Remembering how we got to Sesame Street


By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

‘Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street’

Screen Media presents a documentary directed by Marilyn Agrelo. Rated PG (for some thematic elements, language and smoking). Running time: 107 minutes. Available May 7 on demand.

“Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away

“On my way to where the air is sweet

“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street …”

Sorry, but if I have to hear the “Sesame Street” theme in my head as I write this review, it’s only fair you join me — and don’t even pretend you’re not hearing it at this very moment.

That’s the thing about “Sesame Street.” It’s in our heads and in our hearts and in our memories forever, and we’re all the better for it. So yes, the documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is an unabashed love letter to the first 20 years of the most influential, most beloved and most enduring children’s program in television history, and why not?

Told in sober, straightforward, no-frills fashion, “Street Gang” takes us back to the late 1960s, when Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney and the late writer-producer-director Jon Stone co-created a revolutionary children’s show aimed at educating and entertaining kids, particularly minorities in the inner cities. We see fascinating archival footage and still photos of pitch meetings and test videos and the building of the remarkable set, which looked like a real street in a real city.

As for the Muppets: Jim Henson’s fantastically funny puppets were already popular on late-night talk shows and variety programs, but they achieved true icon status when the idea was hatched to have Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch et al., interacting with the humans right there on the block, no explanations provided or questions asked. That’s just the way it was on Sesame Street. You were accepted whether you were white or Black or Latino or a giant yellow talking bird. Genius!

“Sesame Street” was an instant sensation, though there was some resistance from television programming to its integrated setting, as we see in news footage in which a Mississippi public television station representative tries to justify not airing the program.

We learn of the evolution of Caroll Spinney’s Big Bird, as the decision was made to basically make him a 4-year-old, so he’d reflect the mindset of the young “Sesame Street” viewer. (This was never more evident than in the 1982 episode that addressed the death of actor Will Lee by having Big Bird process — with the help of his human friends — the death of Lee’s character, the shopkeeper Mr. Hooper.) And we’re reminded of Sesame Street’s long and admirable history of addressing social issues when we see a clip of Jesse Jackson on the show in 1972, leading a group of children in a chant of “I Am Somebody.”

Director Marilyn Agrelo does a remarkable job of following multiple storylines; it really did take a village to build “Sesame Street.” We follow the journeys of Ganz and her Children’s Television Workshop partner Lloyd Morrisett; legendary music composer Joe Raposo (who spoke to the outcast in all of us when he wrote “Being Green”); actors such as Sonia “Maria” Manzano and Emilio “Luis” Delgado, and, of course, Jim Henson. In cases where the subjects are no longer with us, we often hear fond memories from their grown children. 

“Street Gang” draws the curtain on the “Sesame Street” timeline with the death of Jim Henson in 1990, at the age of 53. Mr. Henson left behind a body of work that continues to endure today, but a great deal of his legacy remains on Sesame Street, and this film tells us exactly how he and everyone else got there.

‘Mare Of Easttown’

Sundays on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.

For all the murder and mayhem and madness happening in the HBO limited series “Mare of Easttown,” there’s something grounded and real and authentic about nearly every scene and every character. When old friends meet for coffee on a park bench on a chilly morning, when a new arrival in town navigates his way to buying a drink for a local he finds attractive, when a mother and her teenage daughter tangle as mothers and teenage daughters do, it feels real. It feels as if we know these people, even as they’re going through one soap opera-level crisis after another.

Set in a small, middle-class town, “Mare of Easttown” could have been titled “Big Little Working-Class Lies.” The contrast in locales between Monterey, California, and Easttown Township, Pennsylvania, couldn’t be sharper, but when it comes to scandal and romance and affairs and violence and cover-ups and crime investigations, those elite West Coasters got nothin’ on what’s happening here.

Kate Winslet adds to a long list of magnificent, disappear-into-the-character performances as Mare Sheehan, a world-weary police detective more celebrated around town for starring on a championship basketball team a quarter-century ago than for her police work or, for that matter, her personality, which leaves a lot to be desired on even her best days. If you told Mare to smile, she’d tell you to f— off, and she DOES have her reasons. She’s still in mourning for her teenage son, who took his own life; her ex-husband, Frank (David Denman), lives so close she can literally see across the yard into his happy home, complete with new fiancee, and she’s under fire because it’s been a year since a local teenage girl — the daughter of one of Mare’s high school basketball teammates — has gone missing and the police still have no solid leads, no suspects, nothing.

The town is further roiled when a teenage single mom named Erin (Cailee Spaeny) is murdered. When a THIRD young woman goes missing, it appears there’s a serial kidnapper/killer on the loose, as the community loses all faith in Mare, and hotshot young county detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) is brought in to partner with Mare on the case, and you can imagine how thrilled Mare is about that. The investigation introduces us to a number of potential suspects, including Erin’s ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Jack Mulhern), who has a nasty streak, a priest (Neal Huff) with a troubled past and even Mare’s ex, Frank, a high school teacher who claimed he barely knew Erin but in fact had been close with her.

Amidst all the chaos, Mare enters into a relationship with a college professor (Guy Pearce) who has just moved to Easttown and has to contend with her meddling mother (Jean Smart) and her rebellious teenage daughter (Angourie Rice).

At times the criminal procedural seems almost secondary to the tangled web of stories about custody battles and extramarital affairs and troubled children and delinquent teenagers, and it’s a bit of a task to keep up with every character and how this one is related by blood to that one, and this one had an affair with that one, and those two have a problem with each other because of that thing. But we always find our footing when Winslet is onscreen and Mare is in charge, or at least thinks she’s in charge. Mare is smart and has a dark sense of humor and is capable of empathy, but she’s complicated, troubled and self-destructive, she makes some really bad decisions and almost dares people to dislike her as much as she dislikes herself. 

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times

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