If you mention Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to a group of 20 and 30 somethings, almost all of us can perfectly recall favorite episodes and lessons the great cardiganed one imparted to us in our formative years. For one of my friends, it’s when Koko the gorilla signed “I love you” to Mister Rogers on a visit. For another, it’s the episode where he learned to break dance. A third friend refers to puppet aristocrat Lady Elaine Fairchilde as “baby’s first dowager” because of her pithy one-liners. My most memorable moment with America’s favorite neighbor will forever be when Margaret Hamilton, a.k.a. the one and only true Wicked Witch of the West, came on the show’s Halloween episode and actually dressed in her old Wizard of Oz drag to take Mr. Rogers trick or treating.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood isn’t the only piece of public television programming to make a lasting impression on my generation. We learned the alphabet from Sesame Street, watched Nova in science class, discovered the wonders of the planet with Nature and, if anyone dares say “butterfly in the sky…” to a group of my peers, at least half of us will reply with “I can go twice as high” and come together in a rousing chorus of the Reading Rainbow theme. Public Television hooked us young. Now, as adults, PBS continues to be a major civilizing factor for us in less and less civilized times. Reruns of The French Chef and Julia and Jacques give us a fluency in the language of food and fine dining, The NewsHour offers current events minus commercial breaks, Downton Abbey and other Masterpiece Classics teach us which fork to use at English country houses and every Ken Burns documentary we see makes us at least sound more intelligent on first dates (“Did you see Prohibition? What a fascinating chapter in our nation’s history!”).
Everything you really need to know you can learn on PBS. Here are some of my favorite lessons.
Sesame Street: How To be A Public Television Viewer
Jim Henson’s fabled neighborhood teaches children their letters and numbers (and also a sense of diversity so inclusive no one ever questions the plausibility of having puppets for neighbors) and it’s also the perfect gateway into becoming a life long fan of public broadcasting. The entire spectrum of what PBS has to offer is represented in the microcosm of Sesame Street: you get information, entertainment, and introductions to cultural references (pop culture, classical art, literature, films) all packaged in brightly colored, felt bodies with child-friendly falsettos and googly eyes. For an example of how Sesame Street turns today’s toddlers into tomorrow’s Great Moments at the Met viewers, please see Marilyn Horne’s Aida joke below, which, if you didn’t get as a three year old, you’re likely more fully equipped to appreciate now (if you’re a regular viewer).
Reading Rainbow: How To Appreciate Literature
To put it simply, Reading Rainbow’s celebrity story times are quite possibly the closest some children ever got to having an adult read aloud to them and for that alone it deserved its two decade run. Host and producer LeVar Burton’s themed episodes took the viewers out into the real world (remember the famed crossover where he brought us on set at his other gig Star Trek: The Next Generation?), while his book reviews got us excited to go to the library and discover these stories for ourselves (“but don’t take my word for it”). Below, please enjoy a little celebrity story time with Eartha Kitt as she asks Is This A House For Hermit Crab? And by the way, did you hear about RR’s second life now as an app?
The Cosmos: How to Understand the Fabric of the Universe
Astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author Carl Sagan blew our collective consciousnesses with his thirteen part television series for PBS back in 1980 and I’m still not sure we’ve recovered. Explaining everything from the Cosmic Calender to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, Sagan discussed big scientific concepts with his audience in a way that was balanced and simple without speaking down to laymen. Also, remember the intergalactic special effects where Carl would walk through models and float through the swirls of the universe? Watch Sagan explain the 4th dimension from his comforting professor’s desk below.
Julia Child: How to Appreciate the Art of Food
There have been many chefs on the airwaves at PBS over the years, but, for us, the favorite will always be the French Chef herself Julia Child. Child was already well into middle age when she premiered on public television in 1963 and is exactly the kind of quirky, clever personality PBS has cultivated since its inception. Child taught us how to do everything from drying lettuce to de-boning a duck, but her greatest contribution to the minds of Americans was an appreciation for slow food, having a relationship with your meals and a feeling of empowerment in the sometimes scary kitchen. Below, meet Madam Child and her friends “the chicken sisters.”
Tales of the City: How to Be Liberated
Not many people remember that Armistead Maupin’s famous San Francisco Tales were originally adapted for television by PBS in the 1990s before a conservative backlash to the content (pot smoking and displays of homosexuality specifically) forced the adaptations of the sequels to move to cable network Showtime. For true Barbaryphiles, nothing beats the original series, co-produced by PBS and England’s Channel 4. As expert a slice of San Francisco life as the original stories themselves, the televised version of Tales not only featured the talents of the incredible Olympia Dukakis and a new actress named Laura Liney, but they also provided a glimpse into a world that most people still had not been introduced to: that of the happy, integrated gay man. Below, a lesson in liberation from happy, integrated gay man Michael Tolliver and his transsexual land lady, Mrs. Madrigal.
Downton Abbey: How to Improve Your Quality of Life All Around Through Wit
How could any discussion of what PBS has to teach us not include Downton Abbey? Yes, we may have our grumbles with character departures and convenient inheritances, but overall it’s rather improved our quality of life all around. What other show makes us care about the subtleties of table precedent and observing the anthropological maze of class distinctions in Edwardian England and makes us enjoy doing it? Also, what other show could make us identify with an elitist dowager countess who’s unfamiliarity with the concept of weekends and biting wit has endeared her to us across class divides and an entire continent? Below, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Violet gives us a master class in the art of the clever remark.