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.
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.
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.