all boats, “Sesame Street” turned the idea of TV as the one-eyed baby sitter on its head: If children are staring at the tube for hours at a time, why not try to teach them something?
And not just numbers and letters and the benefits of sharing. Racially, economically and generationally diverse before “diversity” was cool, “Sesame Street” spoke to children and families who were not part of the white middle class that dominated the medium, while broadening the horizons of those who were. Even the music broke all conventions.
All of which makes tonight’s “Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times” all the more poignant. Forty years after “Sesame Street” lit up the children’s branch of social revolution, it’s now seeking to provide stability in the midst of economic collapse.
Families in flux
Hosted by Al Roker and his wife, journalist Deborah Roberts, the one-hour prime-time “Sesame Street” special looks at how different families are coping with layoffs and other budgetary downturns. There’s a community market being held on Sesame Street where various families are selling things to earn a little extra money. Good thing too, because even some of the locals are facing hard times -- superhero Grover is looking for a job and the irrepressible-bordering-on-manic Elmo learns that his mother has been laid off, which can be kind of scary.
As they move from table to table and story to story, Roker and Roberts ask how each family is coping and celebrate their ability to put togetherness before material things. Even so, the series of mini-docs will make an adult viewer swallow hard more than once. Jobs have been lost, and homes, families that were planned on the foundation of a solid-seeming career now teeter, mothers wipe away tears and proud parents find themselves having to ask for help -- financial, psychological -- from family and local agencies.
Although the emphasis is kept firmly on the importance of love and careful planning, “Families Stand Together” makes it clear that there is no magic wand, no fairy-tale ending in sight. These hard times are real and must be endured, sacrifice is required, and comfort comes not from a sudden windfall but from knowing that many have, and are, going through the same sort of thing.
In its own “Sesame Street” way, it’s unlike anything on television. The families here receive no corporate-sponsored makeover, no cash prize for surviving a quasi-psycho game show. There are no free tummy tucks on “Sesame Street,” no matching swing sets or cupcakes sent over by the manufacturer or reality show contract.
To earn pocket money, the kids sell their used books or make hand-painted T-shirts, the parents look for jobs that they hope will pay more than childcare costs and try to see the unemployed days as togetherness time.
Conditioned as we are to “happy endings” (i.e. a sudden deluge of wealth or free stuff), “Families Stand Together” seems almost jarring at times (surely Roker and his wife will hand out a check or two), but for all its fuzzy critterness, “Sesame Street” has never been overly sentimental -- when original cast member Will Lee died in 1982, so did Mr. Hooper and everyone from Big Bird on down talked about it.
Even its guest stars were from the “real” world, more Leno and Letterman than children’s TV. People as different as Ralph Nader and Ricky Gervais, Lauren Bacall and Queen Latifah have spent time with the Muppets. Barbara Bush came on to speak up for literacy and every first lady since then has followed; Michelle Obama made it one of her first official stops, with a push for good nutrition.
Why it’s special
But the magic of “Sesame Street” is that it reflects a world that is real, through children’s eyes, yes, but no one’s a secret rock star or possessed of super powers. The blond girls aren’t always mean and you don’t have to score a last-minute goal to know happiness.
It’s a nice place, Sesame Street, but it isn’t overly sanitized because the world is messy, and no one knows that better than children. Oscar the Grouch lives in a trash can, for goodness sake, and when Kermit the Frog sang “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green,” he wasn’t telling kids who felt overlooked and ordinary that it was all in their imagination or that they’d grow out of it.
He was saying yeah, sometimes you’re going to feel like that, and it can be tough, but it can be wonderful too. Because green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain, just like you.
Revolutionary still, even in hard times.
‘Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times’
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)