Is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood the greatest television show ever made?

Is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood the greatest television show ever made?

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and videogames whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

Is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood the greatest television show ever made?

That sounds like needless hyperbole, like a link-baiting statement designed to prompt angry arguments in the comments section. Yet a large part of me means it, and if I were to make such a list, the series would be one of a very few I’d seriously consider for the top spot. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is utterly unlike any other program in television history, from any country. It’s wildly original and often beautiful, possessing an incredible stillness that most other TV series would run screaming from. As I write this, I’m watching Fred Rogers sit at his table and stack cups, all while quietly narrating what he’s doing. It’s absolutely riveting, evoking a kind of peace that can be found in a lovely piece of classical music, or the films of Terrence Malick, or in quietly contemplating a work of visual art. In its low-rent production values and matter-of-fact delivery, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood got at something simple, yet surprisingly profound: People just want to be loved.

Television is not a medium for quiet contemplation, and especially not children’s television. In that sense, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was an evolutionary dead-end, a piece of the TV family tree that never bore all that much fruit. Perhaps replication of the program was impossible. When Jim Henson and the original Sesame Street crew mostly moved on from that classic, they left behind a sprawling ensemble cast of people and puppets, secure in the knowledge that even when Cookie Monster was voiced by somebody else, he’d still be recognizably Cookie Monster, so long as he kept gobbling up cookies. Yet Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is essentially an auteur project, the creation of one tireless man who got involved in television because he hoped it could be a force for good in the lives of children. For the most part, nobody followed in his footsteps. Then again, how could they?

I wasn’t allowed to watch much television growing up. My family watched a handful of primetime programs and a variety of religious children’s programming, but the television in our house usually stayed off, and my sister and I sought adventure outside, or in the pages of storybooks. But we almost always made time for Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the building blocks of the PBS children’s lineup that exists to this day. The two were both about educating children, but where Sesame Street’s focus on letters and numbers was self-evident, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was less immediately obvious in terms of teaching its young audience. Yet the lessons it taught were just as important, and are virtually nowhere on the TV dial nowadays. Through his assorted human and puppet characters, Fred Rogers reached out to his “television neighbors” to increase their emotional intelligence, to let them know that it was okay to feel their feelings, to be mad or sad or scared. This, too, would pass, and through quiet conversation, it might even lead to understanding.

Since Rogers’ death, there’s been a movement to add him to the secular canon, the very small group of people whose cultural influence was used almost entirely for good, whose lives were untouched by scandal. What’s unusual about Rogers is just how well he lives up to sainthood. He was married to the same woman his whole life. He never smoked nor drank. He was a vegetarian, and when pushed to condemn homosexuals or people of non-Christian religions, he would simply say that God loves everyone just as they are. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, is one of the best arguments there is for Christianity as a positive force in American culture, and his unobtrusive religious influence underpins everything in the series without calling attention to itself. 

In a famous Esquire profile of Rogers, Tom Junod boils down what makes him special: astonishment. Somehow, through the long process of growing up, the process that beats cynicism and ironic detachment into so many of us, Rogers was capable of holding onto childlike wonder and curiosity. Returning to the series as an adult, means being confronted with who you once were and all you have lost in the process of becoming who you are. This was often the experience for adults who were lucky enough to meet Rogers, after having grown up with him on their television screens. Junod reports both on his own interactions with the man and the interactions he witnesses while following him around New York City in the course of researching the profile. And there are numerous videos where talk-show hosts struggle to hang onto what’s left of their composure in front of the whole weight of Rogers’ sincerity. Take, for instance, Joan Rivers.

Rivers, who only got to know Rogers’ program via her daughter, Melissa, attempts to push Rogers off his game throughout the interview, yet she’s unable to. He’s unflappable, answering her questions directly, laughing at her jokes, but never losing the path. When he pulls out the King Friday puppet to entertain her and the audience, there’s an audible gasp, and when Rivers asks him to sing “It’s You I Like,” one of his most famous songs, his directness, earnestness, and utter lack of irony reduce her until she seemingly wants to crawl beneath her desk and get back in touch with the inner child Rogers so effortlessly located and spoke to. Talking to Rogers meant being reminded that you were a kid once, too, that you were scared of little things like getting sucked down the bathtub drain and big things like your parents getting divorced, that you longed for acceptance but didn’t always find it, that the world, as big and exciting as it could be, didn’t always do things you could easily understand.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has slowly but surely left public television. The final episodes were produced in 2000 and aired in 2001. Rogers died in 2003. PBS pulled the series from its daily syndication package in 2008, and these days, it only appears on local stations, on the weekends. Rogers’ production company has created a spin-off series called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which imagines the children of the famous Neighborhood Of Make-Believe characters, now having their own adventures. It isn’t bad as modern kids’ shows go, and it admirably attempts to hang onto the spirit of the original, but it loses something without Rogers’ directness.

To be honest: For an adult, that directness can be unsettling. Understanding why involves breaking the show down on a structural level. The format of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was iron-clad. Rogers would walk through his door, singing the famous theme song to the piano accompaniment of the wonderful Johnny Costa. He’d open the series with a short discussion of a topic that might branch off into something else, or might not. For instance, in the famous “Death Of The Goldfish” episode, he turns to Picture Picture (a painting on his wall that allows him to display short films somehow) to watch footage of fish. Then he goes to feed his own fish, and finds that one of them has died, touching off the rest of the episode. After this type of opening segment, he’d invite children to pretend, to imagine what might be happening in the Neighborhood Of Make-Believe, then follow Trolley through the tunnel to said land. Trolley would return, and Rogers would wrap everything up with more gentle talk on the episode’s theme, before breaking into a song, then the eventual closer, “It’s Such A Good Feeling.” Most weeks of the show would circle lazily around a single topic, whether small—“Making Music”—or big—“Divorce” or “Family”—and Rogers would attack the question the way a child might: by working from the outside in, from the big, abstract, terrifying question down to the smaller, more reassuring center. And he’d take his time. On the show, things play out without cutting away. We simply watch as Rogers sings, or as he watches a young friend operating his wheelchair.

Psychologists have long thought that most of what drives us is set in stone when we are very young. Our impulses, fears, coping mechanisms, and desires are all determined, in one way or another, by things that happened to us in early childhood, or the way our parents reacted to their own traumas. The term “inner child” has come in for a great deal of abuse over the years, but it’s the best one to refer to the core of our psychological beings, in a lot of ways. And when Rogers directs one of his little soliloquies on whatever he’s interested in toward the children in the audience, it’s hard not to be drawn in as an adult as well. He has a direct line to that inner child, and he knows exactly what it wants: attention, respect, and love.

There are elements of the show that don’t play as well for grown-ups. The Neighborhood Of Make-Believe segments are agreeably whimsical, and I’ll always love the Purple Panda, but they’re also clearly there to help children deal with their often-terrifying emotions via fables and fairy tales, the sorts of teaching mechanisms humans have always used to convey proper social values and morals. On that level, they lack the sorts of rewards for adults that they have for children, though I was continually stunned by how the segments seem to be setting up a particular story—like a segment where X The Owl plans an elaborate welcoming ceremony for his cousin Mary that seems destined to go wrong—and then everything simply ends positively. It’s a welcome respite from the usual rigors of conflict and drama. Yet the segments where Rogers directly addresses the camera remain bracing. Here’s a very gifted communicator, talking directly to you. It’s hard not to be sucked in, just as it’s hard not to be impressed by the show’s stillness, by its willingness to simply sit back and be amazed at watching people in the state of being themselves.

It’s also amazing how directly this series can tie adult viewers back to who they were as children. I remember watching these episodes. I remember how Rogers’ insistence that it was okay to feel all your feelings colored my own emotional development. I remember how a visit to the pediatrician in one episode helped me understand what the various parts of the doctor’s examination were meant to determine. And I especially remember how a classic episode showed Rogers walking off his set, past the miniature neighborhood that opened every episode, to greet the musicians who accompanied his every move. In an instant, my mind expanded. These things I saw on TV were made by people, and I could learn more about how that was done. I never looked back from that moment.

It’s rare to find that direct link, that thread that ties you firmly to who you were and refuses to let go. The other movies and TV shows I loved as a child aren’t able to do that, but Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is. It pulls me right back to fighting with my sister for reasons I didn’t understand, or feeling terrified of what might lurk in the darkness on our farm. Comments on articles and videos of Rogers reveal how common an experience this is. Everyone loses things in the process of growing up. This isn’t bad. It’s completely natural. What’s remarkable about Mister Rogers is that he knows exactly where to go to pick those things back up.

Junod writes of Rogers’ grace, the simple love and joy he took in people who found love and joy in what he did, but perhaps his greatest act of grace was extending to us—no matter at what age—this gift of understanding and innocence, this chance to crawl back into the cocoon for half an hour to be who we were, to remember long-gone sights and sounds and people. He’s one of those long-gone people now, too, dead for almost 10 years, his show slowly fading away.

And yet I watch an episode where X, so happy to see his cousin again, crows, “Sometimes, life is so good, you can hardly fly high enough,” and I have to believe that’s not this show’s fate. The Bible speaks of the mysteries of grace, of the “peace which passeth all understanding.” It is a thing we can’t fully comprehend, a gift to us from God that we simply experience in small moments of connection and love. It’s a mere reflection of perfection, according to the book, but I don’t really believe that. We can experience the fullness and the wonder of that feeling in our own lives, when we look into the eyes of others who love us unconditionally, or when we hold our newborn child, or when a complete stranger does us a kindness.

Maybe the direct nature of television allows us to feel that, too, even if only one man really seemed to understand that. Rogers’ gift to children past, present, and future was a bottling of that feeling, a direct hook into the center of the soul that endlessly echoes, “You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.”   

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