A few days ago, I was walking with an old friend through New York’s East Village. My friend suggested we stop somewhere for a midnight snack: a 24-hour pierogi joint on Second Avenue famous for its frescoes and inebriated clientele. He asked if I’d heard of it.
Of course, I told him. I grew up here. I’d been going to that particular restaurant for late-night pierogis since I was 13.
He looked at me with horror. “Your parents let you go alone to Veselka when you were 13?”
At times like these, I’m reminded just how strange it is to be a city kid: that half-feral being who, through a mix of parental trust and resignation, wanders through an ostensibly dissolute city with utter naiveté. Sure, I’d been to Veselka at 2 or 3 in the morning, or went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show live cast midnight showing by myself shortly after my 13th birthday, but it had never occurred to me that, say, half the people next to me at the bar, or in the movie theatre, or on a late-night walk were drunk, or high. They were just, well, normal. And I was normal, too.
It is that feeling that Hey Arnold, the most urbane of the ’90s Nickelodeon animated children’s sitcoms, captured so well — and is set to recapture with a long-awaited movie sequel, Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie, due in late November.
Unlike other suburban-set shows of the era — Rugrats, say, or Doug — Hey Arnold’s preternaturally mature children of P.S. 113, a middle school in the fictitious city of Hillwood (which may or not be located on the West Coast, according to the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, but which is, Bartlett says, based in part on his time in Brooklyn), didn’t necessarily come from traditional nuclear families. The titular Arnold’s naturalist parents vanished somewhere in the Amazon prior to the show’s pilot — a backstory that appears to form the backbone of the upcoming movie sequel — so he’s been raised by his eccentric grandfather, and by a grandmother who may be suffering from dementia. His longtime bully — and secret admirer — Helga Pataki has to contend with a largely absent father and a coded-as-alcoholic mother (she slurs her words, burns the cooking, and is constantly drinking “smoothies”).
But Arnold, Helga, and the rest of the neighborhood kids find their own way regardless. The job of raising them is shifted onto the city itself, with its strange figures of urban folklore (like the mysterious Boo-Radley-esque Stoop Kid, or the reclusive Pigeon Man), its colorful characters (such as Dino Spumoni, a Dean Martin take-off), and its frisson of danger.
As Arnold and his ragtag team of kids get into adventures and misadventures across the city — scored to the show’s unusual and melancholy jazz soundtrack — they learn life lessons from everyone around them. From the good-natured teacher Mr. Simmons, one of Nickelodeon’s first almost-out LGBT characters, desperately trying to keep his own fractured family together on Thanksgiving, to the boarder Oscar, whose shiftlessness nearly costs him his marriage, the adult supporting characters serve as dark mirrors, providing the children with glimpses of adulthood they must learn to negotiate for themselves, without the easy, built-in answers a “perfect” family model might provide.
Much of the humor of Hey Arnold — and what makes it particularly rewatchable for adults — is how it portrays the strangeness of the adult world. This is not the cliché “past the radar” humor of most children’s shows, or even the over-the-top misunderstandings that define the plots of, say, Rugrats. Rather, it’s the fact that these children, used to treating urban life as completely normal, take the sheer weirdness of the world around them in stride, learning lessons in spite of, rather than because of, adult influence.
Take the show’s pilot, “Downtown as Fruits.” Arnold and his best friend Gerald, dressed in unflattering and embarrassing fruit costumes, decide to bail on the school play to wander around the city. They accidentally find themselves in possession of a bunch of cash, implied to be drug money, intended for some similarly dressed lowlifes who are costumed for part of a nefarious scheme. There are no wacky hijinks, and only a brief scene in the way of comic pursuit. The point of the episode isn’t that they have money they shouldn’t, but that they’ve let down their classmates, who are waiting for them to perform the play. They give away the money, go back to school, and let their adult doppelgängers get arrested, none the wiser to their criminal saga.
Arnold never explicitly says that the money is drug money (nor that Mr. Simmons is gay, nor that Mrs. Pataki is an alcoholic). But this doesn’t come across as prurience, or a desire to make the show kid-friendly. Rather, it creates the impression that Arnold’s world is defined by things he doesn’t quite understand, but accepts. He and his cohorts grow up through that acceptance, finding their place in a world that is neither picture-perfect nor dystopian, but simply — and honestly — flawed.
While my own family life was far happier than, say, Helga’s, it was certainly untraditional: I grew up with a working single mother and plenty of family-friends-slash-relatives. And, like nearly all of the New York kids of my acquaintance, I was given the freedom to wander the city (mad money and cell phone in hand), to explore on my own.
Sometimes, as for Arnold, it meant coming across things I didn’t quite understand, people who seemed “different” in some way, moments of mild danger. It meant realizing that adulthood doesn’t just mean doing what a stereotypical mother or father tell you is right, or learning pat lessons about the world. It meant, rather, letting the whole panoply of the world around me come to define who I was and what I thought was right: whether it was my mother, or another adult or authority figure, or somebody I spotted across the counter at Veselka at 2 in the morning.
In this way, Hey Arnold was one of the best television shows about independence. It didn’t fit into the typical sitcom mold, but it celebrated people — and stories — that found their own path.