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Of Mr. Rogers and American Idol 

Which is in the Land of Make-Believe?

I grew up watching two programs on television: Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and The Guiding Light . Fortunately, it was from Mr. Rogers that I derived most of the intellectual and moral principles I've based my life around, although it was quite some time before I realized that not everybody is born with an identical sibling from whom you're separated at birth but who inevitably turns out evil and wants to steal your identity. I also had a difficult time understanding the concept of death; I remember being devastated three years after my grandfather's funeral when I finally understood that he wouldn't return from being away all that time on an island in the South Pacific.

All kidding aside, it was Mr. Rogers who taught me about the Land of Make-Believe, not to mention the responsibility of caring for pet fish. Though I didn't know it at the time, he taught me about being a good neighbor, a concept that is remarkably out of fashion at present. But the most amazing thing of all about Mr. Rogers was that he liked us all "just the way we were."

People used to say this all the time when I was a kid, and they still say it to this day. Teachers, family members, people at church, plenty of people say that they like someone just the way he or she is. What they mean is that they like the person just the way he or she is -- as long as he or she is thin, and sweet, and obedient, and happy, and godly, and clean, and well-dressed, and smart, and compassionate. When Mr. Rogers said it, though, he actually meant it.

From all accounts, Fred Rogers was not a character invented for a children's program; he was that guy who came home and switched into a sweater and comfy shoes. He was neighborly. He did love his fish. And he liked all of us just the way we were.

One of the reasons he got into children's television was because he wanted TV to be a positive influence on society. Rather than sitting around hoping for the best, he tried to make it happen. I hope he wasn't too saddened at the end of his life to realize that Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was a sweet, cuddly bunny rabbit in a television forest full of big, ugly predators.

The contrast is most evident in one of the biggest TV franchises of the past two years: American Idol. I tried last year to preserve some semblance of dignity and avoid the whole fad. Perhaps if there had only been one American Idol I might have managed to stay out of it, but as American Idol number two cranked up this year, I found myself enthralled from the very first audition show. These fools actually think they can sing! It takes a cranky foreigner to tell them the sad truth that their mommas have been lying to them for years.

It gets sadder still. The ones who do make it scramble to take the advice of the three judges, hoping to make it further in the competition. UNC-Charlotte student Clay Aiken went to his audition sounding like a Broadway star and looking like vice-president of the audio-visual club. By the time he hit the final 32, however, he had shed his classically geeky look in favor of a hipper hairstyle and groovier duds. Why? Because the judges didn't like his image and didn't think America would go for it, either.

I get the message from American Idol loud and clear: Being yourself will get you nowhere. Being what people want you to be, that's the key to victory. The judges are constantly saying, "Put something of yourself into that song!" But they don't mean it. They mean, "Act the way we told you to or you'll never be popular."

I won't lie to you, though. I don't sit there watching the show and thinking, "Wow, what losers, trying to suck up to the American public." I think, "Oh my gosh, that guy is so cute" or "That outfit is totally wrong for him." I've forgotten my roots back in the 'hood.

Television encourages us to judge people based on an image, a public persona, which is largely based on looks. Shows like American Idol remind me of high school. The contestants are all trying to convince the popular kids (i.e., Simon Cowell) that they should be included in the group.

Yet most of the contestants say their greatest accomplishment in life so far is appearing on American Idol. They have begged for the privilege of groveling in front of the judges, a live studio audience and millions of American viewers.

Frankly, we could all use a few minutes back with Mr. Rogers and his gang. Unfortunately, we will only be able to spend time with him in reruns now that he's exploring Hamlet's "undiscovered country." Unless, of course, it turns out that it was really his twin brother who died and he is accidentally stuck on an island in the South Pacific.

Nah. That kind of thing only happens on bad TV.

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