The most cynical read of “The Not Too Late Show With Elmo,” one of the few original series launching HBO Max, is that it’s a canny way to capitalize on new streaming service’s deep IP pockets for one of their biggest target demos while roping buzzy stars into the kind of silliness that they might otherwise do on, say, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” And all of that is true! But the new series is also, as it turns out in the first three episodes, an extremely delightful way to thread that needle. Plus, with quarantine remaining a nationwide concern, “The Not Too Late Show’s” attempt to fill the early evening gap for kids entertainment by emphasizing the importance of nighttime routines for children (plus their exhausted parents) should make it even more relevant than it might have been otherwise.
“The Not Too Late Show,” taking cues from “The Muppets” to let the “Sesame Street” gang do their thing in a whole new setting, opens every episode with Elmo asking his parents if he may “be excused to go do Elmo’s talk show.” This, as with just about everything Elmo’s done since his debut, is entirely too cute, but somehow still lands thanks to Elmo’s guileless affect of innocence personified. He then welcomes guests — including, as was inevitable, a grinning Fallon himself — who help Elmo host and play games. Elmo, sidekick Cookie Monster, and various Sesame Street friends do their best to jazz up every interview, but as is the case for every talk show, there’s only so much you can do if the guest doesn’t click into the show’s particular rhythms. (Unsurprisingly, an example of a guest who immediately gets it is John Mulaney, fresh off “The Sack Lunch Bunch,” his own deeply earnest and whimsical children’s special for Netflix.)
Rounding out the 15 minute episode (a correct and blessedly brief runtime) is a musical performance of an existing Sesame Street song, but by musicians who give it their own flavor. Some are, of course, more successful than others. Kacey Musgraves and Lil Nas X’s spins on “Rubber Ducky” and “Elmo’s Song,” respectively, are perfectly fun and adorable; the Jonas Brothers’ half-sexy jam about brushing your teeth, less so.
If Elmo and his benevolently gormless brand isn’t your thing, his “not too late show” might not be, either. But if you’re in need of a quick distraction while wrestling your kid in and out of the bath, you could do a lot worse than letting Elmo take the reins for a minute.
“The Not Too Late Show with Elmo” premieres May 27 on HBO Max.