Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary is more about reaffirming a love of ‘Sesame Street’ than providing worthwhile insights or revelations.
Sesame Street is one of the most popular and influential television shows of all-time. That’s not an opinion; it’s an objective fact. You don’t stick around for over 50 years and win the hearts of countless children and parents if you’re not popular and influential. And yet Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Streetnever really tells us more than we already know. There are fun anecdotes, and it’s nice to make sure audiences know the names of the people who created this hallowed piece of children’s educational entertainment, but Agrelo rarely seeks to dig deeper or to explore the show’s legacy beyond the audience’s general awareness. I spent almost two hours with Street Gang, and while I’m glad I now know the creative forces involved and that Frank Oz and Jim Henson had fun playing Bert and Ernie together, my larger understanding of Sesame Street remains the same.
The documentary kind of breezes through the genesis of Sesame Street and how Joan Ganz Cooney brought in director Jon Stone who then brought in Jim Henson to formulate a program that could use entertainment techniques for educational purposes. The argument is that if kids are already spending inordinate amounts of time in front of the television being sold products by mindless entertainment, then there should be a program that uses television for good but can still be entertaining. Furthermore, the show should be set in an inner city because it’s trying to reach inner city kids who were falling behind their classmates in school. From there, the documentary delights in the show’s growing popularity and cobbles together anecdotes like the origins of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” or how the show addressed the death of Mr. Hooper.
Maybe I’m being a grouch, but I feel like if you’re going to make a two-hour documentary about Sesame Street, it should be more than “Isn’t Sesame Street wonderful?” We all know it’s wonderful, and to do nothing more than that tells me that you’re not trying to provide insight into the show as much as you’re making a commercial for something the audience already purchased. There aren’t any dissenting voices against Sesame Street like pointing out how a show that was created with federal funds became a marketing behemoth. Watching Street Gang, you wouldn’t even know the show existed past 1983 because there’s no reckoning with how it has grown, changed, and been purchased by HBO (the studio behind this documentary). I get that Sesame Street isn’t for adults, but it’s bizarre that a documentary about the show would treat its adult viewers like children.
The most glaring example of this whitewashing is that there’s no Elmo in Street Gang. Elmo is one of the most popular characters on one of the most popular shows of all-time, and he’s completely absent from a documentary about that series. Why? Probably because the performer most associated with Elmo, Kevin Clash, had to resign from Sesame Street in 2012 after allegations of sexual impropriety. What does it mean when a beloved character is performed by someone with those allegations, and how does it affect the show and the show’s reputation? To Agrelo, it must not matter because it would distract from another laudatory vignette about how Sesame Street was this perfect thing that only occasionally encountered any friction whatsoever.
This whitewashed history largely makes me wonder what Street Gang even aims to achieve. Unlike Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which endeavored to show sides of Fred Rogers and his show that hadn’t been seen before, Street Gangonly serves to reinforce the popular conception of Sesame Street, and I really don’t need to see a documentary that feeds my own opinions back to me. I’m glad Agrelo can shine a spotlight on the creative forces who made the show such a hit and give these people their due, but that approach has severe limitations, especially when you avoid pointing out any obstacles or conflicts those people may have encountered. A cursory nod to how the children of Jon Stone and Jim Henson noted their fathers’ absences is the kind of puddle-deep look at anything that might possibly detract from the Sesame Street brand.
Ultimately, that’s what Street Gang is: a branding exercise. It’s meant to celebrate Sesame Street and make you feel good about a show you already love. Furthermore, to treat Sesame Street with kid gloves does a disservice to the show’s legacy. Sesame Street is an institution and pointing out any missteps or controversies isn’t going to tear down the series or what it means to people. Sesame Street was designed to educate instead of sell, but Street Gang feels designed to sell rather than educate.
For more of our Sundance 2021 reviews, check out the links below:
Jeff also weighs in on Jared Leto’s new movie ‘The Little Things’ and HBO’s crime series ‘The Investigation.’
About The Author