Sure, we can act all cynical and start making jokes. We can call out the dogs of disgraceful character assassination and somehow equate working for children with working over children. We can mock his voice, his mannerisms, his gentleness and genuine concern for pre-adolescents, and we don't have to turn every posit into a proclamation of pedophilia. Outside the realm of satire or farce, Fred Rogers remains an iconic figure in children's television, using his unusually sedate and somber program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a bastion for personal self esteem and express individual worth. While other shows were talking 'down' to most "meddling kids", the PBS fixture was finding new and novel ways to talk to them, to open up the small fry's frame of reference. This is especially true of his latter day episodes, pieces purposefully aimed at tackling tricky subjects with warmth, compassion, and understanding. In Episode 1478 from 1980, the humble host addresses two troubling topics - divorce and the handicapped. As usual, he does so in way that is non-confrontational, non-judgmental, and totally atypical of today's random PC riot acts. Now on DVD, you yourself can see why he will forever remain a small screen legend.
As was his style every episode, Mr. Rogers arrives at his TV home, takes off his jacket, puts on his signature sweater, and then removes his dress shoes to make room for sneakers. He then sits on the floor and builds a garage with blocks. He then discusses the advances in electric cars. He then visits a friend who designs and builds these "futuristic" vehicles and then takes one for a test drive.
Arriving back at home, he discusses the recent events in the Land of Make Believe (King Friday's son Tuesday has gone missing), and the reliable Trolley steps up to transport us to the magical place. As Handyman Negri discusses the situation with Lady Aberlin, we are whisked off to the clock of Daniel Striped Tiger, who is trying to comfort the young royal. Ms. Cow shows up, resolves that Tuesday is concerned about his parents' possibly divorcing (they are not), and then we return to Mr. Rogers.
He confides in us that feelings such as these are not uncommon and should be discussed, not hidden. He then hears a noise, and walks outside to greet "neighbor" Jeff Erlanger, a young boy in a wheelchair. Mr. Rogers talks about how the child became handicapped, how he maintains his sunny disposition, and how reading, making up stories, and using one's imagination can help when you're feeling blue. They sing the song "It's You I Like" and then part ways. Mr. Rogers signs off with his standard melodic salute.
There is only one downside to this otherwise entertaining throwback to the idea of early post-modern educational television, and it comes in the form of a terrible technical glitch that sees a single episode, a sole 28 minutes of underage psychological support, offered. For those who look for things like this in collections, compendiums, and box sets, such limited product is indeed problematic. Luckily, the smiling face of Fred Rogers will wipe away any traces of commerce-based concern. Though many know of him, few lived through the era when he more or less redesigned kid vid in his own image. All we have left are skits and scandalous insinuation, but back in the early '70s, Rogers was the epitome of what everyone thought children's television should be. He spoke in gentle, lilting tones, wooing the wee ones in with his kind, considerate manner. He also invested each episode with a kind of incidental learning curve, offering ideas and incentives to get young viewers to think for themselves. While it functioned under the clubhouse theme that had been around since the birth of the medium, Rogers relegated most of his focus on imagination. That is, perhaps, why the Land of Make Believe remains such a vital part of the production.
With a mythos going back to his earliest appearances on TV, the realm of King Friday XIII stands as a perfect metaphor to the show's many concerns. Here, in the able hand puppetry and visual aplomb, Rogers could address emotions and fears, temptations and discipline. Instead of sitting back and beating kids over the head with such hard lessons, he'd let X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat do the heavy lifting. By the time we took the Trolley back to our personable adult guide, we'd felt we'd learned something even if we weren't quite sure what...yet. In fact, as a kid growing up under the guise of Rogers' real time testaments, it was only later, when situations illustrated his various points, that we realized just how pointed his wisdom was. While the 'divorce' portion of this show seems rushed (it is, after all, toward the tail end of the longer Prince Tuesday's runaway arc), it does highlight the kind of social stigmas the then novel marital discourse was receiving. Rogers made it abundantly clear that for this new generation of children that 'these things happen', and then used his familiar brand of benevolent support to suggest to kids that it was not only natural, but survivable.
This is made even more clear by the arrival of Erlanger. Today, this wheelchair bound wonder would be splashed across talk TV like an inspiration no one asked for. He'd be touted for his bravery and courage when all he really wants is to be treated like a normal kid. Rogers does just that, letting him speak in his own halting manner, never interrupting to add some contrite comment or corroboration. Instead, as he sings in the song, he likes this little boy "just the way he is." It's not about feeling sorry or a mandated amount of empathy. Instead, Rogers was (and still is) teaching kids that they are people too - individuals with a lot of growing to do and yet still capable of critically holding their own. Today, there are far too few grade school oriented offerings which allow children to be themselves. Instead, it's all hard selling and mass merchandising, or worse, trying to make them more mature than they really are or can be. While some might consider it nothing more than a relic from TV's less enlightened (or entertaining past), such a viewpoint would be flawed. There are lots of things one can say about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, but to call it anything other than innovative, influential, important, and inspiring would be a mistake.
Clearly culled from a lesser source, the 1.33:1 full screen image looks soft and slightly foggy. There are none of the clearly defined details we expect from the digital format and the colors are slightly faded. This is especially true of the Land of Make Believe sequence, which seems overcast and grey. While not unwatchable, one wonders if there is a better visual element out there the DVD distributor could use. If this is the highest quality they can offer, the negatives can't outweigh the novelty.
The sound in situations like this is really not worth kvetching over. It's Dolby Digital Stereo, meaning it's TV mono spliced and supplied through both speakers. The conversations are always clear and the dialogue discernible. While the jazz-flavored score sometimes overpowers the voices, it was that way when the show aired as well.
None - sadly.
Like defending music or movies from a bygone era, anytime anyone champions something like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and its kinder, gentler host, they get labeled an "old fart" and have their otherwise honest opinion dismissed as over-romanticized nostalgia for a time and a temperament well past. Wistful thinking or not, this DVD release, while limited in its retail elements, is sound in its representational reality. This is good TV, offered up by a genuine genius of the type. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it's just a shame that there's not more here. Like potato chips or dense chocolate truffles, one helping of Mr. Rogers is just not enough. There will never be another like him - and that's a sad statement on life in today's craven cultural landscape.
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