Mr. Rogers Is Pure In Heart

Every time a disaster strikes or our faith in the good in the world is tested – and it feels like it happens on a weekly basis now, doesn’t it? – the quote from Mister Rogers starts going around:

Like most pithy sayings, it’s popular because it’s true. After every single man-made or natural disaster,  follow-up stories include the first responders and private citizens rushing to help whomever they can, however they can.

I think there’s another reason we see this quote come up so often, though, and that’s because of who said it: Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was such a deceptively simple show that I’m not sure it could be made now. Fred Rogers, a nice man, comes home, puts on a warm cardigan that his mother made, slips on his sneakers and talks to children. It’s the last part that’s still revolutionary (as much as I love changing into my comfy clothes when I get home). Fred Rogers talks to children, as though they’re real people, because they are. Then he meets people doing their work and learns about the things they know how to do and are interested in. Then he plays pretend in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

These are the reasons we keep going back to Mister Rogers when times are tough. Fred Rogers talks to everyone as though they are important, listens to people and is interested in them, and believes in make-believe. Very few people in the media offer this to children, and barely any offer it to adults (our Blog Patron Saint, Amy Poehler, maybe – these figures exist, but they aren’t always easy to find). Let’s look at this a little closer, if only because it’s a positive thing to be discussing at a time full of negative things:

Fred Rogers Recognizes That Children (And People!) Are Important

Right now all episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are streaming on Twitch. I have kept several episodes from the 1960s and 1970s on in the background as I’ve gone about my work this week, and it’s exactly as I remember from my early childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. Mister Rogers – I know we can call him Fred but he’s Mister Rogers forever to me – offers constant affirmations that his audience is exactly right just as they are. This is probably the genesis of the “everybody is special” movement that some folks like to complain about, but when you watch Mister Rogers you can’t help but realize that that’s exactly true. Every single person is different from every single other person, and that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Sometimes I feel like Mister Rogers was saying these things as much for the parents watching as the kids. Or, could he have seen into the future, the 30-year-olds live-streaming from their desks at work during a particularly dire news cycle.

Scratch that: sometimes he directly addresses the grown-ups, because I think he realizes that adults can feel just as uncertain of themselves as preschoolers:

Adapted for adults, the same message:

As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has–or ever will have–something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.

This affirmation that who you are and what you do matters to your community keeps us coming back to Mister Rogers. In sociology terms, he deals in spheres of influence. Maybe you can’t fix the big troubles in the world, but you can make your neighborhood a better place. Fred said it best:

But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own–by treating our ‘neighbor’ at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.

Mister Rogers also realizes that big concepts, like language, aren’t too big for children. They’re actually just right, because children are learning about them for the first time:

With just a few words changed, it’s just the thing adults need to hear, too:

“What matters isn’t how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life. What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of a war or the description of a sunrise–his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.”

Mister Rogers Is Interested In The World Around Him

It’s not Mister Rogers, it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In every episode, Mister Rogers would learn about different members of his community: artists and athletes and puppeteers, but also folks in those everyday jobs that fascinate children so much. Yo Yo Ma was a pretty cool guest, but so were teachers and trash collectors. We all lost our cool over a mail carrier every single episode (Mr. McFeely was fantastic, after all). This is the cynicism-free attitude I love to see and try to remember to display. We don’t know everything about everything, and sometimes the most fascinating thing in the world is just to understand what someone other than ourselves finds fascinating, or how a stranger fills their time. I don’t get many chances to visit crayon factories like Mister Rogers did, but I can still ask questions and listen to answers. “Everybody is special” isn’t a call to self-importance, it’s a call to remember how important every single person you meet is.

Mister Rogers Loves Make Believe

… and I do, too. As a child I’d spend hours in my backyard imagining I was growing a World War II victory garden or traveling the Oregon trail. My basement was a garden-level apartment I lived in all by myself. Once I was “too old” for make-believe I was in acting classes, where I found the other kids who hadn’t stopped pretending, either. But as Mister Rogers tells us, each person is different. I have never known a child who didn’t love make believe, but I have known a lot of children who need help with it. When I start pretending with some of my nieces and nephews, I see that spark of “I didn’t know I could see things that way!,” the same spark we adults get when a comedian frames a familiar concept in a new way. Some kids get a refrigerator box and instantly turn it into a bus, spaceship and, well, refrigerator box – but one they’re trapped inside on a mail truck on an expressway careening into the ocean. Other kids need an adult to hand them some markers and safety scissors and ask them what they think that box could be. That’s what Mister Rogers does.

In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe provides a ready-made framework to pretend. There is King Friday, Henrietta Pussycat and my grouchy favorite, Lady Elaine. Children know that they’re all puppets and they know that a fun grown-up is making them come to life. This is infinitely better than puppets alone. Kids learn that we have the power to make scenarios and characters exist where nothing did before. Somebody versed in childhood development might tell you that this is teaching cause and effect or concrete versus abstract, but I think pretending is an end unto itself. For the kids and grownups who need a little push to pretend, Mister Rogers teaches us that make-believe is magical, fun, and available to us any time, anywhere.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Disasters that occur continents away are still hard to take, and that’s because of something Mister Rogers knew all along: we are all neighbors. While we all have Mister Rogers on the brain, let’s try to heed some of his lessons. Listen, look, and create. Let’s go make a snappy new day.

The Great British Bake Off Is Pure In Heart

Did you watch the premiere of a new season of The Great British Bake Off last night? If so, I’m horribly jealous … or I would be if jealousy didn’t run contrary to the spirit of The Great British Bake Off, a show that is at its core pleasant, gentle, soothing and entirely pure in heart.

Bake Off employs calming narration, a delicate pastel color scheme, a reliable format and real-life fairy godmother Mary Berry. It is basically like watching Mr. Rogers or Shining Time Station, but for adults. It cuts through the ugliness of reality competitions and resists cheap “extreme” challenges or manufactured rivalries. While we await the U.S. airing of series 7, let’s look at all the ways the Bake Off is the most pure and kind reality competition on television today:

Mary Berry Is Mary Poppins’ Granddaughter

In my head, Mary Berry was named after her beloved granny, Mary Poppins – because how else do you explain their shared delightful temperament, coupled with a firm instance on perfection (or practically-perfection)? Mary never met a sneaky innuendo she didn’t like, but she’s also excellent at playing the well-bred grandmother who doesn’t know what you’re all snickering at. Plus she’s a style icon to boot, always sporting a smart scarf or a well-tailored floral blazer or that one bomber jacket that sold out in a day. If you worry that getting older will make you dowdy or dull or stuck in the past, just look to Mary (age 81!) and rest assured that such a fate isn’t inevitable. And is it just me, or do her eyes actually twinkle sometimes?

Sue Perkins Is A British Rachel Maddow

I mean. Sue Perkins is her own person. But she has a quick and dry wit that’s very Rachel Maddow-without-the-politics. Or maybe the funniest NPR presenter? Just tell me that Sue Perkins doesn’t own a library tote. I’ll wait. She’s also always quick with a dad joke, which is objectively speaking the most pure-in-heart category of humor. Sue is a comedian, not a baker, so she’s really just around for the laughs – although she did make an earlier foray into food television with The Supersizers, a great program where modern people consume the typical diet of historical periods. It is funnier than it sounds.

Everyone Is Helpful

Remember that show Zoom? Whenever the kids were doing a craft or a race, all the other kids gathered around saying encouraging things. That’s basically how Great British Bake-Off Is. Contestants who are done with their bake lend a hand to fellow competitors, tell people they’re doing well, or just calm down the other bakers during their more ruffled moments. The judges and hosts offer practical advice instead of watching the contestants muddle their way into disaster. If you want to watch people be nice to each other for an hour, you’ve found the right show.

Anybody Can Bake!

Whether you’re a senior citizen or a school-aged kid, you could watch and enjoy GBBO. The field of competitors isn’t age-segregated either, and there have been bakers as young as 17 (sweet, pleasant Martha) and as old as 69. Obviously reality shows have to cast based on both talent and personality, but it’s so refreshing to see a show that doesn’t rely too heavily on the young and conventionally attractive (no worries: if you like conventionally attractive people, there are plenty). Contestants have ranged from posh, Aga-owning teen Flora to the more working class builder/dad Paul, proving that baking – and talent –  cut across all classes.

Given the events of this year, it’s also been great to see that a number of the top competitors haven’t been of British descent. It’s important for viewers to see bakers of all different backgrounds concoct some of the more traditionally British challenges – and make them better by drawing from their own influences. Where scripted television still has trouble writing roles for Muslim women that aren’t either boring and obedient at best or extremist at worst, through a reality show audiences got to meet Nadiya, full of personality and ambition. When even central and eastern European immigrants face discrimination and stereotyping, Bake Off presented us with Ugne, a shoe-loving female body builder. In a year of Brexit and Donald Trump, this is the kind of content I want on my television.

The Best Of Reality Competitions

While I’d rather focus on what Bake Off is instead of what it isn’t, we have to discuss what reality competitions can be at their worst. We’re talking about those cheap tactics that producers think are going to keep viewers tuned in – but which I’d argue are completely unnecessary (and I think the 10 million viewers tuning into the series 7 premiere last night would agree with me). Drawn-out personality clashes between competitors or judges have no place here. Neither do unnecessarily extreme challenges that you see on some other cooking competitions; why include that if these challenges are hard enough? Even the participants’ interviews are free of that reality tv posturing about being the best. Or is that just an American thing, maybe?

Instead, GBBO shows what reality tv competitions can be at their best. You have talented contestants trying their hardest, interesting challenges that actually teach us about history or travel (remember that Victorians episode?), and suspense generated naturally instead of artificial, hyped-up gimmicks.

GBBO Exists Outside Of Time

As if this show didn’t already remind me of a mature version of the public television shows of my childhood, it also seems to exist entirely outside of time. I mean, I never know when any series of The Great British Bake Off originally aired, thanks to the wonders of PBS’s screwy scheduling. It’s all clearly from at some point in the 2010s, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess. Series 5 (UK) was Season 1 (US), and then Series 4 (UK) was Season 2 (US), and Series 6 (UK) was Season 3 (US). Don’t even try to remember which season aired first. It’s exactly like tuning into your local PBS affiliate c. 1993 and never knowing which cast of Ghostwriter you were going to get.

From Mary Berry to the tranquil pastel baking tents to the cheerful competitors, the Great British Bake Off is everything reality shows can be. If you get to watch a new series right now, enjoy! I’ll be here with my weirdly ordered PBS repeats in the meantime – not because I don’t want to jump ahead, but because watching with a torrent is NOT very pure-in-heart. Besides, I think Mary Berry would be disappointed in me, and we can’t have that.