A 2016 re-watching of “Hey Arnold!”
For those with culturally barren childhoods, “Hey Arnold!” is the animated chronicle of a nine-year-old boy with a football-shaped head living in a boarding house with his grandparents and a diverse cast of tenants (including a Vietnamese country singer and a lazy, illiterate Eastern European moocher—questionable choices perhaps). Each episode features two ten-minute stories, typically involving conflict resolution or lesson-learning. The geographically ambiguous setting bears a striking resemblance to Brooklyn, though creator Craig Bartlett claims to have been inspired mainly by the city of Portland, where he attended art school, as well as his hometown of Seattle.
In many ways, the show was revolutionary for bringing more mature issues like crime, death, and socioeconomic tensions to a young Nickelodeon audience. It was a time of innocence and enlightenment. It was a time before “iCarly”. “Hey Arnold!” was an integral part of my youth, so I re-watched and broke down episode 13 from season five: “Ghost Bride/Gerald vs. Jamie O.”
Starting with the up-tempo jazz theme music and quick cuts of unsupervised children trolling around the city at night, the show’s funky aesthetic pervades from the outset. A few things are more unsettling to me now than when I watched this title sequence on an 18-inch Quasar screen at my kitchen table as a youngin.
One, what is Harold doing skulking around alleys and knocking over trash cans? Two, if I, today, saw a line of kids stomping in unison stretching from one sidewalk to the other, I’d be terrified. The opening credits close with a “West Side Story”-evoking pseudo-confrontation between the girls and the boys, foreshadowing a program rife with templates for heteronormative gender dynamics.
The first story of the episode revolves around the tale of a ghost bride whose husband left her at the altar for her sister. Legend has it the scorned ex-fiancé slaughtered the newlyweds before throwing herself out the window, dooming herself to an eternity of haunting the cemetery. Hella grim, I know. Curly, the creepy, four-eyed egomaniac was desperate to tell the story of the ghost bride, but he’s a punk and laughs like an insane person. So, Gerald, the pre-teen with a two-foot high-top fade and the voice of a professional Newport taste-tester, told it.
The gang makes plans to stake out the graveyard in hopes of spotting the ghost, but not before insinuating that Helga couldn’t come because she was a girl, and therefore too easily scared. Harold says this literally thirty seconds after admitting that he was too scared to come, but even more afraid of being judged as a “chicken.” Ah, the fragility of masculinity. I swear, they should just give every baby boy a bundle of bubble wrap at their bris.
The friends all gather at the cemetery at sundown, save for Curly and Helga, who concoct the same revenge plan after being scorned by the group: dress up as the ghost bride and make haunted sounds. Helga gets spooked immediately by Curly’s version and gives hers up, leaving the rest to focus their reverse lesson-teaching on the bespectacled cretin by sealing him in the mausoleum that only locks from the inside. The end.
Storyline numero dos centers on Gerald and his domineering older brother Jamie O. From the first scenes, Jamie O.’s core hobby seems to be enforcing Manifest Destiny on all of Gerald’s shit, including a “Pop Daddy” t-shirt, the sleeves of which he rips off in true aggro-bro form. When a junior high school girl named Chloe comes into the picture, Gerald launches into a smooth-guy routine that would charm the Lisa Frank socks off any pre-teen, but the petite femme fatale soon reveals that she’s just using our boy to get to his older brother.
Nobody really learned anything this time around, huh?
Pitting the tall-haired siblings against one another, Chloe forces situations that result in Jamie O. appearing to hit on her. This riles Gerald up enough to make a pitiful attempt at fighting his elder, humiliating the triflin’-ass Chloe into ditching them both. As an unintended consequence, Gerald and Jamie O. finally had about twenty seconds of heartfelt dialogue. Psych! Jamie O.’s back to his old tricks by the end of the episode. Nobody really learned anything this time around, huh? Well, I suppose there are all kinds of days to have when you’re the close associate of a kid with a football-shaped head.