Friday, August 26, 2011

SMCS Companion Piece #18: Hey Arnold!

This past weekend on the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show we watched Hey Arnold!

As I’m sure most of us are aware Nickelodeon was once the place to watch cool and unique cartoons on basic cable.  Nicktoons, as they were and probably still are called, featured a wide variety of comedy shows that included the bizarre to the mundane…though mostly it was the bizarre.  The originals ones of course were Doug, Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy.  They were all pretty darn popular so it was inevitable that Nickelodeon would have to produce more shows.  In 1996, five years after the original Nicktoons were aired, Hey Arnold! premiered.  Despite its tendency to get a bit wacky, especially with gadgets and technology, Hey Arnold! was probably the most sane and down to earth animated show the channel had ever produced (And looking at the list of Nicktoons I’m not sure they’ve produced many sane cartoons since then either).

Arnold was originally a comic book character that was created in 1986 and has appeared in such publications as Simpsons Illustrated.   He was created by Craig Bartlett who pitched his character as a cartoons series to Nickelodeon in 1993 but the series wouldn’t air properly until 1996.  The show was a hit and lasted until 2004 although by then episodes had been extremely sporadic as the network had pretty much stopped giving a shit about the show or its fans by this point (SpongeBob Squarepants was in full force by then. Coincidence or something…sinister?).  Which is weird because supposedly they were gearing up for this series to be a giant franchise with spin-off shows and movies.  But that didn’t happen.  And, all things considered, Hey Arnold!, was one of the best cartoons Nickelodeon ever produced.  So how is it that the dream came crashing down.

More on Hey Arnold! after the jump.

He's wearing an undershirt, not a kilt.  Don't be stupid
The premise of Hey Arnold! wasn’t as absurd as most of the other cartoons floating around on Nick, but it wasn’t particularly realistic either.  It’s a simple Slice of Life series that follows fourth grader Arnold and his friends and family as they all live in a positively urban area, which is a surprisingly rare setting for a kid’s show.  The show was mostly pretty tame but it possessed a surreal streak that came from two things: 1) the fact that the city they lived in was some sort of bizarre idealist’s version of an urban wasteland where there’s no racial boundaries, a fairly low crime rate, and the homeless population seemed to be limited to a dude who raises birds and a loud mouthed asshole kid who’s too afraid to leave his stoop. 2) About 50 to 60% of everyone Arnold knows is pretty damn crazy, be they classmates or the folks at his grandparent’s boarding house…or even his grandparents themselves.  Arnold, possessing an unreasonable amount of clarity and being a shockingly nice guy in general, is pretty much the voice of reason for the vast majority of the more eccentric cast members.

While the cast is pretty huge, especially when you include one-shot characters, the three principle cast members are Arnold, his best friend Gerald Johansson who knows, and gladly tells, a large amount of urban legends that often turn out to be the beginning of that episodes adventure, and Helga G. Pataki, a school bully who treats Arnold with disdain but is secretly in love with him.  In fact Helga is easily the most interesting character in the entire show as she ended up having more character development than anyone else on the cast.  Though she acts cruel and mean and also displays Gollum-levels of psychosis (“Hmph. Arnold.   How I despise him.  And yet…I love him!”) it’s revealed that her horrible home life is mostly to blame and despite it all shows she signs of high intelligence, cleverness, and a tendency to do the right thing in the end, even if she spent nearly the entire episode doing the wrong thing.  Now that I think about it Helga is one of my favorite cartoon characters of all time.

Remember parents: treat your kids nice or they'll become insane/unibrowed
The writing in general tended to be on the more sophisticated side of things despite it being pretty silly most of the time.  Arnold, and his friends, tended to have real serious problems, sometimes tear jerkingly so, and while a real effort was put into making everything alright things were sometimes bittersweet at best.  It possesses a lot of what I liked about Recess but tended to tackle storylines in a more somber way more often.  It’s a balance that worked well for most of the series.

There’s two problems I had with the show that keeps it from being one of my most beloved nostalgic cartoons.  The first is a bit nitpicky but it’s the fact that the show couldn’t keep a voice actor for Arnold at all as the character had, including the pilot, five different dudes playing him.   As I remember it the original cast of Hey Arnold! and his classmate were actually voiced by kids and Nickelodeon made a huge deal about this at the time.  But the problem with this is that some of the actors’ voice changed and were deemed no longer suitable for the character they portrayed.   Most characters stayed mostly the same and simply sounded more mature and frankly gave better performances.  Gerald, voiced by Jamil Walker Smith during the show’s entire run, had the voice change thing actually written into the show.   However Arnold wasn’t so lucky.   I consider Toran Caudell, season one voice actor, to be Arnold’s classic voice but sadly he was replaced in season two presumably because of unplanned puberty which sucks.  Caudell later voiced the bully Wolfgang on the show and more importantly King Bob on Recess.

Three more actors would play Arnold probably due to the same reason and all of them sounded weird.   It was hard to get used to any of them because just as you start to warm up to the new guy as being a suitable replacement for Caudell this guy too would be replaced. I was never really able to connect with the character because of this, hence no caption of Arnold suggesting we get milkshakes.

The other, more annoying problem was a decline in quality in the show following the first, and ultimately only, film.  As I understand it Nickelodeon was hoping to produce a second film which would have been the proper ending of the series where Arnold went to find his missing parents and the relationship between himself and Helga would have been mostly resolved.  Also a spin-off TV show for MTV was supposed to be produced; a show called "The Patakis" starring a presumably older Helga who is actually dating her football-headed nemesis.  That would have been fantastic!  Unfortunately series creator Craig Bartlett left the show following various issues involving Hey Arnold!: The Movie and disputes over the second, unproduced film.  As a result the final seasons were done without its creator and the level of writing greatly decreased to the point where a lot of what was good about the earlier seasons was lost and all notions of spin-offs were abandoned. Which sucks because I would have watched the shit out of a show starring Helga.  Hell, I still would (GET ON IT, MTV).   What episodes of Hey Arnold! were left were shown with low frequency over the next few years.

Arnold and his vicious gang of street hooligans
Hey Arnold! was a really good show that doesn’t really have the historic relevance as a lot of its brethren but probably would have if parties had come to an agreement that didn’t result in chasing away the architect of the cartoon.   It’s not a perfect show but I have a lot of fond memories of it.  In fact if I recall the show is on Netflix as of this writing.  Perhaps this would be a worthy show to give a full review?

For more on Hey Arnold! click here.  For the Saturday Morning Show blog and podcast click here and here.

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