‘Mister Rogers’ special offers a lot to like

The timing seems right to celebrate “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” not only because it’s the show’s 50th anniversary, but thanks to its symbolic place as one of those programs PBS — a service perpetually under siege, but certainly more so now — has uniquely championed. Enter “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like,” an incredibly warm, at times unexpectedly moving trip down memory lane.

For those who missed the “Mister Rogers” phenomenon, the special serves as an introduction to what made the show resonate with young viewers. People who grew up regularly visiting Fred Rogers’ neighborhood will doubtless be propelled back to their childhoods, aided by a roster of celebrities who watch old episodes and marvel at how the host approached them, speaking directly to his audience through the TV.

That list includes Sarah Silverman, who actually tears up at one point, John Lithgow and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is shown performing — twice — with his son Nicholas, first when the lad is just a child, later in his teens.

As “It’s You I Like” makes clear, Rogers instinctively knew how to present difficult topics for children in a gentle yet straightforward manner, addressing issues like death, physical disabilities (a particularly wonderful clip involves a young boy discussing the latter) and dealing with a new sibling. The hour also focuses on Rogers’ contributions to arts appreciation, introducing his young viewers to jazz and classical music.

Michael Keaton, who actually worked on the program in the 1970s, hosts the hour, providing his own reminiscence with a personal touch — joined in that regard with recurring players and Rogers’ widow, Joanne.

What really emerges, though, from a mile-high perspective, is what Rogers (who died in 2003) and preschool-aimed PBS shows like “Sesame Street” have represented in the larger media ecosystem. It’s hard to imagine what the pitch for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” would have sounded like had it been peddled to a commercial network, back in an era of Saturday-morning cartoons governed by toy ads.

Rogers’ meticulously assembled series thus embodied public-service television of the highest order, fulfilling public broadcasting’s mandate to serve constituencies that were overlooked — and even in this age of abundance, frequently still are — by TV’s emphasis on reaching young-adult demographics.

From that perspective, there was indeed a lot to like, then and now, about “Mister Rogers.”

“Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like” will air March 6 on PBS stations.