Maybe it’s the calm feeling of the wax being poured into the molds, or the soothing narration as each yellow stick gets stacked, sorted, and place amid a rainbow of color sticks for boxing.
Whatever the timeless appeal is, every day for the past several weeks (no exaggeration. I mean every day), our three year old daughter wakes up, wanders out of her room, the lull of sleep still filling her eyes as they flutter in adjustment to the morning light and her little voice asking us “Can I watch the Mr Rogers where they learn to make crayons?”
Available now on the PBS Kids app for free on your streaming device or mobile device, by the way. Download it if you can…shameless plug from this PBS Kids family.
And so, every morning, for several weeks, mornings have started with that familiar chime of music through the model neighborhood, the friendly greeting of Fred Rogers, who takes some time to show us how to assemble a three legged stool (with leather seat delivered courtesy of Mr McFeeley, of course) and setting himself atop the stool in front of an easel, begins to color away on a large piece of paper. Then comes the piece de resistance! The tour of the crayon factory, the payoff that keeps her 3 year old eyes and mind glued without interruption. And I have to admit, as much as I had a memory of it from my own youth, I never realized how soothing it could be as an adult.
There’s more to the episode beyond the tour of course, such as King Friday’s declaration of a coloring contest in the Neighborhood of Make Believe and Lady Elaine’s insistence that winning is everything and makes people like you. This provides the perfect opportunity, as trolley exits the neighborhood and heads back to Mr Rogers’ home for Fred to use Lady Elaine’s skewed perspective as a wonderful lesson to the viewers at home:
“Lady Elaine has just heard about the contest, and all she’s thinking about is winning. Not doing, but winning. It should be the fun of doing it that’s important.”
From there, as he so often does, Mr Rogers reminds us of our contributions to the world with his wonderful song of “You are Special” and lets us know as he exits that “You make each day a special day. You know how, by just your being you.”
She never seems to tire of hearing it, every single morning. And you know what? Neither do I.
Maybe in this crazy world, in the stress and hectic days of adulthood…maybe we could all stand to start our day out with a little lesson and a little affirmation from Mr. Rogers.
Did you watch PBS when you were a kid?
I did. I certainly can’t remember all of my viewing habits, but I can tell you unequivocally how comfortable, safe, and accepting it felt even as a toddler to be joined by furry friends on Sesame Street every afternoon. Or how I would run to grab my sneakers to tie and sweater to zip up when Mister Rogers would come walking through his door to open up windows to the world around us and remind us what it mean to be a kind, caring person throughout this thing called life.
I remember when Big Bird and I both needed clarity about Mr Hooper not being on Sesame Street anymore and how it’s okay to feel sad about someone leaving our lives, that grieving is a natural part of our emotions when someone dies. To this day I can’t see that scene where the grown-ups tell Big Bird that Mr Hooper isn’t coming back without feeling the same thing I did all those years ago. The handling of the topic, from producers to writers, to cast and crew, remains incredible.
Beyond those shows, I can’t recall too much else that I watched. Maybe Romper Room, and when I was older a show called Square One, mostly because of a series within the series called Mathnet, a Dragnet spoof where math problems were used to solve mysteries.
And now 30+ years later, I can say with certainty that there’s never been a better time to be a PBS parent.
We still get new editions of classics like Sesame Street, going strong at almost 50 years old and still teaching not only basic skills like shapes, numbers, and letters that prepare a child for school, but lessons to hold onto our entire lives, such as kindness, acceptance, and staying true to yourself. And my wife can attest to the childlike glee I get when we see familiar faces like Bob or Gordon pop into even some of the newer episodes.
Likewise, the values, compassion, and wisdom of Fred Rogers live on in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as the residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, previously known in puppet form on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, spring to life in full-color animation. From sharing, to helping, to dealing with feelings like sadness, jealousy or anger, the lessons of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are essential not just to a child, but to all of us. Our daughter is only starting to speak, but one thing she’s almost guaranteed to utter is the musical tones that accompany the songs in Daniel Tiger when it’s on.
Of course, there’s so much new and exciting on PBS too. While my son enjoys the derring-do and superheroics, I laugh at all the hilarious situations and jokes as WordGirl tries to put villains, bad grammar and misused words to rest.
Ready, Jet, Go has not only kindled a fascination with space exploration in our son, but it has captured the attention and awe of our not quite two year old daughter as well. And, I for one, feel I’ve learned so much as an adult about our universe and the vast possibilities that await us beyond the stars thanks to Jet, his parents and friends, and Astronomer and Host Amy Mainzer.
Nature Cat revels in its silliness while showcasing how much fun can be had and how much can be learned simply by heading out to one’s own backyard, along with a little help from our imagination. It also features, I’m convinced, at least half of the cast of SNL.
Chris and Martin Kratt leap from live action exploration of the animal kingdom into an animated world that stresses the valuable balance of our ecosystem and the role that each animal plays within it. Along with that, of course, comes with the threats to that delicate ecosystem by human kind and those who wish to prey upon the animal and natural world for their own greedy gain. The Kratt Brothers have not only transformed our son into a walking animal encyclopedia of habits and interaction, but have made him aware at such a young age to think about his actions or the actions of others, affect the world around us.
And of course, there’s my favorite, Odd Squad, which I’ve gushed over many a time before, about an agency run by kids that uses math skills to solve problems of oddness in the world. If it’s a man with a fireplace in his stomach, a person with a laugh track following them around, or dog-obsessed villain looking to take over the world, Odd Squad is on the case. With it’s clever writing, excellent acting, and delicious sense of humor, any adult should be watching this show, regardless if there’s a kid in the room with them.
Then, there’s PBS Kids Family Night, which, in our household at least, has become the modern day equivalent of The Wonderful World of Disney that my wife and I enjoyed watching each week as kids. Family-friendly specials, movies, or marathons every Friday night (and rerun Saturday and Sunday night if you miss it) on the 24/7 PBS Kids Channel that have become ritual viewing for us. I pull out the air popper I bought almost 15 years ago, make a bowl of popcorn and we all gather in the living room for anything from Tiger Family Trip to Odd Squad the Movie, or Wild Kratts: Hero’s Journey. Our kids are already chomping at the bit to see the upcoming Ready Jet Go: Return to Bortron 7 coming up on a Family Night edition soon.
We have basic cable, and when we downsized (long before we had kids), we never looked back, finding all we needed in our television viewing right there on that handful of stations. And when we did have kids, PBS (and now PBS Kids, their 24/7 accompanying channel) became the default for children’s programming.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
PBS matters. It offers a gateway to the world for anyone with a television set. No premium channels and the associated pay along with it. Whether it’s arts and culture, or math, science, and reading – knowledge never goes out of style. It’s what allows us to understand one another, to find new ways to think, to move our world forward. And I can’t think of a greater way to use the power of broadcasting than to by empowering our children and future generations with the tools to keep our world, our society, ever moving.
If you know me, or heck, if you’ve read past entries on this blog, you know how nostalgic I can get – longing for previous times, or pieces of culture from various parts of my life, or even before my time. I admittedly get that way about a lot of things – cartoons, films, video games, comic books, and TV shows.
One of the TV shows that has constantly beckoned with a nostalgic siren’s call to me has been the misadventures of an immigrant and his tightly-wound distant relative trying to integrate into each other’s lives in 1980s Chicago.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Perfect Strangers was an ABC sitcom that ran from 1986-1983 and was about a kind, wide-eyed man from a tiny Mediterranean island (the fictional Mypos) named Balki Bartokomous who came to America with his childlike innocence and wonder and found a far-distant cousin in Chicago – the uptight, jaded Larry Appleton. The Odd Couple-esque set up allowed for many comedic, fish out of water situations as Balki tries to acclimate to America (while embracing its culture to the hilt), while helping his Cousin Larry make it through life without his many neuroses doing him in.
It also had one of the most uplifting, 80s-esque theme songs of all time, which also in 90 seconds set up the show’s premise before an episode would even begin.
I hadn’t seen the show since it was originally on the air but in the past year or so began watching again thanks to the interwebs and the myriad of resources to find just about anything we remember from our past. I can’t even recall what brought me to rediscover it. Likely, it was a passing reference on social media that made me suddenly start remembering catching the show as part of the ABC TGIF lineup of family-friendly sitcoms “back in the day.” Upon some re-viewing, I still enjoy it.
For a show that itself is often remembered as a piece of pop culture, it had many references to already-existing pop culture at the time, through Balki’s overjoyed discoveries of Western pop culture. Balki was often singing songs from the radio’s top 40 of the day, or relishing in something as simple as cartoon character merchandising.
The show is filled with pop culture references of the day, the situations are often based in many of the classic comedic tropes throughout sitcom history or even as far back as vaudeville routines, but there is something about the madcap hijinks or the charming camaraderie of these two oddball characters and the performers bringing them to life.
Beyond that, though, I feel there’s a bit more to my nostalgic attachment on a more subconscious level.
For me, it’s somewhat of a touchstone/an association with the decade that I grew up in – the 1980s. Now hang with me as I’m going to get a little autoethnographic on you. What’s ethnographic? Good question. I only recently learned myself, but according to Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner, “when researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.”
I’m speaking as part of that culture, as someone who was born in 1980 and whose most influential and cherished years are from that decade and the 90s.
The 1980s. Pre-internet. Cassette tapes. No cell phones, no constant connections. From where I stand now with the day-to-day stress of having to constantly be available, rapidly respond, always connected to something, it all can seem pretty quieter. A nicer time, perhaps greater or simpler, even when awash in the neon glow of yuppies and mass-consumerism and excess that is often associated with the decade today.
But it wasn’t simpler. Or nicer. Or greater. At least not in a larger view with a wider perspective.
We were still in the midst of The Cold War. When I was in first and second grade at Seymour School, I remember us still undergoing the drills you see made fun of these days – crouching under a desk or going to the fallout shelter in the school’s basement in preparation for a catastrophic event.
A conversation with my mom about that time has led to remarks about the state of the economy, the cost of milk, and other anxieties that as a young parent were not as enjoyable as the carefree time that I so often subconsciously associated with the 1980s, and thus the media I consumed in that time, like Perfect Strangers.
Why is that?
Much of it comes because my recollections are shaded in rose-colored glasses because I was a child then. No need to go to work every day. No need to pay bills, to be responsible for others. My biggest responsibilities were to get up and go to school every morning, do my homework, and clean up after myself. Aside from that, what did I have to worry about, really? If i was going to play with Ninja Turtles, Legos, or super hero figures? If I’d catch Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward on WPIX or play a while longer and just watch Ducktales on Fox?
My point is that we are so prone to looking back at things and associating them with “the good times,” that our minds become clouded to the circumstances that made us think that way in the first place. Thus, the things we consumed or remember from those times become associated in our minds with the corresponding times we were exposed to them.
But those good times – they’re always going to look good when we take out the context of life in those moments. It’s why so many people look back on the 1950s as the perfect time, not because of the fear of atomic obliteration that came following Hiroshima. Not because of the domestic violence that bubbled quietly underneath the surface of smiling, surface-level-perfect families, or the loneliness and isolation that haunted those groups who didn’t work out of the house because of cultural norms. No, they were good times to those who were children at the time, living life with a more innocent view of the world around them, sans responsibility that would come later in life.
Perfect Strangers, through no action of its own, does just that. It opens a door inside my mind and memories to a period of life that seemed much more innocent, because at the time I first enjoyed it, I was.
And while it hasn’t yet found itself amid the string of rebooted/continuing sitcoms in the age of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video like shows such as Full House/Fuller House has, the entire concept does make me think forward to what shows/media my own kids will look back on wistfully decades from now when they reflect upon “the simpler times.” Will it be new shows originating during their childhood like Odd Squad, Wild Kratts or Ready, Jet Go? Or will it be shows that pre-dated their existence that were introduced to them from my generation and handed down (whether in original form or rebooted) in their childhood – like Inspector Gadget or DuckTales?
As Dr. Ryan Lizardi, author of Nostalgic Generations and Media: Perception of Time and Available Meaning puts it, “As older generations of people are encouraged to revisit media and products they loved as children by hyper-nostalgic media companies, through remakes, reimaginings, and re-releases, it leads to a reduction in available meanings for current and subsequent generations who are then all encouraged to attach to the same nostalgia-soaked objects…the cultural rise in nostalgic media has the dual generational impact of making the subjective experience of time speed up for those who are nostalgic, as well as create a surrogate nostalgic identity for younger generations by continually feeding them the content of their elders.”
Perhaps only time (and they, and the media culture existing as they grow) will tell.
Some time back I publicly gushed about what I normally gush about to any parent who will listen – my love of the PBS Kids series Odd Squad.
For those uninitiated, Odd Squad is an organization run by kids that investigate anything odd. Be it people who drink lemonade that turns their head to lemons, being turned into puppets, or stopping blobs and flying books, the agents of Odd Squad are on the case. Using (and through the power of entertainment and television, teaching) math skills, they get the job done with a lot of fun along the way.
And come on. Their Rogues Gallery is made up of the likes of Odd Todd, Noisemaker, Fladam, Symettric Al, Shapeshifter and more, this is creative gimmick-villainy on par with baddies out of Gotham City or The Flash.
It’s the kind of show you love to watch with your kids because it’s just as entertaining for the adults as it is for the young ones. And I love it.
At the time I originally wrote, the show was setting up for a big transition trading in its two leading characters of 40 episodes for, at the time, new, unknown characters. And with so much love for (original agents) Olive and Otto’s adventures combating odd, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
But I had faith in the show’s creators to keep the laughs and lessons coming in the same way they had since the beginning, despite any new faces.
And new faces is what we got. Gone were straight-laced Olive (Delila Bela) and goofball Otto (Filip Geljo), off to be bosses of their own Odd Squad branch. I had hoped we would get to keep scientist Oscar (Sean Michael Kyer) around a bit longer, but while his exit seemed necessary following quite the growth spurt between seasons, he did stick around for a few extra episodes to train a protege and allow his change to create perhaps one of my favorite jokes of the show..
We even get some more Dr. O (Peyton Kennedy) for a few episodes, which is fine by me, as her constantly introducing herself as “a doctor” and reminding people how they know her “we work together” never stops being funny.
The biggest upside is that despite the exits of beloved regulars, we still get Millie Davis as Ms. O at the helm, sending agents on their missions, making them scatter with a yell, and best of all, getting to show some great new sides to her with an enlarged role out from behind the boss’ desk in many episodes. She not only helps create a common thread throughout the various cast changes, but is just an absolute delight to watch.
I’m still holding out hope for another 1980s-set episode with Ms. O…sorry…Oprah when she was an agent.
Even Odd Squad arch-nemesis Odd Todd pops by for an episode in this hilariously titled Mid Day in the Garden of Good and Odd where the now reformed-Todd-turned-gardener helps the new agents crack a case only a former villain’s POV could. And along the way, Joshua Kilimnik once again gets the chance to show off his acting abilities jumping between cackling-Todd, conflicted-Todd, and master gardener-Todd.
But wait. All I’ve done is talk about who stuck around, right? Did this show even have a cast change? What are you doing to us, man?!
Okay, okay. So I wanted to get the kudos to the returning champs up front. So what are the major changes we’ve seen. The biggest, of course is who would fill the shoes of Olive and Otto as the squad’s main agents. For that we get the overly-excitable Olympia (Anna Cathcart) and the straight-laced, no-nonsense Otis (Isaac Kragten) in a somewhat personality reversal to Olive and Otto.
I waited a few episodes before deciding what I thought of this new team and I have to say…I like them. I really, really do. I can’t use the term pleasantly surprised because I had faith in the show’s creators to keep delivering the same great casting choices, writing, humor, and production that has made the show so darn enjoyable already. And they didn’t let us down.
The thing is, change can be tough for television audiences, but with Odd Squad, the concept lends itself to periodic change. Grown-ups aren’t allowed to be agents (only bumbling, hapless victims in town and man do I want to play one some day. would several years experience on camera as a News Anchor and a few decades of theater get me a shot? Guys?! Hello? Is this thing on?) so with that in mind, as agents age, they move on and new ones come in.
It’s built right into the concept and so far, the first round of transition has worked pretty well. Carrying over cast members where they can (Oscar for a few episodes, Ms. O and Dr. O more regularly into the new season) help create a level of comfort and familiarity for the audience as new faces emerge. Eventually, those new faces become the regulars as even newer faces could move in. It’s created to be self-sustaining, and the fresh faces means new characters, new situations, and keeps the writers, I would think, on their toes. Kid or adult, this show has never made a bad casting decision yet, providing some of the best acting and comedic timing I’ve ever seen in young actors. It’s hard to come by at any age and Odd Squad does it in spades every time.
The fact of the matter with any type of show that revolves around kids is that kids grow up. We all do. Fortunately with a show like Odd Squad, no matter our age, we can be a kid again.
I hope they’re solving missions for a long time.
So today it was announced that the Children’s Television Workshop, which of course produces the legendary Sesame Street, has inked a deal with HBO to air the next five years worth of new episodes on the premium television channel.
Those new episodes, will then later be made available for airing on PBS Stations.
And I kind of feel like it’s serving a lot of kids and families the leftover scraps.
The program isn’t leaving PBS, its home for the past 45 years. But it is being cut down from an hour to a half-hour and will be reruns that have been re-edited.
Any new episodes of the show will air on HBO first, finding their way to PBS some nine months later. Will these new episodes be an hour on HBO and cut down to a half-hour on PBS as is being done with reruns? Or will they be a half hour on HBO and then presented as-is on PBS? I haven’t found that to be clear just yet.
However, the move to HBO will allow them to nearly double the number of episodes they produce each year, from 18 to 35.
So more episodes. Something that was getting harder to do financially for PBS. That’s good, right? But the only families and children who will get to watch them are those paying for HBO or HBO’s streaming service. Nine months later they’ll be able to catch them on television on PBS.
I can already see the critics of PBS using this in arguments against public funding, citing what seems to be the big thing lately, privatization, or that trendy new buzzword, ‘public-private partnerships’ in the fight against the use of funding for something they may not be a fan of.
Much of this deal is wrapped up in the concept of streaming, something I tend to, admittedly, forget about. HBO will get the exclusive digital/streaming rights to Sesame Street. Many news articles on this deal cite that two-thirds of children watch Sesame Street via a streaming device.
So, if that is the case, two-thirds of children watch Sesame Street via streaming. And that streaming option is now being removed from Netflix, Amazon, and most importantly, the free PBS Kids app. (Or at least, it’s implied it will disappear from the PBS Kids app. That doesn’t seem to be directly addressed in any article I’ve come across so far. I’ll gladly correct if I find one.)
This is nagging at me because I keep thinking about the purpose of Sesame Street being on public television to begin with – to have its educational lessons via entertainment accessible to all, regardless of the economic status of the household.
If you had a television set, whether it was antenna, premium cable, or just basic cable as we have (the cable company refers to it as ‘lifeline cable’ sometimes. It’s just channels 2-13), you could still learn along with Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and company.
I’ve gone back and forth but keep feeling like overall, there’s a loss here for anyone that’s not HBO or an HBO subscriber.
PBS keeps the reruns and down-the-line gets some new episodes and doesn’t have to pay for it. Great, but if all these articles are true, stating that two-thirds of children get Sesame Street via a streaming service or app, then that’s just been taken away from them if their families don’t subscribe to HBO.
If your childhood home gets saved from being torn down, but you don’t get to live in it anymore because it’s not in your financial reach, who is it a win for?
Today, Mr Fred Rogers would have been 87 years old.
While the gentle “Won’t you be my neighbor?” has, over the years, sometimes turned into a bit of a sarcastic punchline in pop culture, Mr Rogers himself, and the lessons and values that he presented, left a lasting impact on my life, as no doubt it did countless other lives over the course of multiple generations.
I was about 3 or 4 when I first joined ‘the neighborhood.’ My brother was just born/was a baby, and we lived in a two-family apartment building in an area of our city that, while maybe not that great, was home. I still remember running from one of the apartment to the other when Sesame Street would end, grabbing my sweater and sneakers because I knew what was up next.
And as Mr Rogers walked through that door and greeted us viewers, I sat in the living room of our apartment, putting on and zipping up my little sweater along with him, and tossing my sneaker from one hand to the next. I wanted to be just like that guy, I would think.
As I got older and grew out of the daily routine of my Sesame Street/Mr Rogers TV block, the values that came from them remained, even if I didn’t realize it.
No, I would have to wait until I was a great deal older, and much more introspective about myself and my life before I would see that. But now I do. I realize that while I was watching with a childhood curiosity and thirst for entertainment back then, what I was getting was a reinforcement of values and morals that taught all of us what it meant to be a good person.
It was really special. I knew it then, even if I didn’t know why. And while it took a few decades later and becoming a father myself, I know it again.
Thankfully, those lessons are being taught to new generations today through Fred Rogers’ Company in shows like the animated Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
So thank you, Fred Rogers, for all you did for me and for so many other kids over the years. For teaching us, not our ABCs or 1, 2, 3s, but how to be kind, why to be kind, and how to help.
Despite leaving TV news behind me some months back, I made a brief return to television recently.
I had the absolute pleasure recently of appearing on the mid-morning program, “Mass Appeal” to talk about some of the lessons learned during my first year of fatherhood.
Unfortunately, WordPress does not allow me to embed the video from their site, so I’ll provide you with a direct link instead, should you want to check out the on-air clip:
(UPDATE: I’ve just learned some months later, that this page and video are regrettably no longer online, or at least not at this time)
The experience was nothing short of a delight. First, hosts Ashley and Seth were incredibly nice, welcoming, and utterly professional. They made every guest there that day feel right at home and, this is the thing that really does it, they did so not only pleasantly, but so genuinely as well.
Why is this such a big deal, you may ask? Because, believe me, in the world of television, finding personalities that are genuine and not put on for either the audience or guests in the building can be a rare thing sometimes. These guys were the real deal as were their wonderful crew behind the scenes. I couldn’t believe how many people, resources, and building space was dedicated to this one show. You could see the commitment and it was awesome.
Secondly, my appearance on the show meant a visit to Western Massachusetts, one of my favorite places.
Other guests that day included a chef who owned a food cart and was baking some pie for the holidays, Boy Scouts about the annual popcorn drive, a man who showed how to make inexpensive table settings from something as simple as a necktie, and female veterans who were getting makeovers. Quite an eclectic mix, but boy, what a fun show.
I’ve included a few photos from the morning, as well as the video, if you care to watch. I think it went pretty well, and I was over the moon that they’d like to have me back at some point.