Friday, October 21, 2005


My husband and I are NFOE.

That's right:

Not Fans of Elmo.

We began watching Sesame Street as tiny tots in the days before Elmo. The days when the intro to the show was not "enhanced" with computer generated graphics and the folksy lyrics of the opening song were not set to watered-down faux hip-hop or imitation electronica. The days when each show followed a single coherent, well-written plot, interspersed with beautifully constructed live-action, muppet-action, and animated educational "commercials" that related in clever ways to the content of the show as a whole. The days when the show offered a range of interesting characters with realistic personalities and dealt with the full spectrum of human experience-- when a pathologically shy Telly, a spooky Count, and a cranky, abrasive Oscar the Grouch (my favorite!) made regular, in-story appearances alongside the cheerful and optimistic Big Bird and the bossy, outgoing Prairie Dawn-- the days when an entire episode could be written, for preschoolers, about death.

For us, the saccharin-sweet, adorably speech-impaired, unbelieveably hyperactive Elmo, as he rose from new character to principal character to Star of the Show to Unstoppable Commercial Juggernaut with His Own Lengthy Eponymous Segment at the End of Each Episode, came to symbolize the growth of a disappointing malaise afflicting a once-beloved series.

Sure, maybe part of it is just that the show's writers and producers simply started to run out of good ideas after the first 20 years. But it seems to me that Sesame Street has really been more a victim of its own success. Tempted by the promise of growing commercial tie-in revenues, and forced to compete with a steady stream of new educational children's shows entering the market Sesame Street had pioneered, is it really any surprise that eventually the people in charge of Sesame Street might end up commercializing, post-modernizing, and politically over-correcting the franchise to the point of absurdity?

The storylines, once well-written and morally fraught, have become less coherent; the action, more frenetic, while the format of the show as a whole has become dullingly formulaic, with repetitive segments like "Journey to Ernie" and "Elmo's World" taking up large chunks of the time that used to be devoted to original storyline. Potentially controversial characters, like the socially-challenged Telly and Oscar, have been pushed to the sidelines in favor of brighter, bouncier creatures that talk less, jump more, and are always friendly. The newer commercial-style educational shorts have become an ADD-medication salesman's dream: louder, faster, flashier, and, it seems to me, often less educational.

(And who does the computer animation for Sesame Street these days, anyway? An eighth-grader with a Dell? They did a much better job achieving realism back in the '80s with hand-drawn animation and muppets.)

Basically, Sesame Street, though by no means terrible as children's programming goes, does not strike me as being nearly as good as it once was. And, whether a symptom or cause, the rise of Elmo seems symbolic to me of the show's decline.

(Not to mention the fact that I just find Elmo so damned annoying. I have the same reaction to cloyingly cute, bouncy, hyperactive, constantly fake-happy muppets that I do to cloyingly cute, bouncy, hyperactive, constantly fake-happy people: I want to slap them. And my husband feels pretty much the same way).

(This may be because we are both quiet, lazy, anti-social pessimists).

(But nonetheless).

We are NFOE.

And so, we have a bit of a problem.

You see, our son loves Elmo.

In fact, you might more accurately say he's become totally obsessed with Elmo.

A few months before he was born, I bought him a Sesame Street DVD entitled Kids' Favorite Songs. I bought this DVD, in fact, in an attempt to introduce him to the joys of Sesame Street without exposing him to an overdose of Elmo. It was an older title; not being a regular episode, it was sans-Elmo's World, and none of the reviews I read on Amazon mentioned a heaping helping of Elmo as a primary feature of the program. So I thought it would be safe. Maybe an Elmo scene here or there. But not Elmo-mania. Right?

I didn't let him watch it until he was about a year old. And that's when I found out: I was wrong.

The DVD would have been more accurately titled: Elmo's Top Ten Countdown.

And my son loved it. (Except for the part with the singing pigs, which for some reason at first seemed to scare the bejeezus out of him, but he's used to it now).

Not only does he love the DVD we now call Elmo's Top Ten Countdown; he also loves the "Elmo's World" segment on Sesame Street. Which we now let him watch every morning while he eats breakfast, because we've recently discovered that he eats more readily while watching TV (Before you judge me on creating a lifetime of bad eating habits, please read my previous post entitled "Failure to Thrive").

And a couple of days ago, while we were at Target picking up household essentials, my son started screaming "Elbow! Elbow!" at the top of his lungs like someone who'd just spotted a long-lost lover the moment I picked up a bulk-sized box of diaper wipes. I turned the box over to see a large grinning portrait of none other than our favorite red monster. My son refused to stop yelling until I let him clutch the box, which must have weighed five pounds, on his lap in the shopping cart, and he cried piteously when we had to hand the box to the clerk at checkout.

As I positioned the box carefully next to my wailing son's car seat so he could see the picture of Elmo clearly on our way home, I said to my husband, "Do you think that maybe we ought to get him an Elmo doll?"

"No," my husband muttered, gritting his teeth, "We are not getting him an Elmo doll. What's next? Barney?"

But the next day, as I watched my son watch the Elmo DVD, I saw something that took me by surpise. As Elmo counted backwards from ten to one, my son began repeating the numbers. Flawlessly.

I have been counting to him at least once a day, every day, since the day he was born, in three languages, and he's never repeated more than a couple half-garbled numbers back to me.

That's right. Thanks to Elmo, not me, my 17-month-old can now count. BACKWARDS.

Even my husband was pretty impressed.

We may have to put in a call to Santa Claus about that Elmo doll after all.


H said...

I watched before the days of elmo also. In the days of Bert and Ernie, in the days of cool sesame street!

Kristin said...

I am absolutely in agreement with you about Elmo. I tried to sit down and watch an episode of Sesame Street with Josh one time, but the frantic pacing and the blatant Empire-of-Elmo-Merchandising campaign was too hard to swallow. Thankfully, Josh really didn't care for it either. He's just starting to get interested in Thomas the Tank Engine, though. For all my careful parental control of what he witnesses with regards to the media, I'm coming to realize that it simply won't matter. He came home from a friend's house the other day singing the Scooby Doo theme song, and well-meaning relatives buy him toys which have been carefully manufactured to whip children into a frenzy of collecting all related merchandise. At least if your son likes Elmo, you can use it to your advantage. Get him a WWED bracelet (What Would Elmo Do?), tell him that Elmo said to clean his room. That might work for a day.

Hey, how many kids with ADD does it take to change a lightbulb?...

...Let's go ride bikes!!!