It’s easy to think of Fred Rogers, and his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as the television equivalent of a mom-and-pop shop, a charming enterprise that stayed in business on the back of its singularly rustic community appeal. Hosted by an ordained minister who had worked as a puppeteer at his local public TV station, the show was produced out of Pittsburgh for its entire 912-episode run. Its style was gentle and soft-spoken, deliberate when other children’s shows were manic, staying fundamentally low-tech and practical even as television evolved.
By the time Rogers retired from TV at the age of 73 in 2001 (he died of stomach cancer less than two years later), his show felt like a relic, a window onto simpler times in the world of children’s entertainment. But what Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, coming out on June 8, tries to emphasize is that Rogers’s placid onscreen persona wasn’t just a byproduct of his folksy real-life nature—it was also born of his deep-seated philosophies about the purpose of TV and the way its power was widely misused. The film is touching, sometimes saccharine, and other times bluntly honest, but it works best as a fascinating reminder that Rogers was trying to be more than a mascot of American politeness.
“I went into television because I hated it so,” Rogers once said in an interview with CNN. “I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.” While attending the seminary, Rogers pursued a career in the then-nascent TV industry, getting a job at NBC in 1951. Unhappy with the network’s reliance on sponsorship and advertising, he moved to WQED in Pittsburgh, a public station where he’d eventually oversee the U.S. launch of his self-titled show in 1968.
In television, Rogers saw an instrument with amazing, or terrible, potential. It was a form of mass communication unlike any other, one that would have particular potency with young, impressionable viewers with a weaker grasp of the lines between fiction and reality. As someone who had considered working in the church, Rogers understood better than most the value of a pulpit; he was thus all the more horrified by the way television was mostly used to sell, rather than teach, things.
Much of Neville’s film exists to chart the ways in which Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was revolutionary. The program’s first week of episodes alluded to the Vietnam War, playing the conflict out through an allegory involving the show’s puppet characters (including the bossy King Friday, who builds a barbed-wire barrier around his castle). The character Officer Clemmons (played by the actor and singer François Clemmons) was one of the first African Americans to have a regular role on children’s television, and Rogers would include pointed scenes, like one where the two washed their feet in a tub together as a way of challenging segregated swimming pools.
Neville makes some effort to include Rogers’s shortcomings as well, like the fact that the host wouldn’t let Clemmons publicly acknowledge his homosexuality in the 1970s, knowing the show’s sponsors would disapprove. But the film, by and large, endorses Rogers’s importance to the world of public television, with one section focusing on his iconic testimony to Congress about the value of funding PBS (which helped sway at least one crucial senator’s opinion). “I’m very much concerned … about what’s being delivered to our children in this country,” Rogers testified.
His concerns never faded. The show took a hiatus from 1976 to 1979 but returned partly because Rogers was so disturbed by news reports of children injuring themselves while pretending to be superheroes. He worked to establish clear lines between fantasy and reality, underlining the pretend nature of his own show’s “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” (populated with puppets that he voiced), and encouraging his young viewers to consider the fictional elements of the things they watched.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? lays out the arc of Rogers’s career thoughtfully, but it’s most effective as a document of his basic beliefs about the power of art. It explores how Rogers kept Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from capitulating to many emerging trends in kids’ entertainment (other programs were often packed with energy and violence, or geared toward selling toys). Rogers kept his show steeped in routine and patience: There was his famous opening routine (changing into a sweater, putting on comfortable shoes) as well as segments that bordered on abstract (like one where he pointed the camera at an egg timer that was silently counting down, to help kids understand how long a minute actually was).
Neville demonstrates just how much Rogers’s philosophies were rooted in protection, in safety, in letting children be children and allowing them to develop an understanding of themselves before they had to wrestle with the wider world. It’s a concept, Neville argues, that got warped into the sneering idea of a generation of “snowflakes,” entitled children who think themselves special and are thus unequipped for the pressures of adulthood. But Rogers was instead working to make the process of growing up less frightening, to make his country more self-assured and, hopefully, more empathetic as a result. The real gut-punch of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? comes when viewers consider how far away that goal still is.
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