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Essay: Daniel Tiger, Nostalgia, and the Fanboy Temptation

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Daniel Tiger's NeighborhoodFor those of our readers who don’t currently live with small children, you may not be aware of the existence of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Launched about a year ago through PBS Kids, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a childrens’ cartoon show which functions as a sort of “reboot” of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with the blessing of the widow of the late Fred Rogers. The show has my three-year-old older son’s primary obsession for the past few months.

The series centers around Daniel Tiger, a young cartoon tiger who is  the son of the original Daniel the Striped Tiger from the Mister Rogers show. There are numerous touches from the original series: It’s set in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, King Friday, Mr. McFeeley and various other characters return, and the general values of the original show- friendship, caring, imagination- carry over here, too.

And in a reversal of the original formula, the majority of the show is animated with occasional live-action segments.  And yes, Daniel Tiger starts and ends each episode by changing his sweater and shoes.

Aside from the reservation that I sort of wish the original “Mister Rogers” episodes were currently available in some type of on-demand forum so I could introduce them to my kids, I have no particular beef with “Daniel Tiger.” It’s generally a pleasant, likable show, and is unquestionably preferable to certain other kids shows out there (I’m looking at you, Barney, and you too, Caillou.)

Some people feel differently, though. Here’s a thread on the forums on Neighborhoodarchive.com, a Mister Rogers fan site, in which the Daniel Tiger show is nitpicked. There’s discussion of whether or not Fred Rogers would have approved. There are complaints that the Neighborhood of Make Believe doesn’t look quite right:

Daniel & Father Tiger with no pants*, a coloring book printout of Daniel described as creative, merchandising to children, instant “lemons-to-lemonade” behavior modification, euphemisms like “disappointment” (next will be problems changed to challenges, and sorrows into opportunities) – Tony the Tiger (“grrrreat” ad biz) “grrific”, a British King Friday (“jolly good”), intrusive little promo ads, no spiritual component, no Costa, no jazz….but it doesn’t matter.. the brand has pre-sold it, and the parents (indoctrinated and touched to the heart as children) will be happy to give this cheery little offshoot to their own Littles. Squished cakes & squashed balls and the reverse of cartoons introducing “live” segments….I shouldn’t rise to this bait, but since Fred will be turning in his crypt, I dare to say he would never have approved.  The inmates are running the asylum now. I’m not good with that, but I’m powerless.

Another guy, on YouTube was even less nice although to be fair, he seems to also hate every other current kids show:

 

Reading and watching these, a thought occurred to me: This is virtually the exact reaction the “Star Trek” die-hards had to “Into Darkness,” or the “George Lucas raped my childhood” contingent of “Star Wars” fans after the prequels, or Superman fans still apoplectic about the method of General Zod’s demise in “Man of Steel.”

Fanboy nit-picking, in which purists cling desperately to things they loved as children, and react with anger to even the smallest modification of such, long ago stopped being the province of sci-fi and comic book fans; now it’s on to the Mister Rogers crowd. 

What we sometimes forget, especially when it comes to a childrens’ show, is that this entertainment wasn’t produced for the eyes of nitpicking adults. They’re not the target audience. Sure, there’s some nostalgia involved here. But the new work can also stand on its own. When my son comes into my room at 6:30 in the morning and says “I want Daniel Tiger!” it’s not because the show is sufficiently faithful to the one 25 years ago.

 

*I noticed that too- Daniel Tiger, for some reason, never wears pants. And neither does his father. I was happy to see, however, that when the show was introduced at the Television Critics Association’s press tour in 2012, the question was addressed with the show’s producers by critic Dan Fienberg (as relayed by Linda Holmes): 

“I notice that Daniel doesn’t wear pants in everyday life, but does wear swim trunks to the beach,” Dan observed. “What is the consistency regarding pants?”

Morrison was utterly unfazed. “Yeah. I’ll give you two reasons why he doesn’t wear pants. The first is that Fred’s original Daniel didn’t wear pants. Actually, he didn’t even have legs. And the second is that we’re sticklers for research at the Fred Rogers Company, and we went to a large number of zoos, and none of the tigers wore pants.”

“But how many of them wore swim trunks?” Dan volleyed back. “A few of them,” offered Santomero.

Even when it comes to writing kids’ TV, quick wit can be underrated.

 

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