It's been a long time since anyone wandered into the ghost town that until quite recently was "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," probably for fear that it was haunted with phantasmic sweater vests and unnervingly spineless hand puppets. The programming fat cats at PBS, however, have decided that the Mister Rogers conceit can skip over a generation or two of children and still be a viable television property, but rather than find some genial old gentleperson to fumble with shoelaces in front of a bored audience of toddlers, they've decided to animate the whole shebang, and in the process trade in stodgy old Mister Rogers for Daniel Tiger, whose sweater vest is actually a sweater hoodie, and whose placid blue eyes betray his instinctual lust for red meat.
According to the New York Times, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood will usher in a new generation of neighborly television on Monday. The animated show is aimed at a much narrower demographic (children between two and four) than the original version, though it is built around a universe of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood puppet progeny, sort of like Muppet Babies or, to a far lesser degree, Tiny Toons. Daniel, for instance, is the son of the original show's Daniel Striped Tiger, and he'll be joined by O the Owl, nephew to X the Owl, as well as Katerina Kittycat, daughter of Henrietta Kittycat and an absentee father (strap in, kids, because this shit is about to get real).
Apart from these mostly superficial stylistic changes, the show, says Kevin Morrison, chief operating officer of the Fred Rogers Company and the show's co-executive producer, deals with more or less the same angsty themes as the original:
What you saw in Fred was that he talked about feelings, he talked about difficult things. The death of a goldfish was not a discussion of the alphabet. It was a discussion of life. It was social and emotional, not cognitive based.
Heavy, dude. Like Fred Rogers, the four-year-old Daniel will talk directly to his young viewers, but that's probably only because he's a predator and he's testing the audiences for weaknesses. Daniel will have "imagination fantasies," i.e. acid flashbacks, just like old Mister Rogers, and he'll discuss themes such as empathy, sharing, separation anxiety, disappointment and the fear that he can smell just dripping off of potential prey.
The new format took about six years to develop, and, despite all of the hard work from PBS to make a show for children, some former Mister Rogers devotees have expressed their disappointment that things change, Fred Rogers is dead and hand puppets are a little too Cold War-era America. The toughest customer was Joanne Rogers, Fred Rogers' widow, who at first objected to an animated show because she remembered the days when animation was nothing more than slapstick silliness, which, by the way, she most certainly did not care for. She's come around, and though she thinks that some grandparents and parents who were fond of the original show will be disappointed with Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, she thinks "the little ones are going to like it."
PBS Is Going Back to the Neighborhood [NY Times]
Image via AP/PBS