Way back in March, after Nick announced it was bringing back some of its '90s shows, reports surfaced that Hey Arnold! would be coming back, too -- but with new episodes. While I was happy to hear the news -- I am to this day a huge Hey Arnold! fan -- I was almost relieved to hear it wasn't true. (If you read the article, it seems the source was a high school newspaper.) The thing is, I'd rather Nick just bring back old Hey Arnold! episodes. But nothing has been said by Nick about it since. I'm thrilled that Kenan & Kel and The Amanda Show are getting a reprise -- but Arnold deserves one just as much. Here are the five reasons I think it's a really, really good show; why it holds up -- and why Nick should bring it back. (In the mean time, Season One just came out on DVD if you get desperate.)
As my brother so plainly put it, Arnold was such a great character because "he had swag." I'd try to put it more... poetically, but it's just the truth. After so many neurotic, loud, crazy cartoon characters on TV -- SpongeBob, I'm looking at you -- Arnold was a breath of fresh air. He was always unruffled. Most episodes revolved around him helping people out or hanging with his friends in the neighborhood. He always wore the same flannel shirt and baseball cap, which highlighted exactly what people made fun of him for -- his football headed-ness. He liked jazz music and knew how to play the harmonica. Still don't think he's cool? His room was a converted attic -- meaning his window was also a door to the roof of his building. Then there was the remote control that with one click revealed his huge stereo system and hideaway couch. It was every adolescent's dream. And to get serious for a second -- Arnold had depth; he didn't have a perfect life. His parents left him after his first birthday, which gave the series a darker tone -- he lived with his grandparents at the boarding house they owned. Because of that, it was clear he largely took care of himself and found things out on his own. Still, he kept this optimistic, idealistic outlook no matter what. You couldn't help but like him.
Oh, Helga. I so loved Helga. The first and best thing about Helga was that her character turned the boy-crushes-on-girl story completely on its head. Usually with cartoons in the '90s you saw boys fawning over girls -- Doug and Patti, for example -- but Helga was full-on obsessed with Arnold, to the point of objectifying him. And the nice thing was she wasn't some girly girl-type that would help explain away her obsession -- she was, in fact, a tomboy. (Her unibrow was hard to ignore.) She played sports with the boys, she was aggressive, tough, bossy -- and as we found out later on in the series, extremely smart. And mirroring how many boys act when they have crushes on girls -- Helga was mean to Arnold instead of just telling him how she felt. Not only did she come up with the nickname "football head," she had a picture of Arnold she would talk to, saying, "How I love you... and yet I hate you." Even Helga had a sense of humor about Helga. Her crush actually went deeper than her dramatics, though -- she talked to the school psychiatrist about it and it was revealed that her poor relationship with her family was leading to her need for love from someone, and that someone happened to be Arnold. (Yep. All of this on a kid's show.)
The Collection of Strange Characters
Other than Arnold and Helga, the entire show was made up of the strangest characters imaginable. And it wasn't really a meant-to-be-funny strange, it was an it's-not-clear-why-they-were-even-there strange. Looking back, it feels like Hey Arnold! had a mature sense of humor in that way, too -- random things will happen on Family Guy now that make us laugh, but those random happenings were taking place on Hey Arnold! -- again, a kids show -- a while ago. There was Pigeon Man, who preferred being around pigeons to people, Stoop Kid, a kid who wouldn't leave his stoop, all of the international families that lived at the boarding house, Arnold's pet pig Abner, Brainy, who stalked Helga for no given reason, and Eugene, a poor kid with bad luck who was really good at clog dancing. Like I said -- they're not uplifting, laugh-out-loud funny -- it was almost twisted funny. Who were those people, and why were they there -- besides being useful for one or two episodes? We don't know -- but they were fixtures of the neighborhood, and Arnold (in his way) looked after all of them. Which brings us to...
Arnold's family, like I mentioned, was unlike a lot of classic cartoon families -- he lived with his grandparents in a boarding house. But the place he grew up in wasn't like any other cartoon setting either -- Arnold lived in a city. Hillwood looked much like parts of Brooklyn does today -- brownstones, subway stops, small schools and so on. Arnold's block was a safe area for kids, but other than that, growing up in Hillwood was pretty limiting. It was made clear that Arnold and his neighborhood friends didn't have much money, and (obviously) didn't have manicured suburban lawns to frolic in, so they had to get tough and get creative when they wanted to find things to do. That's why there were so many of the aforementioned random characters. Arnold and his friends were okay with strange people -- they were entertaining; and they were kind of all Hillwood had. But I also think that's why Arnold and his friends were so imaginative. I grew up in a city and Hey Arnold! was a perfect representation of that life -- your friends live in the apartment next to yours, but you've all got to find things to do and people to meet, otherwise you'll have to play kickball all day every day. (Kickball all day is not as fun as it sounds.)
The Bright Side
One of the main "lessons" of Hey Arnold!, if you will, was that despite dark moments, things could always be worse. You just had to look at the bright side. Arnold's family always reminded him how lucky he was -- he was in the habit of realizing how good he had it. In the movie, a character asked Arnold, "Why do you always have to look on the bright side?" He responded, "Somebody has to." It's a lesson for us all, no matter how clichéd. Let's recap: Arnold, a fourth grader, lived in a boarding house in a city with his grandparents because his real parents abandoned him, and he could still see the bright side of things. Yes, yes, he's just a cartoon. But why not take note?