Downtown As Fruits
"Hey Arnold!" is cool, so cool and smooth and hip and cool that my 9 year old brain couldn't exactly name that coolness. Now that I'm 27 and re-watching this near-perfect cartoon, I see it and can name it and revel in it. The series as a whole is sweet and thoughtful and slow in pace, but it's premiere episode, Downtown as Fruits, oozes cool. From the smooth jazz (the muted trumpets, a be-boppin baseline, that tight snare) that permeates the soundtrack, to the desaturated colored-pencil urban cityscape; from the pimp-daddy digs that Arnold and Gerald buy from that groovy shop, to their complete confidence in traversing a downtown context at the baby-faced age of 9 - this is the coolest pilot episode of a preteen cartoon I've ever seen.
The episode is not perfect, though. It opens naming Arnold as daydreamer, surfing the waves of his brain in the presence of fantasy dinosaurs. This is a bit a of character development that the writers leaned into early on in the series, and it feels wrong, especially to those familiar with Arnold's overall character arc. For the majority of the series, at his worst he's a busy-body and a people pleaser, and at his best he has many times more empathy than your average nine-year old; but nobody would ever claim he gets lost in the clouds. His idyllic romanticism is always outwards, and (besides early on) never inwards. By the end of the episode, there is a nice nod to this outward compassion, when he calls out the harm he and Gerald have caused Helga and their classmates. ("Come on, Gerald! We've got a karmic energy to fix"). That's kind of Arnold's lot in life - fixing the karmic energy of friends and neighbors. This theme is carried on throughout the show (even as soon as episode 2, which finds Arnold scrambling and obsessing to give a happy-go-unlucky-Eugene the best day ever).
P.S. 118 is holding a small variety musical based on the four food groups (why utensils are included, I don’t know). The jokes surrounding this gimmick are wonderful. Some lines to consider - “Do vegetables have souls?” and “Legumes? I thought we were beans” and “I’m a ham, you know I am, and if you’re kosher… I’m not in your routine!”, though it’s really Helga (dressed as a carton of milk) who leans into the show: “Do you know how hard I prepared for that role? I ate nothing but dairy products for 2 weeks!” She’s a true director, and it’s easy to think of her as Lucy van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: you find Helga barking orders, scowling, and shaking her fist (named “Old Betsy,” of course). At first glance, Helga is a cold antagonist (she makes a student FAINT out of sheer fear). When an embarrassed Arnold and an exhausted Gerald decide to skip the play out of spite towards Helga, the viewer has to wonder - is this show going to pit romantic Arnold against bully Helga? What is the real action and conflict of this show?
At first glance, the primary conflict of this particular episode is maybe found in Arnold and Gerald's joyride, downtown, dressed as fruits. What stands out (for those of us who grew up in the safety of our suburbs) is the ease in which the two friends navigate a seemingly hostile urban landscape. Remember, these are fourth graders. And yet they hop on the city bus, walk the dark streets without a phone or money, hang out at a billiards hall, and see a fortune teller. These are independent kids, allowed to do what they want. Every adult present in this journey lets them do their thing; even the city, a character itself, supports these heroes. Upon receiving a mystery brown bag of money, Arnold exclaims, "Boy, people downtown sure are friendly!" So, what started out as a big problem (no money, no transportation), proves just a big shrug and a step forward. The city is no antagonist. The true conflict is how fickle and faulty the heart really is. Conscience is the antagonist. First, see Arnold's real fear: it's not found wandering the streets of the city, it is rooted in his heart, it is found in letting someone down. For one, it's interesting that the joyride is Gerald's idea, but Arnold's decision. There's visual and audible tension in the decision, seeing his hand waver over the bus cord is a fantastic piece of animation. And notice, the rationale Gerald gives points inward - "was it right for Helga to make fun of you at rehearsal?" No, it wasn’t right; so they spend shady/drug money on Roscoe’s Funky Rags (shout out to those kick-ass Banana Shoes), Souvlaki, and “sodas for everyone!” After a run-in with money launderers and The Great Zamboni (a surprisingly wise crackpot), Arnold has a run-in with his heart (and his Karmic Energy Field) - “Think of Helga and her play and all the kids back at school we’re letting down!” The remainder of the episode is basically Arnold and Gerald paying it forward (extra cash for the broken down family, extra cash for the taxi driver, and show-stopping tune for Helga). Boy, people downtown sure ARE friendly.
Arnold’s character development is interesting and sweet, but of all the fickle hearts in all of fiction, the most fickle of them all is Helga G. Pataki. Here we are, in the pilot episode, and the viewer is already welcomed into her complicated life. Is she bully? Is she romantic? She’s definitely a poet. Taste and see - “If I ever get my hands on that Arnold I'll, I'll… soothe his fevered brow. Oh my poor lost sweetheart, how I love you. And yet I hate you! And yet I love you. And yet I hate you! And yet I love you.” This is a statement of profound depth and tragedy and abjection. She hates the thing she loves(1)! How horrific, for a 9 year old to feel such emotion, with wisdom and pathos beyond her years. And what is so excellent about this moment is the subtle moments of tension created by the production team - a trembling and vibrant violin, the young actress’ vocal intensity, and Brainy’s broken glasses all provide a frame for Helga. She is tightly wound, she is contrary, she is emotional and romantic and intense. The final line of the episode comes from Helga, calling Arnold a “beautiful creature”, followed by a sigh and a smile. This makes sense, because while the show is about Arnold, I kind of think the show is from the perspective of Helga, the preteen voyeur (after all, the title of the show comes from her exclamation, “Hey, Arnold!”). New viewers, look forward to more characters, more emotion, and more Helga.
(1) See "Powers of Horror," an essay by Julia Kristeva. In it, she details the weirdness of hating the thing you love most.