Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood premiered this week on PBS, and Ez and I have just seen it for the first time this morning. In one of my posts from a few months ago, I expressed hesitant enthusiasm for the upcoming project, which revives Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe characters in a Blue's Clues-style environment, so I thought it would be good to post my review of the show as a follow-up.
My rating for Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood: A+++, three thumbs up, and fifty gold stars.
The magic starts right away. If the voice of the narrator, who reads the standard PBS copy about "This program is brought to you by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, etc, etc, and by viewers like you -- thank you" sounds familiar, it's because it's Mister Frickin' McFeely himself. So you know from the start that this show is going to rock.
Daniel Tiger -- the son of our Daniel Striped Tiger, the timid young clock-dwelling puppet that we adults grew up knowing so well -- begins the show by talking to the audience, changing his shoes, and zipping up his cardigan. He launches into "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," and then hops onto the trolley. The trolley takes him through the current day Neighborhood of Make-Believe, as Daniel waves to friends old and new. All our familiar landmarks are there -- the castle, the tree -- and new ones have sprouted up since we've last visited, like Music Man Sam's instrument store. I love it. It's like the Neighborhood is saying, "We're still here. You've grown up, and so have we, but we're still here." All the while, a Jack Johnson-esque vocalist is singing the "beautiful day" song with updated lyrics about Daniel Tiger, and it just hits the right pitch. I'm not a huge fan of the Jack Johnson style on its own, but I thought his songs for the Curious George movie worked really, really well, and hearing a similar style on Daniel, but with the typical Mister Rogers jazz piano music as the instrumental accompaniment, is really nice.
There's something that hits me so hard when I hear the trolley on Daniel making the same trolley ding-ding noise as it did on the original Neighborhood. It's like the producers are saying, "Yes, this is an updated show for 'today's kids,' but we've left every possible thing we could of the original formula in the show."
Here's a really cool thing too: our Daniel, the young Daniel's father, has grown up (obviously) and he's dressed just like Mister Rogers. He's wearing a navy cardigan, he's still wearing his watch, and (neglect the fact that he's totally Porky Piggin' it) he comes across as a hipster dad. I'd totally hang out with grown-up Daniel Striped Tiger. I bet he'd want to play bass in a band with me. And it reminds me, very sentimentally, of the coda of Mister Roger's song about growing up: "for a girl can be someday a woman, and a boy can be someday a man." The Neighborhood characters have completed the circle, moving and developing by the same guidelines by which their creator taught.
And then the father and son tigers give each other ugga-muggas, and I have to resist the extreme, involuntary urge to get misty-eyed over a kids' cartoon show.
As far as the content of the show, I couldn't be happier. Rather than clumsily trying to teach an awkward curriculum of phonics or whatever, the writers have kept Mister Rogers' overall theme of affective reasoning and development. The episode we saw was all about getting angry, and what to do about it when it happens. The other, probably more important, aspect of the show is that, apart from half the characters being anthropomorphic animals, it's completely devoid of what I think of as "magical interference." Virtually every other current kids' show we watch -- Mickey Mouse's Clubhouse, Wild Kratts, The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That, Barney, even Sesame Street -- constantly rely on a deus ex machina of either fairy dust or robotics (or a combination of both) to solve the problems that the characters face. Curious George, and now Daniel, are about the only current kids' shows I can think of that don't use "magical interference" at all. When Daniel and Prince Wednesday were angry that they couldn't go to the beach because it was raining, they spread a tan blanket next to a blue blanket on the floor to make an "inside beach." Isn't that refreshingly better, and far more honest to a child's experience, than having a magic computer create a virtual beach environment or something? I like to think that Fred Rogers would approve of this direction of the show, because I do.
So, bottom line: Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood will definitely be a fixture of our television viewing.
If you're here because you like weird old puppets (as who isn't), then I can't recommend enough that you check out Ella's Deli next time you find yourself on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin. I had been here once or twice when I lived in the Mad City, but it's hard to appreciate it more than ironically until you've got your own kid with you.
The whole place is whirring with the mechanical susurrus of vintage motors, sending papier-mache puppets jostling and careening up the walls and across the ceiling in slow-motion frenzy; every inch of the place is knick-knacked with at least some kind of eerily unauthorized children's pop-culture-induced fever dream. Here's some photos (and videos!) of some of the exhibits displayed at the deli.