Nickelodeon’s “Hey Arnold!” Series is Good Television

Note: This article is by a guest critic. Jimmy Akin

"Hey Arnold!" is a cartoon produced for the children’s network Nickelodeon by the Snee-Oosh animation house. Unlike most cartoons being produced today, it is both low-key and entertaining. Most cartoons today strive to be entertaining by throwing mile-a-minute plots, dialogue, animation, and jokes at the audience ("Animaniacs" is the exemplar of this type).

Cartoons that take the other tack strive to be low-key, PBS’s Arthur being their exemplar. The trouble is, such cartoons tend to be boring. In an effort to be kid-friendly and safe, they lose all their storytelling energy and humor.

"Hey Arnold!" — the television series — is different. It manages to keep its low-key, kid-friendly tone while still turning in episodes that are entertaining and even witty.

The show’s main character is Arnold (no last name), a fourth-grader who is the stable center of his neighborhood. The program features an ensemble cast, with many episodes focusing more on the quirky members of Arnold’s neighborhood than on Arnold himself.

He is the lens through which we learn about the intriguing characters that populate his world — his sometimes wise, sometimes disoriented grandpa, his crazy-and-loving-it grandma, the misfits who live in his grandparents’ boarding house, the kids at his school, and the other neighborhood regulars. The names by which some of them are known — "Chocolate Boy," "Monkeyman," "Stoop Kid" — are evocative of the type of human tapestry that surrounds Arnold.

Of particular note is the series main supporting character, Helga G. Pataki, a schoolgirl bully who delights in torturing Arnold, mocking him, tripping him up, and insulting him with nicknames such as "Football Head," a reference to a conceit of the series’ animation design: Arnold’s head is literally shaped like a football.

But Helga has a secret: She likes Arnold. In fact, not only does she like him, she is beyond even "like liking" him. She is head over heels in love with him — obsessively so. She builds hidden shrines to him. She writes volumes of love poetry to him. She wears a heart-shaped locket with his picture around her neck and rhapsodizes his virtues while talking to it.

But she can never admit this to Arnold, and so hides it behind a thick mask of hostility.

This suggests the kind of psychological complexity found in the show. The show is far more about psychology and the human condition than most cartoons. The characters we meet throughout the course of the series are psychologically interesting. They’re not quite right. They’re victims of original sin, and so they’re quirky. Like us.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about "Hey Arnold!" is the stylized, animated look it provides at the human condition, combining both whimsy and realism in a way quite unlike anything else on television.

The reason Arnold is the intersection point of so many people’s lives is because he himself is so psychologically well-balanced. He’s like Andy Griffith on "The Andy Griffith Show." He’s the calm eye of the hurricane in a neighborhood full of crazies. And, like Andy Griffith, he’s a problem-solver. He helps out those around him as they struggle with their own (amusing) shortcomings.

Arnold is unlike Andy Griffith in three important respects. First, whereas Andy tended to help people covertly, by humorously maneuvering them into the solutions to their problems, Arnold is direct: People ask his advice, he gives it, and they work together to put it into practice. Often they don’t get it right the first time and have to try something else.

Second, whereas Andy Griffith was a down home, North Carolina good-ol’ boy, Arnold is a Big City kid. The ethos of the show is inner-city. Naturally, the series is vague about exactly which city Arnold lives in. Much of the time you would think that it is New York City (there are certainly enough characters around with New York accents), but clues in the series make it clear that it is really a cartoon version of Seattle.

Third, Arnold isn’t an adult. He’s a kid. And although he’s wise for his years, he’s still a kid and is sometimes prone to juvenile behavior. Nevertheless, he’s an exceptionally good kid. He’s psychologically balanced, respectful of adults, good in school, insightful, polite, humble, and well-spoken. He has an active imagination but is also down to earth; he likes science and sports. There’s nothing not to like about him! If he existed in the real world, parents would be pleased as punch to have Arnold as their child. He has "adult success story" written all over him.

Parents in the TV audience can also rest assured: If your child has Arnold as a role model, he’s on a very good (in fact, near-perfect) course.

Animation, By Jimmy Akin, Family