It’s Saturday night, and, if you’re parenting a preschooler, you might be coming back from the umpteenth birthday party of the day or whatever activity you planned to tire your tot out before bedtime. You’re exhausted and maybe a little screen time can give you and your little one a much-needed break.
Assuming your DVR isn’t already full of children’s programming for such occasions, enter “Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Celebration” on HBO Kids. Yes, another kid-geared party to fill your weekend.
The iconic children’s show is aging but determined to stay young as it readies for the premiere of its 50th season on Nov. 17. HBO marked the milestone on Saturday with a star-studded “special evening presentation” that offers “a sweeping look at 50 years on the Street.”
And sweeping it is. It’s not a regular episode of the beloved educational series, but a party-themed event hosted by Sesame Street fanboy Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It features the beloved colorful muppets and plenty of former cast members for the Count to count and cookies for Cookie Monster to devour. Several celebrities were also — briefly — on hand to talk shop or sing a song. Or seven.
The street’s diverse residents, who’ve spent the summer and fall delightfully crashing events across the country in the lead-up to the new season, are celebrating the anniversary together and Gordon-Levitt has grand plans to take a group photo under the iconic green and yellow Sesame Street sign. Except it goes missing, so Elmo, Abby and Grover have to spend their non-musical moments figuring out where it went and keep Gordon-Levitt from noticing.
The special is meant for fans of all ages, even in its “prime-time” slot.
“I would say the special is enjoyable for both grown-ups and children alike, as there is a lot there for everyone to enjoy … those who grew up with the show and those who are enjoying it for the first time,” John Kwiatkowski, a representative for HBO, told The Times.
But aside from the music, the special doesn’t seem to have much of the educational content that parents hope will keep kids engaged. Nor does it have enough of the cheeky fare that entertains the adults who are beholden to watch (even when Gordon-Levitt insists he’s always been a resident of Sesame Street, is superimposed into vintage clips and glibly addresses being “in the same clothes” for all the appearances).
The 49-minute special is more teed up for JGL and music fans: Norah Jones does an early number that reunites with the letter “Y,” a gag that started with her 2008 riff on “Don’t Know Y.” Grammy winner Nile Rodgers sings his rendition of the Sesame staple “People in Your Neighborhood” and surprise guest Kermit the Frog reprises “Bein’ Green,” a thoughtful duet he performs with Elvis Costello.
There are also numbers from Solange and Meghan Trainor. The silly “Put Down the Ducky” song features cameos from Whoopi Goldberg, Patti LaBelle, Sterling K. Brown and violinist Itzhak Perlman. The fleeting cameos will be part of later segments this season, which will feature Mindy Kaling, Chrissy Teigen, Terry Crews, Thomas Rhett and more.
Will it keep your kid entertained for nearly an hour? Depends on the kid, or the kid at heart if the viewer is truly jazzed to see veteran cast members Bob McGrath (Bob), Sonia Manzano (Maria), Emilio Delgado (Luis), Loretta Long (Susan) and Roscoe Orman (Gordon) back where the air is sweet.
The celebration is also slightly dulled by the fact that the once widely accessible show is getting harder to access.
That controversy has been brewing since Sesame Workshop moved the program from the free PBS to the subscription-based HBO in 2015. That was compounded last month when the premium channel announced that new episodes would be available only via its streaming service HBO Max and delayed airings on PBS Kids — a move largely regarded as a way for the fledgling streaming service to compete with the massive child-focused library of other streamers like Disney+ and Netflix.
“We know children enjoy watching segments over and over,” Elizabeth Weinreb Fishman, a spokesperson for Sesame Workshop, told The Times. “Because Sesame Street is not a narrative, watching seasons at different time does not detract from children’s enjoyment or the educational rigor. Indeed, part of the way Sesame has always been produced is to mix old and new segments.”
When it comes to this special, however, and in the ongoing debate of stream or skip, it’s probably OK to skip and watch shorter clips like the muppets taking over “The Late Late Show” instead. Your preschooler will thank you and hopefully ask to go to bed when it ends.