Popular TV shows come and go, especially within the genre of children’s television. That being said, perhaps one of the most influential TV programs of all time, no matter the generation, is “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a documentary that explores the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” On screen, he appeared to be a relatively simple man, with a simple show and a simple theme. But his message was far from rudimentary.
There was no secret side to Rogers. He was who appeared to be — genuinely loving, caring and desirous of a better world. From the film, it is clear his favorite people in life were children, but in a way, he saw everyone as a child, including himself. Friends and relatives featured in the documentary make note of the fact that in the early days of the show especially, his alter ego was Daniel Tiger, the puppet he used to talk about more personal matters.
Since the beginning of TV, parents have grappled with the idea of how much is too much for children to watch. The late 1960s brought on children’s educational programs like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and, a year later, “Sesame Street.” These programs let parents and guardians leave their toddlers in front of the TV with less guilt. And as the documentary highlights in a brief but touching scene, the shows often served as a preschool of sorts for many children who didn’t have access to that educational experience.
Overall, Rogers’ show reshaped the way people viewed TV as a medium and the ways in which TV began to serve a greater good.
More than just a kid’s program, though, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” tackled social issues and hardships in a way that was almost bolder than some adult programs because he was so straightforward. He understood kids in a way that no one else did and trusted their intelligence and astuteness more than the typical adult. One segment of the film exemplifies this by showing clips from a week when Mr. Rogers talked about difficult subjects, including death and divorce. He took care in explaining things parents were either unaware of or didn’t want to talk about themselves.
It would be incorrect to say that Rogers was misunderstood because he had millions of fans everywhere, children and adults. But as the documentary shows, people definitely misunderstood why he did what he did and why he was the way he was. The film in its entirety doesn’t dig too deeply into his time growing up, or the experiences he had with his parents and childhood friends. It does, however, provide some insight into his character and his motivation, including how he challenged toxic masculinity and his comfort in being a sensitive man.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” works well on an informational and emotional level. Near the end, even though it’s impossible to stop the waterworks from coming on, there’s not really a sad note to it. The only somber thing comes from comparing Rogers’ genuine kindness to today’s culture, and then feeling like there are no Mr. Rogers left in the world. There is hope, though, and with the legacy and memory of Mr. Rogers comes his message of loving others for who they are. The documentary makes sure we never forget those beautiful days in the neighborhood.
“Wont You Be My Neighbor” screened at South By Southwest on Monday and will screen again at 1:45 p.m. March 13 at Zach Theatre. Grade: A