The Daily Stream: Hey Arnold! Is A Surprisingly Mature Show About Living In The Big City

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "Hey Arnold!"

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu, Paramount+

The Pitch: This Nickelodeon cartoon follows the adventures of Arnold, a fourth-grader living with his grandparents in an inner-city boarding house. The episodes focus on Arnold and his friends' adventures navigating urban life and childhood, exploring the city and its many urban legends and characters. "Hey Arnold!" quietly broke new ground for children's cartoons by introducing more mature stories and combining the highest of jinks with an immense heart for its characters.

Why it's essential viewing

From the very first episode, "Hey Arnold!" stood apart from most comedies (animated or otherwise) by setting its action in the big city. Rather than show it as a scary place where every cop show in America is set, Arnold and his friends demonstrated that the city is also a place with endless possibilities, myths, and characters. Not that the show encouraged anything bad; the kids always knew where to go and where not to go. But it showed the reality of millions of kids who grew up in urban areas, and challenged the idea of the perfect American life. 

This is not a show about a kid with two heteronormative parents living in a cute suburban house at the end of a cul-de-sac, but a weird kid with a football-shaped head living with his grandparents in a boarding house full of eccentric characters in a big city. And that city is home to all sorts of characters, many of whom are legends passed down from generation to generation by the kids themselves. Some of the best episodes dealt with the way kids keep stories alive, and how easily rumors escalate into mythical proportions, like the tale of the Stoop Kid.

"Hey Arnold" creator Craig Bartlett also worked on "Rugrats," and both shows excel at fleshing out both the kids and the adult characters. A far cry from the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon that speak in trombone sounds, or the parents in "Cow and Chicken" that have no torsos. The grown-ups in "Hey Arnold!" have personalities, hopes, and dreams, as well as adult problems like depression, marital issues, alcoholism, and unemployment. Whether it's the tenants at the boarding house, the kids' parents, or even the florist and mailman, everyone has a story.

A kids' show that went hard

Though the show was always funny (who can forget all of Grandpa's weird fake stories, including giving Hitler a wedgie?) "Hey Arnold" was never afraid to hit hard with emotions. As writer Joe Ansolabehere told us for an upcoming interview, fellow writer Steve Viksten always wanted the show to be about the way kids navigate and see the world of adults.

This meant things like making Helga's mom an alcoholic — they never outright say it, but she always slurs her speak, is constantly drinking "smoothies" and even got her license revoked once — or having Oskar and Suzie Kokoshka fight all the time and eventually end their marriage, or even making Oskar illiterate.

Arguably, though, there was no episode as impactful as the season 2 episode "Arnold's Christmas." Written by Viksten, who wrote many of the more adult-oriented episodes of the show, this episode starts with a simple premise of Arnold getting Mr. Hyunh's name at the house's Secret Santa. Things get more somber when Hyunh reveals that the thing he wants the most for Christmas is to be reunited with his daughter, whom he was separated from during the Vietnam War.

The episode became the first American cartoon to actually show the Vietnam War, and rather than focus on the American troops, it focused on the point of view of a Vietnamese father desperately trying to escape the country due to the war, and being forced to send his daughter alone to the U.S. when a helicopter ran out of room. The episode handled this story with a lot of care and heart.

Beyond the crazy character haircuts and the funny gags, "Hey Arnold!" was a show all about empathy and understanding. Almost 20 years later, it remains one of the best shows Nickelodeon ever made.