The World According to Sesame Street

Anybody who thinks rewarding and entertaining children’s television is a matter of slapping some jaunty music, lesson-learning parables and colorful characters together in front of a camera should have their eyes opened by the documentary The World According to Sesame Street, being shown Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens, and getting released on DVD the same day. It focuses on the venerated children’s TV show’s efforts to kick-start international versions in some of the globe’s most troubled areas, working with local artists and producers so that everything from subject matter to Muppet creation reflects each country’s cultural imperatives and realities. But it is as much a story about what adults learn about politics as it is about how artists work to serve the educational needs of our youngest, most impressionable global citizens. It’s an uphill battle in a place like Kosovo, where filmmakers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan show us Serbian and Albanian preschoolers casually revealing their mistrust of each other, followed by a production meeting in which glum-looking grown-ups express fear at depictions of unity between Serbs and Albanians. All the while the American representatives of New York’s Sesame Workshop keep up their move-forward optimism, even, in the case of a more harmonious co-production in Bangladesh, when civil unrest shuts down the city of Dhaka and the question arises of whether the government will allow the program to ever air. And in AIDS-ravaged South Africa, the creation of a Muppet character with HIV to promote acceptance of others is presented as the thoughtful, necessary decision it is, then shown being reported around the world as if Sesame Street had lost its mind. There’s a quick clip from Crossfire in which Robert Novak loudly grumbles his wish that no such puppet be introduced in the states, for an instant resembling the embodiment of every intolerant, education-deficient, peace-hating force Sesame Street has been trying to fight around the world. In other words, looking like the mutant Oscar the Grouch cousin that could only have sprung from Jim Henson’s nightmares.

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