“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” Review
October 10, 2012 16 Comments
I was an avid viewer of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when I was a little girl, and I renewed my appreciation of the show in my late twenties when I read that Mister Rogers was about to retire and programmed my VCR to record his final three episodes. I enjoyed them several times before my son Nicholas was born. Once Nicholas was old enough to watch television, we began watching Mister Rogers, both on my tape and on WQED, the public television station here in Pittsburgh where the show was filmed. A few years ago, WQED took Mister Rogers out of the weekday line-up to make way for newer PBS Kids programs, but they still showed an episode at 8:00 Sunday morning. For some reason, they only replayed episodes from his last decade or so–the program is basically timeless (except for the fashions worn by some of the “neighbors”), and I would love to share with Nicholas some of the episodes I enjoyed in the 1970s.
More than a year ago, I read in the newspaper that WQED was planning a new program called “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” based on the puppet characters from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe and that it would be done by the people who made “Blue’s Clues” and “Super Why”–two of the most inane (though basically harmless) recent children’s “educational” programs I’ve seen. I had a bad feeling about this. Nicholas got really angry when I read him the article and showed him the picture of the animated Daniel Tiger: “His head is too big! His eyes are too staring! And he puts on Mister Rogers’ sweater and sneakers?! This is going to be dumb and horrible!! And they’d better not replace Mister Rogers! He’s still good!”
When Daniel Tiger premiered on Labor Day, I urged Nicholas to watch with an open mind. I reminded him that this is a program for little kids, so if it seems babyish to him as a second grader, that’s not a problem. I set my own perception filters on the most flexible setting I can achieve without intoxication. We watched the entire premiere episode.
Well…the most positive assessment we can give “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is that it’s a safe, adequate program for a preschooler to watch when there is nothing better to do. It’s kind of cute. It’s making an effort to teach positive thinking and a few very basic academic concepts like counting and color identification. It depicts adults being gentle and helpful with children, who are respectful to the adults and cheerfully follow their instructions. Fine. But a program that takes on the hallowed name of Fred Rogers needs to be better than fine, and there was not a single minute of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” in which we felt the magic of Mister Rogers. This mildly acceptable children’s program seems unaware of the gaping void where its soul ought to be. From its core concept on up, it is missing all the most important things Mister Rogers knew about how to reach children. It imitates some traditions of his show in ways that only reinforce how little the people now running The Fred Rogers Company comprehend his legacy.
Mister Rogers was real.
- He was a real, live man who didn’t dress like a buffoon or talk in a silly voice. He swapped his suit jacket for a sweater and his dress shoes for sneakers to get comfortable while hanging out with his neighbors, but he didn’t change out of being a respectable grown-up man. He demonstrated that a man can be a safe and caring person who loves you just the way you are and trusts that you will love him even in a dorky zippered sweater. He was evidently coming home from his day job to spend some special time with us. Daniel Tiger puts on a red hoodie and sneakers at the beginning of every episode, but why? He doesn’t have a day job; he’s an imaginary four-year-old tiger. Instead of a real man who could serve as a role model and inspiration to children who have no man in their lives, instead of a grown-up showing children the joys of sharing interesting experiences, this show centers on a character who has no more life experience than you do.
- Mister Rogers went to real places. Yes, his “neighborhood” was an amalgamation of buildings that are far apart in reality (one of the special things about Pittsburgh is getting to go to some of those buildings!) and studio sets, tied together with long-distance shots of a model, but every place he visited had real people doing real things, and most of those factories and artists’ studios he visited were the real thing in operation. Daniel Tiger travels through a sanitary cartoon landscape to completely imaginary places where cutesy animal characters do vaguely realistic things; a few token photographs of real objects are incorporated into his world, which otherwise exists only in a computer. Even the one live-action segment of the show we watched did not seem to be happening in a real place–it was hard to tell because of the fast cutting between assorted odd camera angles, but it seemed that the adult and child baking together were in some sort of large black room rather than in a real kitchen in a real home.
- Mister Rogers walked. His television neighborhood was full of interesting things within walking distance, and it had sidewalks. His arrival at virtually every destination was shown by panning over the model neighborhood and then cutting to a shot of Mister Rogers walking on a real outdoor sidewalk into a real building; sometimes you even see him interacting with other pedestrians or admiring a tree or something. Daniel Tiger seems unable to leave his home without riding in a vehicle (more about that later) and it’s no wonder–the buildings are much farther apart than in either Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, with big empty lawns between them and no pedestrians. I realize this is representative of the suburban lifestyle of many of today’s children, but when I was a child living in a place kind of like that (well, it wasn’t that clean and empty–Daniel Tiger seems to live in a golf course!) I longed to live in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or on Sesame Street, to be able to meet people and see stuff happening simply by stepping out the door. Real neighborhoods do still exist, and my child is growing up in one, and seeing that the designers of this program evidently think a neighborhood is no longer an appropriate place to live was a big shock to both of us.
- Even the Neighborhood of Make-Believe was more real than Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. That imaginary world was a real physical place in the WQED studios (Nicholas and his dad got to visit it a few years ago!), populated by puppets that Mister Rogers brought to life with his own hands and his own voice–a clear lesson in how make-believe works, how it can be whatever you imagine but it’s all under your control. Real people interacted with the puppets, and the fact that they were totally out of scale was okay–we can make believe that it all makes sense, just as our own personal make-believe scenes make sense even if our “house” is barely big enough to turn around in and we are raising a panda as our child. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is so synthetic and perfect that the viewer could easily get the impression that synthetic perfection is what we need to have fun, so we couldn’t possibly make fun for ourselves. “It’s just like all the other shows,” Nicholas said dispiritedly.
- Mister Rogers made it very clear where Make-Believe began and ended. He invited, “Let’s have some Make-Believe,” and he sent the trolley through the tunnel to the imaginary world. When the trolley came back, we were back in the real world. Daniel Tiger has it all mixed up. I read that the show’s creators were working from childhood fantasies of, “What if the characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe grew up and had babies?” which is a fine thing to make-believe about, but it’s not a reasonable basis for the real world of your characters! Daniel Tiger also says, “Let’s have some Make-Believe”–to introduce a brief fantasy of magic sparkles fulfilling his wishes. Not the same thing as a ten-minute trip to an elaborate realm of beloved characters, not at all. And speaking of those characters we all loved…
- The characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe had real flaws. King Friday XIII was a narcissist who calmly expected everyone to bow to his whims and protect his dignity. X the Owl was kind of insensitive to the feelings of others, and Henrietta Pussycat was a bit too touchy and took everything personally. Lady Elaine Fairchilde, to quote this nostalgic tribute, “was a total bitch, appeared to have a drinking problem, and was quite possibly a drag queen, but that’s what added to her awesomeness.” We’ve all got people like them in our neighborhood! Mister Rogers showed us how to deal with difficult people, how to accept that everyone is different, how to accept ourselves as worthy people even as we recognize our own flaws. Daniel Tiger lives in a world where everyone is cheerful most of the time and every difficulty is quickly resolved, with people blandly announcing, “I’m not disappointed anymore.” There is no room for flawed characters or lingering hurt feelings in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The writers seem completely oblivious to the fact that
Daniel Striped Tiger was a very nervous, shy character who felt things deeply and worried over them.
Our own Daniel (Nick’s father) left the room almost immediately after the show started and said afterward, “I could see in five seconds that it was all wrong.” Why? Because this new animated Daniel Tiger is cheerful, buoyant, completely open and friendly to strangers. Now, it’s true that this four-year-old main character is the son of the original Daniel Striped Tiger, and a father and his cub may have totally different personalities. But Daniel Striped Tiger has grown up into a daddy cat who seems to have no nervousness, no shyness, possibly no feelings of his own, just endless patience for gentle hovering over his cub. Maybe they put him on Prozac.
Both my Daniel and I grew up relating strongly to Daniel Striped Tiger. I was a very shy child who could hunch up into a little wad of anxiety on the couch just from hearing Daniel Striped Tiger dare to verbalize worries that were so much like mine . . . and then, when Lady Aberlin or another neighbor gave Daniel gentle support that helped him venture out and try some of the things he truly wanted to do (but was afraid), I felt tremendous relief and hope. Surely there are still children like me, and not all of them are lucky enough to have parents or teachers who love them just the way they are and help them work with it, so a television character working through those issues would be helpful. The new Daniel Tiger is not that character, and neither is his father.
Mister Rogers taught emotional intelligence.
- He helped us to recognize our feelings, put them into words, and understand that it is okay to feel every kind of feeling. He talked about how he felt when he was little, the drama of emotions swirling so hard and huge that it seemed he could hardly contain them–but he could, and he was okay in the end, and we will be too. Children need adults to share their own experiences, to relate to them and show them they are not alone. An imaginary tiger could do this, too, but Daniel Tiger doesn’t; his feelings emerge only briefly, as convenient for the storyline, and are readily resolved.
- Mister Rogers talked about what we can do to vent our feelings safely and resolve them for ourselves. What do you do with the mad that you feel? Mister Rogers talked us through feeling that feeling, expressing it effectively yet acceptably, deciding to take control, and centering ourselves on “something deep inside that helps us become what we can.” That song is a classic. Today’s children understand it just as well as yesterday’s. But rather than revive that great song, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood gives us a brief, preachy jingle: “When something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good!” That’s a fine idea, but–What about my bad feelings; if they don’t just turn around on a dime, like Daniel’s and his friends’ apparently do, am I a bad person, am I doing it wrong? Daniel Tiger has parents who rush into his slightest disappointment with lines like, “Oh no! Do I hear a sad grrr? What’s wrong?” as if sadness is a crisis to be resolved ASAP, and their singing of this jingle (which, despite umpteen repetitions, is a strategy Daniel never thinks to apply on his own; he can’t cope without parental intervention) does seem to work magic, clearing up every problem instantly. But what if I’m not ready to find something good? What if my playground ball hasn’t been punctured in a way that enables it to soar like a Frisbee when thrown; what if it truly is ruined forever so I am fully confronted by the consequences of my carelessness? Mister Rogers would let me feel every nuance, loving me through my sad grrrs. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood reminds me of the many adults-not-my-parents who would tell me to “SMIIIILLE!!” as if that superficial turn-around would fix everything, as if my real feelings were unacceptable.
- Mister Rogers understood that one of the deepest desires of preschool children is to feel competent, to discover new skills by trying things for themselves, to be allowed to imitate and join in with activities as they’re ready, to experience failure as well as success. “It’s you who have to try it, and it’s you who have to fall (sometimes) if you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall.” Daniel Tiger wants to carry his cake home from the bakery; he says, “I’m strong, grrr!” and his mother…laughs at him! When she later agrees to let him carry the cake, she laughs at him again. It’s supposed to be a good-natured, aren’t-you-cute laugh, but it’s so condescending to someone who sees himself as life-sized and strong and capable. The live-action segment in the first episode showed a little boy about four years old baking a cake with an adult who “helped” him with every single step, not even trusting him to tip the contents of one bowl into another without putting her hands over his. When she finally allowed him “a special part for you to do,” it was just pressing on a few machine-made decorations. Nicholas kept swiping his hand toward the screen as if tempted to grab her and make her stop interfering so the poor kid might have a chance to learn something or feel a little pride in the work.
Mister Rogers’ trolley was not a minivan.
This might sound like a petty gripe, but my son is a lifelong train and trolley enthusiast, and Trolley is his favorite character in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Trolley is our transition between the real world and Make-Believe, and back again. In Make-Believe, it is sentient, conversing with the other characters by ringing its bell. Nobody rides on Trolley.
The newspaper article claimed Mister Rogers fans would be happy to see the familiar red trolley traversing Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. But for Nicholas and me, that’s like saying Star Wars fans will be happy to see a plastic wastebasket shaped like R2-D2. There is a vehicle in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that resembles Trolley, and it’s sort of cute, but it’s not Trolley!
- It doesn’t run on a track. It drives along the sidewalk of multicolored dots seen in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which is disturbing since that used to be a safe pedestrian area.
- The characters ride in it. At first that seemed okay–we like public transit and were glad to see it represented in a TV show. But Nicholas soon pointed out that it isn’t public transit because the characters put on seat belts, which you don’t need in a real trolley or bus (because a large vehicle is that much safer), and there are no strangers among the passengers. Furthermore, there’s no driver! Eeek!
- It has no personality. At least in the episode we saw, there was no conversation with Trolley. (If it were sentient, then having no driver would be acceptable.)
Our conclusion is that the writers of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood simply can’t get their heads around the idea of children using any form of transportation other than a minivan, so they made Trolley as much like a minivan as possible. Sad.
What could possibly explain this change of lyric?
“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” does continue Mister Rogers’ tradition of opening every show with the song “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and closing with “It’s Such a Good Feeling”. They recorded new versions of the songs with a different style of music, which we don’t like nearly so well, but whatever. The inexplicable thing is that the line, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive!” has been changed to, “It’s such a good feeling to play with friends and family!” What?!
The good news is that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is still available for watching.
We were afraid that WQED would take it away, but what they did was bump Mister Rogers half an hour earlier on Sunday mornings (to 7:30) and give Daniel Tiger his slot as well as a weekday one. We can still watch Mister Rogers on TV every week. I hope it’s the same in other cities.
Some full episodes of Mister Rogers and some other short segments are still available on the PBS Website–but Nicholas found, to his disgust, that Mister Rogers has been replaced by Daniel Tiger on the “wheel” of selections on the PBS Kids homepage. “They could have expanded the wheel for him!” he ranted. Indeed.
“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is an okay children’s program. They could have done worse. But it’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that works for me! Visit Mom’s Library for more helpful articles from parents.