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Review: "Hey Arnold" Season 2 Part 2: Diary of a Wimpish Kid

Hey Arnold Season 2, Part 2, released just last week, collects ten more episodes of the classic Nickelodeon series. Whatever else one might say about the show, it is remarkably consistent in both tone and quality. The merits of any of the show’s particular compilation sets depend upon the episodes collected.

Hey Arnold is a remarkably conservative show: not in a political or social sense, but in its aversion to taking risks or engaging in any real cartoony wackiness. It’s a show about a bunch of urban nine- and ten-year-olds dramatizes their life problems with gentle whimsy and bare exaggeration. If any story in this set stands for all the others, it is probably “Rhonda’s Glasses,” in which one of the preening “pretty girls” gets to learn what life in the lower tiers is like after her new eye wear consigns her to social oblivion. There is nothing wrong with her glasses–it’s not like they have built-in cuckoo clocks that chime randomly–except that they are glasses, and hence uncool. The alpha girls’ snottiness is couched in a very passive-aggressive way: “Let’s do a mirror check,” they smugly announce when they mean to send someone to the back of the bus. Rhonda learns that the kids she has avoided are actually quite cool and helpful, and she winds up leading a revolution that breaks down the boundaries between groups. There are no smarmy uplifting speeches to set the viewer’s teeth on edge, and the moral gets stated with gentle but clear-eyed gravity: There’s no point to these distinctions, except as a way of letting one group feel good about itself at the expense of the other groups. As I said above, it’s gentle and whimsical; and it has about as much impact as a punch in the face with a feather duster.

Other episodes in this vein include “Best Friends,” in which Arnold gets caught between two best friends who fall out when they wind up disrespecting each other’s passions and hobbies; “Helga’s Boyfriend,” in which Helga pays Stinky to pretend to be her boyfriend (so as to make Arnold jealous), and breaks his heart when she tires of the charade and breaks up with him; “Runaway Float,” which has Arnold’s design for a parade float being hijacked and ruined by its philistine financier; “Crush on Teacher,” where Arnold gets a crush on his substitute teacher, and misunderstandings ensue; “The High Life,” in which Gerald gets a job working for a sales scam artist and learns the value of a dollar; “Biosquare,” in which Helga and Arnold nearly kill each other after locking themselves in a green house for twenty-four hours as part of a science experiment; and “Part-Time Friends,” in which Arnold and his best friend, Gerald, narrowly avoid busting up their friendship when they have to take over management duties at a neighborhood florist.

The extremes of these variations are set by “Partners” and “Eugene Goes Bad.” The former is another Arnold-and-Gerald-almost-bust-up story, but in it they manage to stay together while reconciling a feuding songwriting duo. It’s nothing very special: even the songs (some very silly parodies of 50s-era Sinatra scat/swing numbers) are neither good enough nor bad enough to be enjoyable. But it flares to funny life every time the thuggish crooner Dino Spumoni appears; he’s like a cross between Dean Martin and Alan Brady. “Eugene Goes Bad,” though, swims in the treacle when the title character becomes disenchanted with his Schwarzenegger-like TV hero turns out to have clay feet. It tries to work up some satire on prima donna actor types, but it’s an uneasy satire, because it can’t go far enough; and Eugene-as-James Dean is about as convincing (and as funny) as Bob Hope-as-the Fonz.

The show sometimes gives the impression of feeling oppressed by its goody-goody chromosomes, and maybe that’s why it tries wrapping up some of the more blatant “life lesson” stories by centering them on Arnold’s crazy/eccentric Grandpa. As voiced by Dan Castellaneta, he’s a toothless, zany old coot, which lets the writers cut loose at least a little bit in stories like “Tour de Pond,” “Eating Contest” and “Steely Phil.” The first two put Arnold into competitions in which his grandfather has a vicarious interest–Arnold is recapitulating competitions at which grandpa did not fully excel–and the third puts the old man himself back into competition. It’s the same lesson that taught three different times but not so much in three different ways: perseverance and faith in oneself will help you over the finish line. The moral would be a little more accurate if it didn’t come with an authentic victory each time; perseverance is worthwhile in itself and shouldn’t come with the false promise that it is sufficient to guarantee victory.

Hey Arnold‘s urban setting at least lets the show get some genuinely multicultural stuff in without it feeling shoehorned. “Eating Contest” comes with some delectable glances at ethnic cuisine; more ambitiously, “Harold’s Bar-Mitzvah” has the neighborhood muscle head freaking out over his incipient coming into manhood. It gives a good gloss on specifically Jewish customs while also making Harold’s fears feel universal.

The most ambitious is plainly “What’s Opera, Arnold?” which sends the kids on a field trip to the opera; there Arnold and Helga doze off and dream about their relationship in ways that echo (musically and plot-specifically) operas by Bizet and Wagner. You have to doff your hat to the conceit, but it’s hard not to feel that opera, as an art form, is simply too big and grand to be properly parodied by this kind of cheap TV animation; only something on the scale reached by Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett can really do comic justice to Carmen or even grander operas.

The four best episodes on the set, though, show what the series is capable of when it is just being observant or just having fun. “Four-Eyed Jack” is a ghost story come to life, almost a Scooby Doo episode on which a succession of spooky incidents prove to have comically mundane explanations. It is very funny and also very perceptive at getting at the way boys of a certain age love to invent adventures even while trying to escape from them. “Quantity Time” pits Helga against her equally horrible father, and their flint-striking-against-flint chemistry is nicely combustible. “Hall Monitor” hits just the right pitch of exaggeration when a mousy classmate becomes a jackbooted authoritarian after donning the hall monitor sash. And “Coach Wittenberg” features a great performance by James Belushi (in the title role) spouting a wonderful sequence of malapropisms every time he opens his mouth.

About “Teacher’s Strike” there’s nothing to say except that someone seems to have wanted to write their own version of that famous Simpsons episode, and failed catastrophically.

As I basically said in my review of Season 2 Part 1, Hey Arnold is a decent show, and one that deserves a loyal following. As a once-a-week or once-a-day visitor to the TV, it would be perfectly welcome. But there’s a sameness that extends across the breadth of the series that makes it feel very weak as a DVD set, and there just aren’t enough high points to make its acquisition a priority unless you are a Very Loyal Viewer.


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