Today we deviate slightly from our usual rounds into the world of children’s literature to look at children’s television programming in the early 21st century. Put another way, I have a new baby and a three-year-old so this is about the level of literary criticism I’m capable of today. You’ll have to bear with me.
If you are unlike me and do not have a very young child then you may be completely unaware of this particular television show. But if you do know of it then you’ll probably find that this seemingly innocuous little bit of pleasant programming has a kooky core that’s worth looking into.
First off, I’ve always admired the women of the Children’s Media Association. Occasionally, because children’s books and children’s media intersect with great frequency, they’ll have me come in to moderate a panel or speak on a topic. Years and years ago they had me come in and we discussed the fact that some of them were working on this new show that was a kind of spin-off of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. All I really knew about it was that it was going to be called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Beyond that, no information. Years passed and nothing happened. Then, in September of 2012, the show finally hit the airwaves. Look at the Wikipedia entry and you’ll see that it was in the works since 2006 or so.
Now the premise of the show is what interests me the most. Without knowing anything about it I just assumed it was an animated version of The Land of Make Believe with all the same Fred Rogers characters. Not exactly. Instead, the idea is that those characters all got older (didn’t we all?) and had kids of their own. So this is the next generation of Make Believe children. Daniel Tiger is the son of Daniel Striped Tiger, a fact reinforced as true when you notice that the dad sports a watch. King Friday XIII is there with his wife but Prince Tuesday’s now in his 20s and he has a little brother that’s around Daniel’s age. X the owl has a nephew, which is a bit confusing since I always assumed that he and Henrietta were an item. You know. The owl and the pussycat and all that. Apparently not since she has a kid of her own and he doesn’t. No word on who the father of her kiddo is. I’m going to continue to hope it’s X and that the kitten shows owlish signs in the future.
Where it gets a little peculiar (and as you can see I’m already getting a bit weird about all this) is when you get to the origins of a little girl named Miss Elaina. Those of you who grew up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood back in the day will recall this figure:
That’s Lady Elaine Fairchilde. Probably the puppet most directly influenced by old Punch & Judy shows. Voiced by Fred Rogers (a fact that my mother attributes to his mental sanity, since it allowed him to cut loose a little) Lady Elaine was the antagonist of the show. Not necessarily the villain, but she liked to stir things up. She was sort of the closest thing they had to a bad guy. Well credit to the creators of the show because somebody somewhere took a look at this . . .
. . . and said to themselves, “You know what she needs? A hot husband.” Batta bing, meet the new happy family.
Lady Elaine has been paired with Music Man Stan (who actually dates back to the original show). They cut back on her eye make-up and toned down that red nose. Then they gave her a daughter named Miss Elaina, which is sort of awesome since they’re essentially calling her Lady Elaine Jr. Miss Elaina calls everyone “Toots” just like her mom did. Seriously.
Am I the only one who finds the reinterpretation of Lady Elaine just a bit odd? She sort of lost her drive, since this show doesn’t deal in plots long enough to include baddies. Her daughter’s downright sweet as well. In fact the whole show feels like a combination of Dora the Explorer and the original Fred Rogers creation. Still and all, it’s interesting, particularly when you take into account the attention to detail the creators of this show have paid to the original. At times it’s actually a bit unnerving. It’s not just Daniel Striped Tiger’s watch. Read through the Wikipedia page and you’ll learn that the neighborhood doctor is Dr. Anna and “Though human, she shares many characteristics of the platypus family of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: their patriarch, Bill Platypus was the neighborhood physician and spoke with a foreign accent (Scottish, in his case), and his daughter was named Ana.” There are other examples as well, which means that somebody on the staff sat down and watched untold numbers of episodes of the original Mister Rogers program just to make these connections.
Anyone with small kids knows that if you watch enough children’s programming you start to create alternate narrative to the one on the screen so as to maintain sanity. Back in the day my mother really rooted for Maria and David to hook up on Sesame Street, only for the show to go the predictable route of pairing her with Luis instead. The same can be true for this show. For example, Daniel Striped Tiger apparently works in the “Clock Factory” where he grew up. Take that one step further and you can create a kind of Hugo Cabret childhood for him. Living by himself in a clock. Never really leaving. Sad, really.
All told though it’s a good show. We’ve actually used it with our daughter and it worked wonders when it came to getting a shot at the doctor’s office or waiting somewhere (though it was completely and utterly ineffective in terms of getting her to try new foods).
If you’ve other points about the peculiarities of this show, feel free to pass them along. I’m all ears.