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I grew up in the ’90s, and the TV channel Nickelodeon was what I usually watched. The hit show Rugrats was king, but in the evening, they altered what could be called fluff cartoons into media that had a bit more depth and characterization. Hey, Arnold was one such show, where characters from all walks of life lived in a boarding house and “Football Head” Arnold was the main character that went to elementary school while living with his grandparents. Characterization is critical in this show, and even to this day, it stands at the top as one of the most in-depth children’s tv shows in my book.
The animated series doesn’t just focus on Arnold’s perspective; his friends are also the highlight of the cartoon and have entire episodes devoted to them. These kids don’t have it easy all the time, though. Arnold himself is left without both of his parents and is raised by his grandparents. Helga is a young girl with anger issues stemming from hectic home life. One episode focuses on agoraphobia, where a young child is afraid to leave his stoop (stairs). Hey, Arnold showcases the complexity of young kids, with colorful animation and humor.
One of the most prominent themes expressed in Hey Arnold is representing a non-traditional family structure. For one reason or another, someone may not have a mother or father in the picture. Or live in a house with a white picket fence. Sometimes you’re living in a boarding house with people from all walks of life. Those who aren’t blood-related can still be your family. It’s crucial to represent non-traditional structures, so kids aren’t internalizing negative feelings and understand that every family is unique, different, and special.
Helga, a female character that has a crush on Arnold, comes from turbulent home life. Her father is busy selling beepers (Yes, even after the advent of cell phones!). Helga’s mother is not very attentive and often forgets to pack her lunch for the day. She also has an older sister, Olga, who, from outward appearances, seems to have a perfect life. The biggest take away from the story segments featuring this character is a need for attention. She acts out and is mean to Arnold, precisely because she doesn’t know how to manage her emotions healthily. This focal point encapsulates how important it is for parental figures to bond and give that emotional support to their children, regardless of how busy they become. Helga’s character does have growth, and even her Mom goes through a change for the better in the show.
Hey, Arnold ended it’s syndicated run in 2004. A lot of things were left open-ended. What happened to Arnold’s parents? A made for TV film released in 2017 focuses on Arnold’s trip to search for answers. I won’t spoil anything, but if you’ve seen this show when you were younger, it does have a satisfying conclusion. It was nice to see all the characters again, and the studio made sure to respect the history of the show and even hired the same voice actors to reprise character roles.
This show means a lot to me, personally. I’m adopted, and my family structure wasn’t what I would call traditional. I have an older brother and sister who are also adopted. My home was filled with love; that’s what mattered above all else. No one has a picture-perfect family, and that’s okay. Hey, Arnold encapsulates a young kid living in the city with his friends, and that’s relatable for all demographics. Even now, Hey, Arnold provides a contemporary depiction of what it means to be a kid and reveals all of the different shapes to differing family units. It’s worth a watch.