CHILDHOOD is the only time and place that grows larger as it is left behind. Two weeks at the seashore appear, in memory, as a floodlit Oz. The first airplane ride might have been to Venus. The early hours spent with radio, TV and films are the foundation of adult imagination. Yet when children grow up, they suffer some sad amnesia of taste. How else could former kids provide television programs designed to do nothing with time but kill itas if, in Thoreau's phrase, it were possible to kill time without injuring eternity? From the moment it was old enough to earn money, U.S. television has been squandering the country's greatest natural resource: the young audience.
Until last year. Abruptly, the electronic babysitter moved onto a street called Sesame. It was a combination of the circus, a classroom and the Brothers Grimm. At first it was suspected of merely looking brilliant, compared with the boring horrors of standard children's programming. Vulgarity and violence dominate children's video: mice endlessly bombing cats, family "comedies" with dumb daddies, mischievous kids and dogs who wag their way into your heart, all accompanied by commercials as intense as the Chinese water torture ("Be the first on your block . . . Ask Mommy to get some . . . New! Big! Free! Wow! WOW!"). By now, even the most cynical promoters have begun to realize that Sesame Street is no fluke and that it is excellent in its own right, not merely relative to the rest of the junior TV scene. In its new series, just begun, the program proves that it is not only the best children's show in TV history, it is one of the best parents' shows as well.
From the first, kids treated Sesame Street like the yellow brick road. Its heavy stress of cooperation over competition, its amalgam of the wholly familiar and the totally exotic were irresistible. It was only grownups who expressed doubts. And who could blame them? For openers, the Street looks as if a toy truck had overturned in Harlem. There is no Disneyesque nostalgia for the inaccessible past. The place is in the unavoidable present; the clothing of the cast is well worn, the umber colors and grit of inner-city life are vital components of the show. Some other main ingredients: a 7-ft. canary, Big Bird, who waddles around the set constantly making mistakes. He may be the only adult-sized object in the world that kids can feel superior to.
Monsters run the joint. There is, for instance, a bundle of fuzz with pingpong-ball eyes and a sonic boom of a voice known only as Cookie Monster (no middle initial). His appetite is so fierce that, given a choice between ten thousand dollars and a cookie, he opts immediately for the latter. There are other creatures on the show, like Bert and Erniehumanoids with cartoon hands, three fingers and a thumb. Bert, who has one frowning eyebrow, chivvies Mutt-and-Jeff style with Ernie, a bulbous-nosed charmer whose favorite sport is sitting in the tub, rhapsodizing to his rubber duckie. Oscar the Grouch lives in a garbage can. There he fulminates, venting such mock aggressions that by comparison a child in a tantrum is Little Mary Sunshine.