I can recall sitting on the carpet in front of our television when I was something like 8-years-old. Flipping through the twelve-ish channels we had, I’d click past it several times before stopping to see what it was; a tiger puppet, a king, a human lady talking to all of them — what in the world was going on?
My mottled adolescent brain had been so thoroughly exhausted by video games and far-too-violent cartoons by the very green age of eight to appreciate the purity going on in that little world of make-believe.
Now, I’ll be honest; we live in a world where — when grown men have a vested interest in children — it’s easy to draw one simple, horrifying conclusion. Looking at Fred Rogers through my adult eyes, it’s as though I am conditioned to believe there was something salacious or unsavory fueling his motives.
That voice saying, “be wary” lives in all of us. It is our natural instinct to be protective or cautious when something or someone seems too good to be true. We’re quick to think that danger is lurking around every corner. It’s not our fault; it’s the world around us. There is evil here.
Mercifully, however, there is also benevolence. Fred Rogers was a living, breathing manifestation of altruism.
After television sets made their way into several homes across the nation, Fred had the opportunity to watch one. On it, he saw people getting hit in the face with pies and falling down for satirical purposes. Rogers thought the content of the shows he saw was doing the medium a disservice.
He landed a job at NBC, but felt, still, that the quality of shows targeting a younger demographic were essentially a waste and wouldn’t properly educate children.
Not long after his departure from NBC, Rogers began working at WQED — a public television station in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he would work on a program called The Children’s Corner as a puppeteer. Nearly a decade later, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would become a household favorite, capturing the hearts of children everywhere.
The Neighborhood wasn’t particularly glamorous, but its modesty gave way for something more profound; quality.
Youngsters could relate to what they were seeing and hearing. The far out, often graphic fare offered by many other programs being advertised to the same group that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was just couldn’t give them comparable content.
Fred was angry that adults would allow kids to be mislead by mainstream media. His outrage when he learned of a young boy who was injured by jumping out a window — thinking he could fly if he was wearing his Superman cape — made its own episode of Neighborhood.
The show frequently featured content that you just wouldn’t find elsewhere. It covered topics like war, assassination, and racism in a way that children could comprehend. The show embraced diversity and created an atmosphere where viewers could feel safe.
While the documentary feels like it’s holding back a bit, we’re given a window to the world of Fred Rogers. Audiences are also treated to interviews with good friends of Fred’s — Yo-Yo Ma and François Clemmons — and the woman who knew him most intimately, his wife, Joanne Rogers.
Typically, the more you know about a person, the easier it is to dislike them. That might sound a bit cold-blooded, but, think about it.
The opposite seems to be true in this case. The more you learn about Mister Rogers, the more you love the guy. His empathetic, earnest nature was palpable. Sadly, it’s the kindest people with the biggest hearts who are let down the hardest by malevolence.
Whether Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shaped your childhood or not, we could all use a dose of goodness in these turbulent times. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? serves up happy vibes and inconvenient truths in the same package and leaves its viewer feeling thoughtful and, yes, probably a bit teary-eyed.
The world would be a more wholesome place with more people like Fred Rogers and we are better for having had him at all, even if only for a time.