The Neighborhood of Make-Believe Prepares for War

Friday A/V Club: Mister Rogers gets grim.



For a week in 1983, life took a dark turn in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Over the course of five episodes of Mister Rogers, a mixture of miscommunication and anxiety convinced King Friday that another neighborhood nearby was stockpiling weapons. The king then ordered a major arms buildup himself, diverting money from the education budget and issuing an order to "conscript everyone in the neighborhood to help put the bombs together." Some of the other characters were willing to go along with this. ("King Friday wouldn't have us doing anything that was going to hurt anybody. He's always trying to keep people safe!" said X the Owl. "We shouldn't call them 'bombs,' though. We should call them 'surprise treats' or something like that."). But the orders did prompt some dissent from Lady Elaine Fairchilde, here as always the puppet most likely to call bullshit on King Friday. The tensions kept ramping up, with gas masks and air raid drills, until Lady Elaine and Lady Aberlin discerned that the other neighborhood had actually been building a bridge, not bombs.

This comment on the arms race aired the same month as The Day After, a TV movie about a nuclear war. There was a big wave of worry about whether that film was too scary for children to see, and there were rumors that the Mister Rogers storyline was intended as an alternative to The Day After for young audiences. In fact it had been conceived separately and the timing was a coincidence.

Eventually the episodes were withdrawn from rotation. But this month the first two installments of the sequence turned up on YouTube, leading to what may be my all-time favorite Daily Beast headline:

Daily Beast

The article below that headline concedes that it is unlikely these were posted to protest the president's proposed arms buildup. Though I must admit I kind of like the idea that someone is trying to communicate with the White House by quietly adding old episodes of children's television to YouTube.

Anyway. After word spread that these were online, the copyright cadres swung into action and YouTube took them down. (Which is odd, since plenty of other old Mister Rogers episodes are on the site.) Someone else has reposted them, and I'm embedding that video below; the two Neighborhood of Make-Believe sequences start at the 16:19 and 42:09 marks. Watch 'em while you can:

I can't show you parts three through five, but you can read summaries of them here, here, and here. Incidentally, the episodes embedded above also include some lessons about banks and mints. These spill into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe story when King Friday gets his treasurer Mr. Newmoney on the phone and inquires about how much cash is available for war production.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)