If you ever needed convincing that love incarnate trumps even the most well constructed depictions of loving, all you need to do is compare an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" with an episode of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," the new TV production from The Mister Rogers Company. Drawing on all the wisdom, heart, insight and sublime purpose that Fred Rogers himself displayed for decades, "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" is as good as an animated series for preschool children can get.
This fresh production has done everything imaginable to resurrect the best intentions of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The themes are dead-on ringers for the early-childhood dynamics in which Fred's programs were rooted. The characters are next-generation heirs of the beloved puppet characters in Neighborhood of Make-Believe portion of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." And the viewer is occasionally addressed through the camera by the puppet Daniel to emulate at least momentarily the one-on-one connection that was the essence of Fred's communion with the viewing child.
And yet... And yet...
During World War I, small-town farmboys from America's heartland shipped over to Europe where they experienced a world very unlike that of Alton, Iowa, or Walnut Grove, Minn. In addition to the horrors of war, many sampled the unimaginable delights of Paris -- its succulent foods, its energetic gaiety, its irresistibly alluring women. Back to the hoe and tractor after that? Not hardly. The most popular song in 1918 was "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?"
That's pretty much the question that "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" raises for me. I'm glad it's out there for kids, but now that I have seen the love a real human being can express to, and evoke from, another human being through the medium of television, I can't settle for anything but another Fred-like person coming into kids' lives that same way.
Sounds like heresy, I know. Fred was sui generis, of course. But you certainly don't have to tell me that. I doubt there are very many people around who appreciate his uniqueness better than I do, having been Fred's friend, partner, co-writer and the president of his company.
But think how bleak this world must be if there really is/was ever only one sole, solitary individual capable of coming to a child through the medium of television feeling, expressing and evoking the love that Fred sparked every time he engaged a child. Of course there are others. I know it, and you know it. Just wander into almost any preschool or day-care or pre-K or Kindergarten. Gifted, sensitive, caring, educated and seemingly tireless women and men are there every day bringing to their charges the love they bear, and kindling in those children a keener sense of what love they themselves are capable of feeling, expressing, sharing. One of them could step up and engage kids through TV in the manner Fred did.
In that regard, it's worth noting that while Fred perfected the art of communion through mediated engagement with a TV watcher, he didn't actually pioneer it. That credit probably goes to one Fulton J. Sheen, a Roman Catholic Bishop (later Archbishop) who took to the then-fledgling TV airwaves in 1952 with his program "Life is Worth Living."
In those early days, the television camera was typically just trained on a stage where entertainment happened, giving us a seat in the audience for whatever the performers were to offer. But Sheen stood there alone in a studio and looked straight into the camera lens, directly engaging the viewer (NB: I didn't say "viewers" or "audience"; he, like Fred, dealt one-to-one with those at home). Sheen looked unflinchingly right at you, speaking in a friendly and disarming manner, seeming to be the antithesis of what one might expect so religiously exalted a character to be. This bishop was more than approachable. He approached us.
And (unlike many of the latter-day televangelists) there was no sense that Sheen wanted anything from us. No proselytizing. No finger wagging. No begging for dough. He just seemed to want something for us, same as Fred did.
Did that work? You bet it did. Scheduled in prime time right opposite the hugely popular Milton Berle (dubbed "Mr. Television" for his overwhelming fame and dominant viewer ratings), Bishop Sheen gave the man America also called "Uncle Miltie" all the competition he could handle. Sheen regularly drew 10 million viewers, revealing how many apparently preferred being drawn into considering how life is worth living rather than into killing a few minutes of that life watching the latest pop phenom cavort on Berle's stage.
Want some perspective on that 10 million? In 1952 only 33 percent of U.S. households even owned a TV set. Sheen regularly garnered a 30 percent share of all viewers while going up against the Berle juggernaut, and his program was sponsored by national advertisers eager to run their commercials on his show.
Early media guru Marshall McLuhan famously declared TV a "cool" medium for its essentially dispassionate, detached, diluted means of engaging people (vs. the "hot" effect of a movie looming over a captive audience in a theater). But both Fulton Sheen and Fred Rogers proved that it is not the essence of the medium that controls the effect. They found ways to express and to evoke the warmth of love incarnate through TV, and generations of us are better for it.
I am waiting for their successors to arise.