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There are a lot of Nickelodeon cartoons that try to speak to the experience of kids. Rugrats explores the imagination of infants, Doug taps into the anxieties of the tween, but Hey Arnold! is the only show in the Nicktoons lineup that really digs into not only the internal struggles of kids, but also into the very real communities they live in.
Hey Arnold! ran from 1996 through 2004. There were 100 episodes in total and, as of 2017, two movies. The show is set in the fictional town of Hillwood, but the DNA of that fake locale comes from real places like Seattle, Portland, and, most obvious to this NYC resident, Brooklyn.
Arnold is raised not by his parents, but by his grandparents. And he doesn't live in a typical, suburban cartoon home, he lives in a boarding house. Many of Arnold's friends live in similarly complex and atypical living situations, so the cast of Hey Arnold! is one always dealing with a sense of displacement and melancholy.
Arnold's parents are, through most of the show, missing. Their actual story isn't dealt with in greater detail until the movies. And since Arnold is our entry point, what we get is a focus on characters, both child and adult alike, who don't quite have a secure sense of belonging.
Arnold's only immediate, visceral attachment to his birth parents is his hat. Helga, the girl who loves/loathes Arnold, feels alienated from her family because she can't compare with her older sister, Olga. The boarders at Arnold's house are gamblers, struggling blue color workers, and immigrants.
And then there's Stoop Kid. Ah, Stoop Kid: the kid who's too afraid to leave his stoop. Has ever there been more of a 2019 mood?
The thing about Hey Arnold! is that it's very sad. The characters who inhabit its world each suffer from an impermeable loneliness that isn't cured by each other's company, but is made more bearable by it. And the city of Hillwood is filled with a rich history of myths, legends, and abandoned buildings who house the ghosts of what once was and may never be again.
Comedian and writer, Julia Claire, and I sat down on today's episode of Every Day Animation to talk about Arnold, Gerald, Helga, and all the other residents of Hillwood. We talked about Arnold's hat and the objects in our youth we clung to for comfort, we talked about Helga and the embarrassment that comes of discovering love for the first time. But mostly we just talked about what a great show Hey Arnold! is.
If you're watching along with us, tomorrow is going to be a real joy. The podcast will be joined by Clarkisha Kent and she'll be talking about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, easily one of (if not the) most popular animated series of the last decade. So do a little cartoon alchemy (the whole series is on Netflix) and we'll see you back here tomorrow.