On the magical realism of Mister Rogers

My now one-year-old and I have slowly been going through the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available on Amazon Prime. He’s generally not interested in extended screen time at this point, but Mister Rogers is one of the few figures he recognizes and enjoys. (Along with Alex Trebek. #proudpapa)

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers that hasn’t already been said. The man was a genius. And the show, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, remains both ahead of its time and outside of it. Its deliberately unhurried pace, humanist ethos, and intellectual respect for its young audience make it almost anti-TV, something I couldn’t have realized as a kid.

Now being on the other side of parenthood, I find watching it a delightful and enriching experience for me and for my son. Rogers’ short bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the episodes in word and song are deceptively simple, poetic, and actionable. He had such a unique way of communicating that it has its own name: Freddish.

At first I skipped the parts in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because they’re kinda cheesy. I much prefer Fred hanging around his house doing crafts, singing, and breakdancing. But I’ve come to appreciate how those make-believe times blend the show’s “real” people and plots with the imaginary King Friday XIII and crew.

That kind of magical realism was at the forefront of Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the making of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about Rogers called “Can You Say…Hero?” The movie plays out as one long episode of the show, the main difference being that Lloyd, the Junod stand-in played by Matthew Rhys, finds himself becoming involved in the show. Picture Picture turns into a flashback from Lloyd’s life, and Tom Hanks’ Rogers displays a photo board of characters from the show (which happened on a real episode I watched not long before seeing the movie), one of which ends up being Lloyd.

This blurring of fact and fiction works on two different levels. First, it honors the show’s commitment to showcase real-world experiences alongside its pretend adventures—a dynamic that mirrors the way young children actually experience the world.

Second, it abides by Rogers’ expressed intention to act on the show as if he were speaking to one specific child rather than an audience of millions. He really, truly believed that one person—Lloyd in the movie’s case—was special and deserved his full attention and love. (Aren’t they the same thing?)

That’s the genius of Fred Rogers: he was real, but he seemed magical. He wasn’t a saint, as his wife Joanne explains in the movie. He had to work at being good and getting better just like anyone else. But that’s the kind of neighbor we all should want and aspire to be.

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