This week, ‘Arthur’ closed its 25th and final season to much fanfare and nostalgic tweeting. Many fans noted the fact that grownup Arthur having hair implies that he was bald for the entirety of the show, and of course, the meme of Arthur’s fist made a resurgence. Millions of kids and parents grew up with the iconic aardvark, and the show’s end served to remind us of a small way in which we’re all connected.
There is still plenty to look forward to from the residents of Elwood City. In an interview with Variety, ‘Arthur’ author Marc Brown alluded to future plans for the Hey! Arthur franchise including podcasts and games, and episodes of ‘Arthur’ will continue to air on PBS. In the meantime, however, let’s take another moment to appreciate 25 years of ‘Arthur.’
Where We Learned To Work And Play
As the longest-running animated children’s show in history, ‘Arthur’ covers a broad range of challenges that children learn to face. In a manner similar to ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ ‘Arthur’ offers for its viewers a simplified version of our world where daily confusions are put into perspective. Mister Rogers even made an appearance in the episode “Arthur Meets Mister Rogers.”
In the show’s first episode, Arthur’s little sister stirs him from sleep to show him their lost brother, a kid who looks a lot like Arthur in their family scrapbook. Arthur recognizes that this “lost brother” is just him before he wore his signature glasses, and he tells D.W. the story of how he got them. The episode sets the tone for the show. Arthur’s friend group clashes but ultimately they all respect one another, and it includes the first of the show’s signature imagination sequences where the characters envision fantastical what-if scenarios. In this one, we see Arthur trying on different lens frames and imagining himself as an aviator, then a sci-fi explorer.
From the start, ‘Arthur’ treated those little moments of growth as stories worth telling. Whether it be getting the first pair of glasses, learning about a schoolmate’s dyslexia, or trying to understand divorce, the creators of ‘Arthur’ approached daily life through the honest and imaginative lens of a child. One of the show’s strengths was doing so without making its characters two-dimensional. Though the central issues of each episode were simplified to make them emotionally manageable for kids, Arthur and his friends reacted in complex ways.
“The Great MacGrady”
This unforgettable episode showcases the writers’ mastery of simplifying a subject without watering down the people it concerns. When Mrs. MacGrady, the school’s lunch lady and a counselor figure to many of the students, is diagnosed with cancer, the core cast of characters each handles the news in their own way. Arthur and D.W. bring gifts galore to Mrs. MacGrady’s home, wishing her well and checking in. Francine tells off Muffy for being glib about the situation, but is herself too upset to visit Mrs. MacGrady because she lost her grandpa to cancer and it scares her. Muffy winds up leading the charge on cleaning Mrs. MacGrady’s house and encouraging Francine to stop by. Buster, in the meantime, takes to naming the disgusting school lunches prepared by the substitute chef in his extensive record of school lunches past.
Those manifold reactions come about because the subject is dealt with squarely. The word “cancer” is said with more frequency than most movies about cancer patients, and at one point Mrs. MacGrady offers Arthur and D.W. a metaphor about weeds growing in a garden to explain what cancer is. Lance Armstrong even makes a cameo to reassure Francine that cancer does not mean the end of someone’s life, nor of their joys.
“The Great MacGrady” runs just longer than twenty minutes, and tells a pretty uncomplicated and brief story. That simplicity allows for the character’s emotions to take center stage, and leaves space for viewers to process and ask questions.
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If You Don’t Have Questions After Watching Arthur, You’re Not Doing It Right
Amidst the dream sequences and hectic, sometimes hilariously frank conversational exchanges that make up most of the show, ‘Arthur’ is rich with unassuming details. Things that show up once or twice that parents in the room may not even catch while sorting through mail or cleaning the kitchen, but attentive, curious kids will wonder about.
In “Buster’s Breathless,” Buster explains asthma pretty extensively to show D.W. that once his friends understood what it was they didn’t act weird around him. D.W., self-conscious about her poison ivy rashes, feels inspired to educate the frightened Tibble twins, who she chases after yelling, “I got it from a plant, and it’ll be gone in a couple of days, and the white stuff is called calamine lotion.” After learning about one condition, kids will hopefully wonder too about D.W.’s more temporary one.
A personal favorite of mine comes from the episode “Is That Kosher?” Francine tries to fast for Yom Kippur, and nearly succeeds before caving into hunger at Arthur’s all-you-can-eat pizza party. At the very beginning of the episode, Francine envisions herself wandering a desert on camelback. In the voice of Francine’s Bubba, the camel complains “my bunions are killing me.” It’s a small moment, but it brings up an obvious question for kids.
‘Arthur’ incorporates all these details rather than watering our world down. The creators respect the power of curiosity, leaving things to be discussed between parents and their children. I can’t reasonably move onto the next section without mentioning “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone.” This episode follows the students’ quest to stop Mr. Ratburn’s marriage. They believe he’s marrying Patty, the tough-as-nails woman planning the ceremony, and that their schoolwork will consequently become much tougher. At the ceremony, they discover that their teacher is actually marrying Patrick the chocolatier. They smile with relief and feel embarrassed about watching Mr. Ratburn dance.
This representation of a gay man in a kid’s show met with controversy. Alabama Public Television and Arkansas Educational Television Network refused to air it. The writing itself, however, provides no substantive opinion on the marriage. It simply shows two men marrying one another, and leaves the conversation to the viewers. It serves as a benchmark in children’s television, as well as another reason to appreciate the show’s writers.
What Race Is Arthur?
It may seem silly to wonder about the race of an aardvark, but in a show that makes an effort to represent people of many backgrounds, it’s a rather happy accident that the main character’s skin color suggests he may be multiracial.
One common read of Arthur’s race finds that he’s Black, especially considering the theme song by Ziggy Marley. In the aforementioned Variety interview, Marc Brown shared that kids he meets tend to think of Arthur as whatever race they are, and he celebrates that Black children have often done so. “I love the fact that I can walk into a school in Harlem and talk to the kids, and they all think he’s Black. And we don’t have to really discuss it. It’s just there.”
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In some cases, ‘Arthur’ addresses race by way of national background. The character Mei Lin, the Chinese daughter adopted by the Barnes’, appears distinctly Chinese, and the fact that Brain celebrates Kwanzaa and his cousin Cheikh comes from Senegal suggests that Brain is Black. For more personal takes on the matter, I recommend both “Is it still a wonderful kind of day?” by Hadiyyah Kuma, and Sarah Hagi’s “All Your Favorite Cartoon Characters Are Black.”
“All Grown Up”
It’s weird to see the Lakewood Elementary kids all grown up. Arthur has hair! You may have already seen the lists of their occupations, but just to recap: Arthur is a graphic novelist, Buster a teacher, D.W. a police officer, Francine the boss of a sneaker company, Binky a weatherman, Muffy is running for mayor, and George took over the Sugar Bowl. They’ve all grown into their selves after experiencing so much with each other and with us. It ties a well-deserved ribbon on the series, and causes all kinds of feels.
‘Arthur’ is not hard to access online. If you feel nostalgia come on, or if you’d prefer a show that doesn’t involve screeching and loud noises to modern programming for middle schoolers, ‘Arthur’ is still around for you. It’s still a wonderful kind of day in Elwood City.
By Kevin Hauger
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