REVIEW: Street Gang – How We Got to Sesame Street (Sundance 2021)
It’s difficult to think of a show in the history of television that has amassed more good will over the years than Sesame Street. Honestly, it’s pretty much a tie between the Muppets and Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. And for a lot of viewers, especially younger audiences, Sesame Street just feels as though it’s always been there, a staple of educational television as reliable and permanent as the sun. So it’s easy to forget that when the classic children’s television show first came out, it was revolutionary. Experimental. Something unlike anything else on television at the time. Always fascinating and surprisingly emotional, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street does justice to its narrative subject by highlighting the visionaries behind the scenes (and inside the puppets) of one of America’s most beloved television shows.
The most important thing that Street Gang emphasizes about the Sesame Street creators is the clear mission statement they had from day one, and their intentionality in developing the program. The footage we see from many kids’ shows that predate Sesame Street is pretty damning stuff: essentially a series of commercials and product placement segments interspersed with the occasional skit. It highlights how unexpectedly subversive Sesame Street was from the very beginning, one of the few shows that wanted to give something to its child audience rather than standing with an outstretched hand demanding money from their parent’s wallet. By exploring its origins, we get to watch the understanding of how the medium of television could be used as an educational tool rapidly develop.
It’s also amazing to see how the Sesame Street creators immediately saw its potential in reaching out to inner-city and lower-income children, many of whom had limited access to early childhood education, the absence of which would see them fall behind at the very beginning of their academic careers. Up until this point, nothing was made for them. Nothing. All the media that they consumed was geared primarily towards white suburban children, and the lives portrayed on children’s television did not necessarily reflect their own. When they come up with the concept of Sesame Street as an ordinary urban neighborhood it’s as though a lightbulb goes off, this simple city street a microcosm of everything the show would come to stand for. Not just teaching kids numbers and letters (although it obviously did that as well), but nurturing their empathy for one another and the interpersonal skills that would help them to flourish in a larger community. Sesame Street has done its level best to prepare children for the world, no more and no less.
It’s also fascinating to see the inner workings of the show — the people behind the puppets, and how much their personalities colored the ways in which Sesame Street developed. We’re all familiar with Jim Henson and his contributions, of course, although we get more details here, including the subversive origins of our beloved muppets. But there’s also great insight into the figures behind the scenes who were responsible for making sure Sesame Street was not just successful from a television programming standpoint, but also that it stayed true to its initial mission statement. Joan Ganz Cooney; the producer who was able to convince PBS of the show’s tremendous potential for early childhood education, and did the legwork to ensure that information about the program was reaching the urban communities that would most benefit from it. Jon Stone; who turned up every single day to handle the logistics of such a complicated show with dozens of moving parts.
Of course, Street Gang also highlights the contributions of the show’s main cast, both human and muppet alike. You gain a great appreciation for the sheer talent of each of the performers. So too do we see the responsibility they felt to their young audiences, both with Matt Robinson’s determination to create a muppet character, Roosevelt Franklin, that would feel unapologetically Black and, after the actor who played Mr. Hooper died, the collective decision to use his passing as an opportunity to teach young children about the grieving process. It’s these parts of the show, the ones that give children the tools to lead emotionally healthy lives, that will be its greatest legacy.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street doesn’t change the world in terms of style. It plays out as a very traditional documentary, without many bells and whistles. But across the board, it displays a reverence for its subject material that understands exactly why Sesame Street was such a groundbreaking show for children. And much like the programme it devotes itself to exploring, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a perfect combination of entertaining, educational, and emotionally intelligent.