Coding is something that kids need to learn now, not just when they get to high school and college. And by “coding,” we don’t mean the act of sitting and creating a web page or writing an app. We mean being able to break down a bigger task into smaller parts, sequencing what needs to be done, then putting everything back together again. Helpsters is a new show by the Sesame Workshop that helps the preschool crowd to start learning those concepts.
HELPSTERS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A monster named Cody (Stephanie D’Abruzzo) steps out of a subway and introduces herself as a “Helpster,” a monster who helps solve problems, and she walks to the storefront where she and her friends do just that.
The Gist: Cody and her Helpster friends — the highfalutin Mr. Primm (Martin P. Robinson), the distracted but sincere Scatter (Tim Lagasse), and the humongous softie Heart (Ingrid Hansen) — work to problem solve when people come in seeking help. The show Helpsters, created by Tim McKeon (Odd Squad) introduces preschoolers to concepts involved in coding: sequencing, breaking large concepts into smaller pieces, and putting pieces together into a whole.
In the first segment, Amazing Alie (Franchesca Ramsey) wants to go on a mountain hike but needs something to wear, some lunch, and supplies. Mr. Primm creates a jumpsuit that can work in the hot weather at the bottom of the mountain and the cold weather at the top, and has his assistant Jackie (Jennifer Barnhart) model it. Scatter wants to make a cheese sandwich but doesn’t know the sequence to make one. And Heart needs to find a thing to put all of Alie’s supplies in, and eventually gets a backpack.
In the second segment, Robbie and Rhonda Runner (Maulik Pancholy, Sunita Mani) want to find out which of them is fastest, so they want to run a race. Mr. Primm finds them a track (in the broom closet!) and figures out they should go twice around. Heart looks for water, and Scatter makes a winner’s ribbon.
Our Take: As with most Sesame Workshop programs, Helpsters doesn’t like talking down to its audience, as the guest actors and puppeteers all speak like normal people even if some of the words they use might go over its audience’s heads. We give credit to McKeon for going a different way with the puppets; instead of Jim Henson Productions making the puppets, they’ve gone to a company called Monkey Boys Productions. It gives the puppets a different look and feel, and helps separate the show and its characters from their Muppet cousins. But the puppets are just as warm and colorful and funny, thanks to the expert work of veteran puppeteers who have worked on Sesame Street and other Workshop projects.
The guest stars are also a key to the show. In the six episodes, we see guests like Rachel Dratch, Alan Cummings, Amber Tamblyn, Aparla Nancherla, Judah Friedlander, Vanessa Bayer, John Hodgman, and more. Some of the musical guests include Norah Jones, Talib Kweli, Jason Mraz and more. Just like when guests appear on Sesame Street, they treat the material seriously and have a fun time interacting with the puppets.
What Age Group Is This For?: We’d say the four and under set, though most four-year-olds have graduated past highly-structured shows like Helpsters. They’ve likely moved onto PAW Patrol, so Helpsters might seem too babyish for them.
Parting Shot: The episode ends with the four Helpsters singing a song a cappella, with Ingrid Michelson as the guest singer. Each Helpster has his or her own part and Ingrid tells them when to come in. What’s the song about? Grilled cheese, of course?
Sleeper Star: We never give the puppeteers enough credit on shows like this. They’re crouching under counters with their arms in the air, trying to make these puppets move and talk in sync with the dialogue they’re voicing at the same time. It’s ridiculously complex work and it’s a miracle when it’s pulled off.
Most Pilot-y Line: The structure can get a little repetitive for adults, and it seems like Cody is the only one of the Helpsters who can set the rest of her crew on the right path. But that’s how she helps, by making sure the rest of her buddies have the information and encouragement they need. And, we have to remember, this is a show for preschoolers, so repetition and a sure sense of each character’s role are what make the information stick in their developing brains.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Helpsters is colorful and helps teach your preschoolers how to solve problems. And there will be a joke or two that you might laugh at, too.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, FastCompany.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.