Arnold is a sensitive young man. His parents have died, and he is now in the custody of his grandparents; the feisty, old fashioned Phil and the senile Gertrude. They own a boarding house filled with, let’s say ‘colorful,’ people.
Arnold and a large cast of characters which include boarders, classmates, and neighbors, engage in everyday adventures that are generally grounded in reality. I remember this was something of a new trend at the time. When I was very young, cartoons always had fantastical elements; people with magic powers, or whatever. But in the mid-nineties, cartoons started to more closely reflect the lives of their audience (Doug, Pepper Ann). Episodes focus on issues that face children in real life, like a spelling bee, heatwaves, bullies, etc. There’s even an episode in which Arnold is mugged.
Arnold is an interesting lead for a children’s animated series. He’s extremely nondescript. Not particularly smart, nice, or talented; he seems to have a cloud of moroseness hanging over him at all times. He’s downtrodden and has a monotonous speech pattern. The only thing that really sets him apart is his acute sense of empathy. Several episodes are devoted to Arnold’s attempts to make others happier than he is himself (kind of like the premise of Amelie). He also has the ability to see past the surface of the strange denizens of the neighborhood, beneath the persona that scares other kids, to the hurt person who has simply put up a wall to protect themselves against the world.
The kids in the series are relatively realistic. The tend to have exaggerated personalities, but they have multiple levels, flaws, and strengths. Helga Pataki, for instance, is Arnold’s main antagonist, openly bullying him and referring to him as ‘football head.’ But this bullying hides her secret love for him. Further, Helga’s outward confidence belies her severe lack of self-esteem, which comes from her parent’s blatant favoritism of her sister and her belief that she is not as pretty as other girls.
There’s a certain unvarnished reality to the series. The kids are not perfect, they are shallow and mean to each other (as time goes on, there seems to be a greater and greater push from over-protective parents to have children’s shows present only an idealized world where every kids is well-behaved and kind). The series takes place in a lower class neighborhood. Arnold has to work in the boarding house, their local aquarium is cheap and vandalized, and the kids have to clean out a vacant lot to make a baseball field. But the series is not depressing; regardless of the situation, the kids are still kids, and they make do with what they have.
Hey Arnold! has held up well over the years. Though not as funny as I remember it, its foundation in reality has allowed it to retain a nostalgia factor. The kids in the show are familiar to anyone who remembers childhood, making the show relatable to people of any age.
The DVDs from Shout Factory contain 20 episodes across four discs. Video and audio are fine, but there are no extras.