A few days ago, I expressed my disappointment about the recent Sesame Street special, but then I thought about it and wondered if I was being unfair. After all, I’m about ten times older than the targeted age demographic. I started thinking that maybe a better criterion by which to judge would be what I would have thought of the special if I’d watched it as a four-year-old instead of an almost 40-year-old.
Obviously, I lost that perspective a long time ago, but the idea was so intriguing to me that I’m trying to re-approximate it.
To four-year-old Mary, a phone was something that attached to the wall and had a long curly cord and a rotary dial (which was somewhat dated in the world of 1984-85 where four-year-old Mary lived). So the concept of recording video with a phone would be completely foreign to her. Nevertheless, I don’t think she would have had any problems with the presentation. Split-screen phone conversations were a common trope on the TV shows that she watched, and she also watched Inspector Gadget on a regular basis and was familiar with the video calls that Penny and Brain used to make on their proto-Apple watches. So I think four-year-old Mary could have accepted what happens during the special without requiring an explanation of the tech behind it.
With that said, I don’t think four-year-old Mary would necessarily recognize the special as a Sesame Street production, at least not at first. She would have wondered who the red monsters were. Elmo existed on the Sesame Street that she knew, but he was still developing as a character, and she neither knew nor cared very much about him. She probably couldn’t have even told you his name if asked.
Four-year-old Mary wouldn’t have recognized Abby or Rosita either because neither of them existed on the Sesame Street that she knew and loved. However, being that they’re both such delightful characters, I think she would have enjoyed them. The fact that they’re both girls would have been completely unremarkable to her, and if you tried to encourage her to identify with them specifically for that reason, you would probably meet with some pushback. Four-year-old Mary identified with Bert and Ernie (with preference for the latter), and gender had nothing to do with it.
Four-year-old Mary would have enjoyed seeing Cookie Monster and Grover, since they are probably the two characters in the special that she would recognize. She would probably not hear any difference in their voices from what she was familiar with. She would enjoy Cookie Monster’s shtick as always, and she would be amused when Grover accidentally flips himself upside down. However, I think she would be terrified when Grover starts messing with the filters and gives himself a really big head. Even the sight of Grover with floating bunny ears and nose probably would scare her, since she would have no way of knowing where they came from or how it was happening.
On the Sesame Street that four-year-old Mary watched daily, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar appeared on a consistent basis. So she would probably be confused and perplexed by their almost complete absence from the special (although I’m sure there are legitimate reasons for it).
When Elmo plays the clip of him singing “Let’s Go Driving” with Taye Diggs, she would recognize the song from the Sesame Street Sing-Along album. However, she would probably get annoyed by the different arrangement, and she would almost certainly be angry that they cut out two of the verses. She would be similarly frustrated by the weird sort of hip-hop arrangement of “Sing” at the end. (I’m not sure four-year-old Mary would be bothered that they skipped the second verse of “Sing,” but 39-year-old Mary is kind of irked by it despite–or because of–the fact that it’s now the status quo.)
The matter of the celebrity guests introduces an interesting paradox. In the world that four-year-old Mary occupied, both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anne Hathaway were themselves adorable children, brimming with potential but as yet unknown to the world. So four-year-old Mary wouldn’t recognize them and know to be impressed.
Looking back as an adult, I often say that Sesame Street spoiled me for “kiddie television,” by which I mean children’s shows that are overly saccharine, condescending, and insincere. Four-year-old Mary might have taken issue with Elmo telling us to get up and do a silly dance at the sound of the horn. But I don’t think she would have minded Lin-Manuel Miranda singing “Old MacDonald”; it’s a song that she liked, so she would probably have joined in with gusto. Interestingly enough, I don’t think four-year-old Mary knew “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” yet; I don’t think she learned it until a year or two later when she started kindergarten in earnest. When she did learn it, she liked it, so I think she would enjoy it during the special.
Overall, I do not think the special would have offended four-year-old Mary, but I don’t think she could sustain a level of enthusiasm about it. She would probably have watched until the end and been moderately entertained, but she would have walked away from it decidedly disappointed and then forgotten about it within a few days.