Sunday, July 4, 2010

Review: Street Gang by Michael Davis

Not much of a tv watcher as a child (at least as compared to my sister who would willingly watch the test pattern on Saturday mornings while waiting for the cartoons to start), I still logged quite a bit of time watching the marvelous and entertaining Sesame Street. As a college student, I was thrilled to find a program to download on my bright and shiny, new computer that made Oscar the Grouch pop up and sing "I Love Trash" each and every time you dumped something into your system trash can. I can't even begin to explain how often I created a blank document just to have something to throw away. I knew the world had lost a big soul when Jim Henson died (and a memorial to him found its way onto my dorm door). I watched Sesame Street with my own children. The Sesame Street puppets are a major part of my cultural history and so when I heard about this complete history of Sesame Street, I was thrilled. I even helped railroad my book club into reading it. So nothing could have been more disappointing than to find the book dry and dull and unwonderful.

Starting with the spark that eventually became the origin of Sesame Street, Davis traces the history of children's television in the 60's and the life stories of the major players in the development of the idea that became the Children's Television Workshop. Eventually he tackles the rise of the show itself, detailing the thinking behind the set design, the multi-cultural cast, and even the title of the show itself. There are political and business moves laid bare here and a quick skim through the post-Jim Henson Sesame Street.

Unfortunately, Davis' pre-show tracings consume well over 100 pages of the book and are packed to the brim with inconsequential minutia about other tv shows and the childhoods of the show's developers. It is almost as if he felt that leaving out any of his research would invalidate the time he spent on it. Instead, it made for a deadly boring read. There was little on the personal aspect of the show. None of the interesting tidbits that I hoped to learn. For instance, while mentioning that Oscar was orange in season one, he never tells the reader why a color change was made to this iconic puppet. He does cover some of the bigger strides made on the show, such as the emotional Farewell Mr. Hooper episode following actor Will Lee's death but he ignores other major parts, such as the use of famous guest hosts. The other big omission is that of more recent Sesame stuff. Once Jim Henson died, the book clicked into warp speed, racing toward the end with little commentary on the state of the Street these days and the innovations the CTW is playing with now.

There's very little of the quirky, human interest stuff that makes histories come alive. As a result, this history of Sesame Street takes on the droning tone of a textbook, detailing the uninteresting and missing out on those tidbits that would draw a reading audience, weaned on Sesame Street, in. Personally I would have loved information behind the development of the characters and the puppets. I know the show itself is a trail blazer and has had an immeasurable impact on children's educational programming but reading this "complete history" will make the reader think that it was a quaint idea of its time but something that is no longer relevant (and frankly uninteresting to read about). I just know there's a warm and wonderful Sesame Street story out there. This just didn't tell it.


  1. Bummer! I heard the author on a radio show a few months ago and thought this would be a good read - not so sure now. Thanks for the review.

  2. That's disappointing. I loved Sesame Street :)


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