Fred Rogers began making Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, and kept at it until 2001, for a total of 895 episodes; he died in 2003, and PBS kept rerunning the shows for another five years. His absence left a hole that has not been filled. Mr. Rogers wasn’t exactly an entertainer—which was enough to set his show apart from the other long-running fixture of children’s television that premièred around the same time, Sesame Street. As much fun as Sesame Street has been, and as much good as it’s done, it has to shoulder its share of the blame for the death of the attention span, and for making kids feel that the education process and everything else ought to be judged according to how bright and shiny it is, and how fast it dances for your attention. Mr. Rogers insisted on using his show to carve out a space where kids were encouraged to slow down, take it in, hold their horses: You can go back to running around the couch like a crazy person in a half-hour, but right now, there’s a show on that a lot of people worked hard to bring to you, and it’ll do you some good to pay attention.
Mr. Rogers was flesh and blood, unlike the Muppets, and the puppets he used on his show were simple constructs compared to what came out of Jim Henson’s workshop. But that didn’t make the show seem cheesy—it was part of his focus on teaching kids about process, on how things were done. Kids might watch Sesame Street and wish they could meet Big Bird and Oscar, but they were likely to watch Mr. Roger’s show and think about making their own puppets; he didn’t make it look that hard. Nor was he a loveably ineffectual boob, as Captain Kangaroo was much of the time. Mr. Rogers was unfailingly polite, and he wasn’t the kind of grown-up who just laid down the law—he expected children to recognize that he’d been around longer than them, and to respect the fact that he knew more than they did. He was your neighbor, maybe even your friend, but he didn’t dance for nobody.
Neither the passage of time nor hundreds of impressions or sick jokes—the most knee-jerk stupid of which invariably turn on the question of why a mild-mannered, middle-aged man wants to spend so much time talking to small children—has done a thing to Rogers’ image or tarnish his legacy. The new animated series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is supposed to be an attempt to extend that legacy, now that Rogers is no longer here to do it himself. Its conceit is that the central characters are the kids of the grown versions of the characters who inhabited Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe. That’s a monkey wrench right there, since one of the key ingredients of Rogers’ legacy is the idea that it would do kids good to have one adult on TV who talks directly to them and serves as their conduit to the grown-up world. Daniel Tiger—the son of the original Daniel Striped Tiger, who himself has lost his engaging shyness and become a classically bland TV dad, Ward Cleaver in a tiger costume—is the audience identification character, because the assumption is that kids just want to watch someone like them, except more adorably furry.
Despite the superficial ties to Fred Rogers’ world, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is just another cartoon, and not of the kind that might blow young minds and lead to the development of another Tex Avery. It’s smooth and polished, devoid of imagination and rough edges, with instructional messages embedded in each segment to make up for the lack of anything resembling fun. The messages are reduced to little musical hooks and sung, to try to make up for the fact that they’re not very interesting. The messages are literally sung, instead of being developed into what might be called actual songs, because somebody made the key decision that that would be too much work. In one episode, the theme is “disappointment.” Daniel goes to the bakery to get a cake for his birthday party, but the tiger-shaped cake gets “smushed,” which devastates him. His dad sings to him, “When something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good.” Daniel, the future Mensa member, remembers that you don’t hang a cake on the wall and admire its shapely form: You eat it, and this one still tastes good. In another segment, Daniel and his friend Prince Wednesday, who looks like Li’l John Oliver, are playing by kicking a round ball back and forth, but then Prince Wednesday falls on it and squishes it flat. Happily, in this show’s alternate universe, a deflated ball has the shape and consistency of a Frisbee, so they can continue to gave fun by throwing it back and forth.
Daniel Tiger’s look is boringly clean and mechanical even when the imaginative Daniel disappears into a child’s drawing with crayon-colored skies. The only imagination on the show itself comes from the effort to squeeze enough variations out of the assigned messages, which the writers must draw from a human skull filled with little slips of paper. In the episode about the compromises necessary for friends to play together, Daniel and his feline friend Katerina’s friendship with O the Owl is tested, because Katerina, apparently a devotee of Pina Bausch, wants to dance “backward” in the big show, and the stodgier O wants to play his accompanying music “forward.” After having the sentence “You have to find a way to play together” sung at them, they stumble across a thrilling solution to their impasse: They decide that dancing backward to forward music actually works just fine.
It may sound as if I’m beating up on this show because it’s not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I don’t mean to; it has every right to be its own thing. But it’s so limply unimaginative that it’s barely a thing at all, except for a reminder of the state of children’s programming on public television. Back at the dawn of time, PBS was a natural home for people who hadn’t completely forgotten what it was like to be children, and who wanted to use the airwaves to find novel ways to communicate with them. Now it’s a place where marketers try to find the next big thing, the tie-in that’ll make the cash registers sing the way Barney and Elmo did, while cowering in terror that they accidentally put something on the air that’ll wake up the kind of legislators who live for the chance to make speeches on C-SPAN about the need to defund public broadcasting. For these people, Fred Rogers didn’t create a legacy. He created a brand.