It’s no surprise that “Sesame Street,” which is still the gold standard in educational children’s television after 47 seasons and counting, can with great respect and ease welcome on Monday morning’s episode a new Muppet character named Julia, who happens to be autistic. If anything, “Sesame Street” feels a tad late to the idea, given how parents have nervously watched autism rates increase over the past couple of decades and children have learned to relate to peers who are on the autism spectrum.
Viewers meet Julia as she is coloring with Elmo, Abby Cadabby and their grown-up friend Alan (Alan Muraoka), who owns Hooper’s Store. Big Bird drops by and introduces himself to Julia, but she won’t talk to him. He wonders whether she’s shy, because, he says, “I can feel shy sometimes, too.”
But it’s not that. Alan and the gang very quickly and directly explain Julia’s autism and how it affects her personality (“She might not answer you right away,” Alan says) and that’s that — Big Bird totally gets it. Thus “Sesame Street” has once again done its job with little fanfare or self-congratulatory narrative. The only lesson here is the same message “Sesame Street” has been transmitting since 1969: We all belong here, we are all friends, and sharing is the best way to get along.
Soon enough, Julia has introduced the gang to an impromptu game of what she calls “boing-boing,” which Abby then terms “boing tag.” Julia is upset by the sound of a passing police siren, but her friends have learned how to comfort her and patiently wait for her to redirect.
In other words, all seems well on “Sesame Street” these days, but noticeably different — especially if it’s been a while since you’ve visited.
(The last time I reviewed “Sesame Street,” Al Roker dropped by in a prime-time special to explain the Great Recession to Elmo, after Elmo’s mother was laid off and everyone in the neighborhood was feeling the nation’s economic malaise.)
The show, produced by the Sesame Workshop (which used to be called the Children’s Television Workshop), moved to HBO in 2015 in a multiyear development deal. Although the switch from PBS has its critics, who worry that “Sesame Street” might not reach poorer households the way it used to, it’s hard to argue with the logic or the terms of the agreement: In exchange for never having to scrounge for funding, new “Sesame Street” episodes air first on the premium cable network and then make their way to public-television stations nine months later, at no cost to the stations.
In return, HBO can use the power of “Sesame Street” (still considered essential viewing for preschoolers) to compete with Amazon and Netflix, both of which have made significant strides in children’s programming. On top of that, the deal acknowledges what any household with kids already understands: TV is no longer watched when it airs. Toddlers and kids in more fortunate households take their shows when they want them, choosing from lush archives of on-demand programming.
And yet, despite its freedom from budgetary woes, “Sesame Street” still acts as a symbol for all that is good and right (and vulnerable) about publicly funded media. When President Trump’s proposed budget was unveiled last month, it suggested whacking all of the $445 million in federal money to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes funds to more than a thousand public TV and radio stations; media reporters and headline writers (including those at The Washington Post) habitually reached for references to Big Bird and other “Sesame” characters as a way of expressing what could be lost, when a more apt symbol (and one who is suitably Muppet-esque) would be documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Whatever cuts may come, they are no longer really Big Bird’s problem — so long as HBO keeps paying the bills. Much of what you see via PBS has been funded and underwritten in a number of creative ways, relying on the generous gifts of individuals and corporations who value the core mission. What Congress doles out to the CPB is the tiniest drop in the bucket; Trump’s proposed cuts come across as a mean-spirited way of thwarting public media’s reach, especially in more rural parts of the country. “Sesame Street’s” message of sharing and cooperation sadly has little influence in Washington these days.
Watching Julia acquaint herself with the world of “Sesame Street,” and vice-versa, I couldn’t help but notice how shiny and new the show looks since the HBO deal. “Sesame Street” has always evolved with the times and long ago shed some of the chill, lo-fi vibe that defined its earliest days. The streaming, on-demand “Sesame Street” of the 21st century is more vivid and compressed — high-def and even higher pitched, thanks to the ubiquity of Elmo’s incessant falsetto. What a grown-up viewer sees now is definitely an upgrade from what the mind nostalgically recalls.
“Sesame Street’s” authenticity is intact, and it remains a national treasure, but it’s impossible not to notice that the neighborhood has changed. That, kids, is what we call new money.
Sesame Street (30 minutes) The “Meet Julia” episode premieres Monday at 8 a.m. on HBO and HBO Family. Also available on HBO’s streaming and on-demand services.